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Harwell's passing felt in Tigers clubhouse

Harwell's passing felt in Tigers clubhouse

MINNEAPOLIS -- The Tigers and Twins were playing through the raindrops on a warm but wet evening at Target Field when a rainbow appeared along the dark, overcast sky beyond left-center field. Not long before, Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell had passed away in his battle with terminal cancer.

In more than a few hearts and minds, religious or otherwise, it was quite a sense of timing.

"You can't make that up," broadcaster Jim Price said.

Though Harwell hadn't been to a Tigers game since he made his thank-you speech to fans at Comerica Park on Sept. 16 last year, he hadn't been far from the minds of the organization. From team officials who knew him for years to young players he had barely met, he was in their hearts Tuesday.

"He was probably like the constant cleanup hitter for the Tigers," said teary-eyed manager Jim Leyland, pausing to gather himself. "The constant leadoff man, the ever-ready defensive player, the ever-ready pinch-runner. Most announcers aren't like that. Ernie was truly like that.

"I mean, this guy was the Tigers. Most announcers aren't. And I don't mean this disrespectful. But this guy really was. He was truly a huge part."

He'll be a part of the Tigers' season even in memory. After news came of Harwell's passing earlier Tuesday at his home in suburban Detroit, the Tigers announced that they would wear a patch on their uniforms honoring him, and they'll fly a flag in his honor beginning with Monday night's home game against the Yankees.

So many people in Detroit knew Harwell, not just with the Tigers but in the community, that his visitation will be at the park on Thursday and open to the public. The viewing began at 7 a.m. ET and will continue until the last person has a chance to see him. Complimentary parking for the viewing will be available in Lots 1, 2 and 3.

Per Ernie's request, there will be no public memorial, just a private service. Memorial donations will be used for the Detroit Public Library and to fund college scholarships, and can be sent to the Ernie Harwell Foundation, c/o Gary Spicer, 16845 Kercheval Avenue, Grosse Pointe, Mich., 48230.

A statement from the Tigers showed the depth of impact he made.

"Ernie Harwell was the most popular sports figure in the State of Michigan," said owner Mike Ilitch, who hired Harwell back as a broadcaster soon after he purchased the team in the mid-90s.  "He was so genuine in everything that he did -- from his legendary broadcasting to the way he treated the fans and everyone around him.  He was truly a gentleman in every sense of the word.  Ernie has a special place in the hearts of all Detroit Tigers' fans and the memories he created for so many of us will never be forgotten.

"Baseball lost a legendary voice this evening and we have all lost a dear friend.  Marian and I, and our entire organization, extend our deepest sympathies to Ernie's wife, Lulu, and to the Harwell family."

Said Ilitch Holdings president/CEO Chris Ilitch: "We lost a true legend today -- not just in baseball, but in life. Ernie was one-of-a-kind.  He was warm, passionate and had an unmatched love for the game of baseball ... and he also loved Detroit and the entire state of Michigan.  We were lucky to have Ernie in our lives; he will surely be missed by baseball fans and anyone who has ever had the privilege to meet him.  Our thoughts and prayers are with his wife, Lulu, and the Harwell family."

Team president/general manager Dave Dombrowski joined the organization in 2002, just in time for Harwell's 42nd and final season behind the microphone for the Tigers. Like so many who met Harwell, they struck up a friendship that continued into Harwell's retirement.

"Ernie was so engaging," Dombrowski said. "He had such a genuine gift of making people feel like he was your friend.  Ernie made you feel good about life, and brought a smile to everyone he knew. His passion and wisdom during each broadcast gave you insight to his love for the Tigers and for the state of Michigan. The entire Detroit Tigers family extends their heartfelt condolences to his wife, Lulu, and the Harwell family."


"You have to be proud of the life that he was able to have by enjoying this game of baseball."
-- Johnny Damon

Among the current Tigers players, only Brandon Inge and Ramon Santiago played in Detroit while Harwell was still broadcasting. Inge, the longest-tenured current Tiger, dating back to 2001, first met Harwell as a Minor Leaguer in 1998. To have Harwell call his plays, he said, is one of his career honors.

"The one thing I was thinking about: A lot of people used to say about the announcer for the New York Yankees [Bob Sheppard], you haven't made the big leagues until you've been announced [by him] and come up to the plate," Inge said. "I started to think back to the days, and how privileged that I was to have Ernie Harwell speak of my gameplay and talk about my performances and stuff. In my opinion, you haven't been a big leaguer until Ernie Harwell gets to talk about you.

"That man was genuine as they come. He means more to the Detroit Tigers and the state of Michigan, to the city of Detroit, than a lot of people have ever meant. I wish his family the best."

Leyland had the privilege of meeting Harwell when he was a Minor League player in the Tigers system. He also had the privilege of talking with Harwell in the manager's office at Comerica Park last fall. For others, that was the first time they met him. It still left an indelible memory.

"It was funny: He said that speech to us last year, what baseball means to him," said catcher Gerald Laird, referring to Harwell's speech at the Baseball Hall of Fame back in 1981. "Mind you, I probably listened to it three or four times in the offseason. I looked it up on the Internet, because I heard him on Bob Costas [on MLB Network]. When the season started getting close, I was kind of getting anxious to go. And listening to that speech, I don't know, it just kind of makes you appreciate the game, the way he described it, the hitters that he talks about. Just to hear it, it's unbelievable.

"It's definitely a sad day in the Tigers organization. This guy was an unbelievable announcer for the Tigers for years, a good man for the community, and he was just a great man for baseball."

Fellow Tigers catcher Alex Avila had the unique experience of growing up listening to Harwell as a kid. Like Dombrowski, Avila's father, vice president Al Avila, joined the organization in time for Harwell's last year. Listening to Harwell's voice calling a game was among his first true Michigan experiences.

"In Florida, we didn't have that tradition. So when I wasn't at the games, I would listen to him on the radio instead of watching the game on TV," Alex Avila said. "I thought that was one of the coolest things, to hear the phrase, 'Long Gone!' I thought that was one of the coolest things about being a Tiger fan when my dad came over, and just kind of getting caught up in all that tradition. That tradition comes alive when you're listening to him."

The news trickled into the Tigers dugout soon after the game started. Johnny Damon, who first met Harwell as a rookie in 1996 and talked to him on occasion for years to come, heard the news when he came into the clubhouse soon after his first at-bat. The official news spread from there.

"He made a lot of great friends in this game, and he's going to be missed dearly," Damon said. "But you have to be proud of the life that he was able to have by enjoying this game of baseball. He left his mark on this game, so we have to celebrate his life."

So many opposing players had the same experiences. Many who never played for Detroit knew Harwell well. As Damon put it, "You wanted to be the guy that he talked to."

Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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