Thursday, September 17, 2009

A somber celebration in Detroit

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Buster Olney

Ernie Harwell will chat with his extended family tonight, from a baseball field in Detroit, and Al Kaline has a pretty good idea of what he will say. The words will not be bitter or angry, Kaline knows, and the words will not be sad.

Which is not to say that there won't be tears shed in Comerica Park tonight, in the third inning, when Harwell is expected to speak. Harwell is 91 years old and is terminally ill. He has cancer, and doctors have advised against surgery.

Harwell has been broadcasting baseball since 1943 and worked for the Dodgers, Giants and Orioles, among other teams. But Harwell's home since 1960 has been in Detroit, and it is there where he has resided in the living rooms and kitchens, in cars and on the stoops, and in the imaginations of baseball fans. He has been a constant, through economic busts and booms, through seasons of frustrations and in the championship summers.

When things were going badly, or when things were going well, Kaline marveled, Harwell has always been a constant, always the same. "Even-keeled, and upbeat," Kaline said on the phone Tuesday evening.

Kaline first met Harwell when he was a player, and after Kaline ended his career on the field and joined Harwell in the broadcast booth, he came to know him well. He came to know about Harwell's songwriting, about his preference for radio over television, because Harwell has always appreciated painting pictures with words for listeners, with precise description.

Al and Louise Kaline shared dinners with Ernie and Lulu Harwell, shared a cruise to the Bahamas, and in recent years, when Kaline started attending Sunday morning chapel at Comerica, he has listened to Harwell speak, about the Bible, about living a good life. He likes hearing Harwell's voice -- always assured, filled with wonder and curiosity and an optimism for what might be.

"I'm sure there is no really perfect man," Kaline said. "But Ernie comes as close to anyone as I've ever met. He has made me a better person, just by being around him.

"He is by far the most loved person who has come this way."

So this is what Kaline expects tonight. "There are going to be a lot of tears," he said. "There is going to be a long standing ovation."

Kaline chuckled.

"Probably longer than the commissioner would like." Because the game will be delayed.

But the guess here is that the commissioner will understand, and so will the umpires and the players on both sides. "The pitchers will just have to get extra time to warm up," said Kaline.

Harwell will speak, and Kaline expects that the announcer will say something similar to what Harwell said to him directly. "He said, 'We all have a day we're going to die, and mine must be coming up,'" Kaline recalled, 'and I'm ready for the rest of the journey.'"

Tonight will be spectacular, Kaline is sure. "Because it will make people understand even more what an exceptional person Ernie Harwell is."

Buster Olney

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