As the Hall of Fame broadcaster spoke to fans at Comerica Park midway through the third inning, Bonine stood with his teammates outside the dugout and listened. He had listened as Harwell talked to the team before the game, then had to gather himself. It hit particularly close to home.
He wasn't the only one.
"What a tremendous man he is," said shortstop Adam Everett, whose game-tying single set up Placido Polanco's sixth-inning go-ahead single in a 4-3 win over the Royals on Wednesday night at Comerica Park.
"If you can ever say you win one for somebody, you'd like to say you win it for Ernie."
The win kept the Tigers 4 1/2 games ahead of the second-place Twins in the American League Central. They'll have a chance to gain another half-game on the idle Twins on Thursday if they can find a way to beat Cy Young-award candidate Zack Greinke in the series finale, a huge advantage if they can get it heading into a critical weekend clash at Minnesota.
Yet in the midst of a playoff chase, the celebration was at least a little subdued. After a day like this, the Tigers seemed a bit emotionally drained.
That especially went for Bonine.
"It hit me a little bit," he admitted.
Like many of his teammates, Bonine had never met Harwell, didn't know him well. But after hearing manager Jim Leyland talk about him, then to hear Harwell talk before the game, the situation felt familiar.
Bonine lost his mother in June after she was diagnosed with advanced breast cancer last fall. He had the opportunity to bring her from their Arizona home to Seattle to watch him pitch against the Mariners and spend a weekend in Seattle. He went back home at the start of June to be with her in her final days, then had the challenge of getting back to pitching.
So as he heard Harwell's message, it resonated.
"He's just so positive," Bonine said. "He's such a positive guy. Still, you know, the fact is it's incurable."
It brought back some emotions on a night when his mother would've been proud. Here he was in arguably the biggest outing of his Major League career, not to mention two more starts coming up to try to help the Tigers hold onto their division lead.
He missed more than three weeks of the season. He could easily give Harwell a few minutes.
"We could've had an hour-and-a-half delay if that's what he needed to say what he wants," Bonine said.
Bonine's start, even with no decision, was big. One night after the Royals pounced on an injured, ineffective Jarrod Washburn for a four-run first inning, Bonine mixed a knuckleball with breaking pitches and a 90-mph fastball to keep the Royals off-balance. Their third-inning run came without a ball in the air, and their first fly ball of the night was a fourth-inning sacrifice fly to build a 3-0 lead.
For the most part, Bonine kept the ball on the ground and let his defense do the work.
"He hadn't been out there for a while," Leyland said, "and I thought he did a good job. He threw a few knuckleballs that were pretty good."
Leyland had made the decision to put Bonine in the rotation because he knew he was healthy. But he also did it knowing that if Bonine could keep them close, he could turn to his bullpen in the late innings.
"That's what we're hoping for," Leyland said.
Detroit's relievers delivered, including Brandon Lyon to hold the lead after David DeJesus reached third base as the potential tying run with nobody out in the eighth and the middle of Kansas City's order coming up.
Lyon jammed Billy Butler into a comebacker for the first out, but it was his second out to remove the sacrifice fly opportunity that impressed most. He and catcher Gerald Laird set up lefty slugger Mike Jacobs with cutters inside before firing a 95-mph fastball off the outside corner that sent Jacobs flailing.
"What Lyon did," Leyland said, "was unbelievable."
Once Alberto Callaspo fouled out to first base, the Tigers brought their lead to closer Fernando Rodney for his 33rd save.
It was their first win in their last six tries over Kansas City after the Royals swept them at Kauffman Stadium last week and took Tuesday's series opener here. Yet even in this big of a win, it was a more subdued night.
"Obviously, he's an amazing person," Bonine said of Harwell, "and I'm sure it touched every guy in this clubhouse and all the fans that were there."
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.