I wish I could say I go back a long way with Ernie, but I can’t. Wish I could say I listened to him for years and years, but it wasn’t until I was a teenager when my family moved to Toledo and I had a chance to listen to him. But I treasured what I remember of him. I loved listening to him during the summer. More important for me, my first year on the beat was his final season on the air, and watching and listening to him go about his business that final season was unforgettable.
But my biggest Harwell memory? My first day on the job.
I took this job in the middle of Spring Training of 2002, and it was my first day-to-day baseball beat. I came to Lakeland in the middle of March thinking I knew what to do and where to go but really having no idea. I pulled into the parking lot at Joker Marchant Stadium around mid-morning, looked around and tried to figure out where I was supposed to be. I looked completely lost, which was fitting since I was.
Somebody walks up to me and shakes my head.
“Hi there,” he said. “I’m Ernie Harwell.”
Like I said, I don’t go back a long way following the Tigers. But I still know who Ernie Harwell is. So I’m in awe at this point.
After I introduced myself, Ernie Harwell — having never met me, not really knowing what I do other than cover the team for an internet site — showed me around the Tigers complex. He took me into the clubhouse and introduced me to then-manager Phil Garner, who by this point is readying to take the field for morning workouts. He has work to do, but because it’s Ernie, he introduces himself. He then shows me around the ballpark and towards the practice fields.
By this point in Spring Training, the news was long since out that this would be Ernie’s last season. He has plenty of things to do to prepare. But he took this time out of his morning to help along a young reporter who didn’t have a clue. I’ve never forgotten that, and I never will.
I’ll also never forget talking with Ernie on the phone the day he revealed his condition last summer. I’ll never forget the feeling that he was trying to make me feel better about his situation, not the other way around. And I think none of us will forget the feeling that when you talked with Ernie or listening, you were with a genuinely good human being on a scale unlike many folks you meet in your life.
I think Jim Leyland and Alan Trammell are right that Harwell’s life should be celebrated, not mourned. And I think whether you listened to Harwell or met him or both, you feel fortunate to have run across him. It just might take a day or two to get to that feeling. And then I’m going to remember that rainbow in the sky in Minneapolis shortly after news that Ernie passed away.