State - Detroit Long gone, but not forgotten Viewing for Ernie Harwell set for today at Comerica

By Larry Lage

AP Sports Writer

Editors Notes:

Larry Lage, Michigan AP Sports Editor since 2000, grew up listening to Ernie Harwell on the radio as a kid in Ann Arbor, Mich., and later became one of the many who considered him a friend.

DETROIT (AP) -- Ernie Harwell died Tuesday night, ending his battle with cancer at the age of 92, but his voice and spirit will live on forever in the ears and minds of many.

Tears were shed in the press box at Joe Louis Arena -- while the Red Wings were playing the San Jose Sharks -- when the news spread. As cynical and callous as reporters can be, this story was tough to treat as it was just another death because Harwell treated anyone he ever met like a friend.

Yours truly was one of the lucky ones.

I'll miss Harwell's greeting -- "HELLO! Larry!" on the phone and in person and hearing him say "Phi Alpha!" in a nod to our brotherhood in the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity.

My first vivid memory of Harwell -- other than listening to him call Detroit Tigers games on the radio growing up in Ann Arbor, Mich. -- was during the mid-1990s at Tiger Stadium.

Harwell, actor Jeff Daniels, writer Jack Ebling, whom I worked with at the Lansing State Journal, and I spent about 15 minutes shooting the breeze behind the backstop while Ken Griffey Jr. was hitting homers during the Seattle Mariners' batting practice.

It was one of the coolest moments of my life.

Like no one could, Harwell compared Griffey's talents with Willie Mays in one breath and the next, he talked about playing cards with Jackie Robinson on road trips with the Brooklyn Dodgers.

Harwell barely knew me back then -- when I was making $25 an article as a freelance writer -- but he gave me genuine respect as if I was an important member of the media or society. As I got to know him better, I found out he was like that with everyone.

The true test of people is how they treat someone who can do nothing for them and Harwell passed that measure of a human being better than anybody. Harwell greeted everyone the same -- rich or poor, young or old, famous or unknown -- and that made his legend grow beyond the borders of the state he loved and the sport he adored.

Getting to know him away from crowds was simply special.

Spending time with him and his beloved wife, Lulu, at their rented home in Lakeland, Fla., at their previous house in suburban Detroit -- where her roses were breathtaking -- or their apartment at a posh retirement center was simply priceless.

When he announced in February 2002 that season would be his last in the broadcast booth, I bought him a Motown baseball cap from the new terminal at Detroit's airport and was tickled every time he wore it. Harwell, though, gave me more intangible gifts than I ever could've given him.

On Monday, Nov. 30, 2009 -- less than two months after he announced he had inoperable cancer -- Harwell agreed to let me pay him a visit. He didn't want a story written that day, growing tired of the hype that surrounded his declining health, and I was OK with that because I welcomed another opportunity to spend time with him.

Harwell looked and sounded really good on that afternoon, saying he was wasn't in pain and was unafraid of dying. He asked about my family and job as he always did and prayed with me for the first time, a surreal few minutes I'll never forget.

His health deteriorated so much recently that he needed around-the-clock care and the months he had to live dwindled to days.

Even though all knew this day would come -- and no one was more prepared than Harwell -- Michigan is melancholy at best. It's sad to lose a once-in-a-lifetime icon such as Harwell, but strangers and friends alike should be glad he's at peace.

Published: Thu, May 6, 2010