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Harwell's passing hits broadcasters hard

Harwell's passing hits broadcasters hard

MINNEAPOLIS -- Dan Dickerson knew this day was going to come. It didn't make it any easier for him to get through it.

Dickerson knew what he had to say, that it had to be said. But as he went on the air for the bottom of the first inning of the Tigers' game against the Twins to break the news that Ernie Harwell had passed away from cancer earlier in the evening, he hesitated. And it hit him.

"You're expecting it any day, but when it came time to say it, I couldn't say it," Dickerson said after Tuesday's game, still in the broadcasting booth at Target Field. "'We have some sad news to pass along,' and I got out the words, 'Ernie Harwell ...' And I had to stop. You think you can do it, and I eventually did, but it was so much harder. I guess the finality of it kind of hit you. It hit like a ton of bricks."

Millions of listeners could relate. So could millions of baseball fans who weren't listening. The day that everyone knew was coming hit hard.

And there were few places it hit harder than the broadcasting booths.

Dickerson worked with Harwell on Tigers radio broadcasts for three years before Harwell retired. Dickerson had the daunting challenge of succeeding Harwell as the play-by-play voice of the Tigers in 2003, and he did it successfully.

Tigers radio analyst Jim Price was Harwell's partner dating back to 1994 on television and '99 on radio. Together, he and Dickerson gathered themselves after the news hit them and turned Tuesday's Tigers-Twins into a fitting tribute. They told stories every couple innings while trying not to take away from what ended up being a nip-and-tuck game. They called the game without overlooking the obvious.

They grieved with millions of listeners, but they also did what Harwell would want them to do: They went on with the game. It was a microcosm of what Harwell became in his career, a great part of telling the game without replacing it.

As Dickerson paged through clippings of Harwell quotes and stories, it brought back memories of Harwell's last game behind the microphone in 2002. When Harwell signed off for the last time, he had a script of what he wanted to play in front of him. It was short and simple. They told famous stories, and they told personal memories.

"After the initial great difficulty in getting it out, you want to pay tribute to him," Dickerson said, "and I think we did that pretty well."

For Price, the memories were especially personal, and some of them fairly recent. While Price had the honor of being Harwell's last broadcasting partner, he also received help and counseling from Harwell over the winter, when he had his own scare with cancer.

"You know, my favorite line is: If you met Ernie for the first time, you'd walk away and felt like you were Ernie's best friend," Price said. "I mean, that just says it all. The times I've seen him spend with people and sign autographs and go out of his way to be with people, you cherish those moments.

"The love, you can't describe it. There will never be another one like him."

Price found comfort in remembering the stories. He recalled going out to dinner with Al Kaline, his former teammates on the Tigers in the '60s, and Harwell. While Kaline and Price would trade stories, they would quiet to a hush and lean in whenever Harwell had something to say.

Price remembered how Harwell loved pies, would decline a piece of pie before a game only to be caught scooping out a piece later. He would wear a beret to games in later years and jokingly would ask Price if he looked like a French director.

But just as much as the stories, Price remembers the strength and the grace.

"You know, he told me many times he was ready for his new adventure," Price said. "And when he would call me during my cancer situation and we would talk about some really important things, his grace, his understanding and his faith just really stood out. It's just a lesson for all of us.

"We knew it was going to happen, but just to hear it, this was the toughest broadcast I ever did."

But Price and Dickerson got through it. And when they saw a rainbow out in the Minnesota sky later, beyond left-center field, they had to smile in amazement.

"I said on the air, 'That was for Ernie,'" Price said. "You can't make that up."

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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