"I'm not leaving, folks. I'll still be with you, living my life in Michigan, my home state, surrounded by family and friends. And rather than goodbye, please allow me to say thank you. Thank you for letting me become part of your family. Thank you for taking me with you to that cottage up north, to the beach, the picnic, your work place, or your backyard. Thank you for sneaking your transistor radio under the pillow as you grew up loving the Tigers. I might have been a small part of your life. But you have been a very large part of mine."
-- Harwell's final broadcast, 2002, quoted by Tom Gage, Detroit News.
The news came out late on a Thursday night, Sept. 3. Ernie Harwell told the world of his inoperable cancer. It was terminal, and took his life Tuesday. The man who taught so many of us us so much about baseball, who gave us such joy for the game even when the Tigers did not, has left us after 92 years on this Earth.
There is a timelessness that surrounds Ernie Harwell. For most of us, it's hard to imagine there was a time before him. Though for nearly a decade he was not on our television sets nightly as he used to be, it is hard to imagine the Tigers being the same without him. He seemed immortal like a parent is to a child; yet he was grandfatherly: experienced yet approachable. That is part of the reason we feel such a deep loss today.
We speak as if we know the man as if he were a friend, yet most of us have never met him. Those who have each say the same: The thrill was not in meeting Ernie Harwell, the thrill was in Ernie Harwell meeting you. Because to you, he may be a superstar: the voice of the Tigers, the voice of your youth. But a man so universally loved was equally excited to be meeting you, making you feel at ease, learning your story.
Yet most of us only know him from his voice. We know his phrases by heart. We can at any moment hear him repeating them to us as if the game were on the radio at that very moment. He stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched that one go by. A man from Harper Woods reached over and scooped that souvinir up! That one is l-o-o-o-o-o-o-ng gone!
But the loss is felt deeper than any of that.
We mourn Ernie Harwell because we mourn all whom we have lost, and fear for all whom we might still lose. I think of my youth, sitting in a chair with my grandfather, listening to the game, hearing Ernie's voice. Then the memory morphs into another, of him in a hospital bed at St. John's.
We love baseball not just because it is a beautiful game, but because it was a game loved by those whom we loved. We love Ernie Harwell because he connected us to them.
We will miss them, as we already do, but the connections will always remain.