When it was announced that Ernie Harwell would be a trip to Comerica Park to address the fans my first instinct was that I should look into tickets. I hemmed and hawed and after reading a wonderful article by Tom Gage I decided that I simply had to be in the stadium that Wednesday night. I don’t know that I’ve ever described myself as melancholy before, but that was an apt description that day. During lunch I found a single ticket in the second row on StubHub and I pulled the trigger. I’d be in the park for Ernie’s Thank You/Farewell.
The night was somber in so many ways. It was a celebration of the greatest generation and World War II veterans. A celebration, but hardly a party. A time to honor those that were there and remember those that weren’t.
Plus there is something about late season games. The park just feels different. There is a little chill in the air, the park darkens more quickly than at the height of summer, and the end of summer as dictated by baseball’s 162 game season is palpable. The anticipation and build up that fans feel starting in February is coming to a close and the thought of a long cold winter looms. The setting was appropriate for the greatest Tiger of them all to once again step-up to the microphone.
Before the bottom half of the 3rd inning the Harwell video tribute played on the big screen. It was some of the highlights of Ernie’s career, punctuated by his Hall of Fame acceptance speech featuring his “Baseball, A Game for All America.”
I expected to be a mess when Harwell started talking, yet the tears didn’t come. Something about seeing Harwell burst on to the field with his arms high made me happy, not sad. Harwell stepped up to the microphone and didn’t deliver a speech. There were no notes or teleprompters. It was just a man saying thank you to his ultra extended family, and a chance for said family to say you’re welcome.
The speech was brief, and articulate, and the content not especially memorable. In other words it was vintage Harwell and I mean that as the utmost compliment.
It was never the big moments that Harwell made special in his career. Go back and watch the tribute video and the highlights. Ernie called everyone of those plays straight. There was excitement sure, but there weren’t especially memorable sound bytes or phrases. It was a simple and accurate description of what was taking place. Harwell let the moment be the moment. When something big was happening it never needed embellishment.
What made Harwell great in his career and differentiated him was all of the small moments. That’s when people stood there like by the house by the side of the road and watched one go by. That’s when they got two for the price of one and were out for excessive window shopping. There was talk of the Tigers looking for instant offense, but that was before the fact when that offense was a hope. It was the stories that Harwell weaved effortlessly and unobtrusively into the pauses and rhythm of a game. It was in those quiet times when a fan from Lexington would be lucky enough to catch a foul ball.
It is the accumulated total of all those small moments that bound generations together, put kids to bed at night, and provided the soundtrack of summer in Detroit.
And on his night, there was plenty of emotion in the building. It was a big moment, but Harwell simply shared it with us like he has so many times before. In typical Ernie fashion, and this is true of any interaction with the man I’ve ever heard described, when it was done you try and figure out how it is that Harwell seemed to be the one who was most grateful for the opportunity to be with you. He finished talking and all I could do was smile.
The following night I got home from work and pulled up the video and watched it with my kids. It was then, watching it again, that the emotion and sadness of the situation hit me again and I welled up.
Editor’s note: Yes I know this post is late. A variety of circumstances kept me from writing this. Exhaustion, other commitments, and a kind of important Twins series delayed this longer than it should have.