09/17/09 12:48 AM ET
Harwell says thanks to baseball friends
Fans, players show admiration for broadcaster in cheers
By Jason Beck / MLB.com
Nearly two weeks after Harwell was diagnosed with inoperable cancer, the Hall of Fame broadcaster and Tigers icon appeared at his old workplace for what might be one last time as the Tigers beat Royals, 4-3. He met with the team before the game, then with the umpires, then with the media just before first pitch and before making an emotional appearance on the field in the middle of the third inning.
Harwell, who watched the first couple innings from team owner Mike Ilitch's suite, came down to field level and walked out behind home plate to a standing ovation, raising his arms before turning to the fans. A video tribute that included some of his legendary calls played on the scoreboard beyond left field with a message, "Thanks for the memories, Ernie!"
As Harwell joked while the standing ovation continued, "We don't want to be penalized now for delay of the game."
He didn't want it to be a goodbye, but a thank you to fans. Still, given Harwell's place in the hearts of so many Tigers fans, the emotions made it feel like more than that.
"It's a wonderful night for me," Harwell said. "I really feel lucky to be here, and I want to thank you for that warm welcome. I want to express my deep appreciation to Mike Ilitch, Dave Dombrowski and the Tigers for that video salute and also for the many great things they've done for me and my family throughout my career here with the Tigers.
"In my almost 92 years on this Earth, the good Lord has blessed me with a great journey, and the blessed part of that journey is that it's going to end here in the great state of Michigan. I deeply appreciate the people of Michigan. I love their grit. I love the way they face life. I love the family values they have. And you Tiger fans are the greatest fans of all, no question about that.
"And I certainly want to thank you from the depth of my heart for your devotion, your support, your loyalty and your love. Thank you very much, and God bless you."
It was slightly reminiscent of his speech to listeners after his last game in 2002: short, to the point, but heartfelt.
"It was vintage Ernie," Tigers manager Jim Leyland said after the game.
Leyland said before the game that he met with his team to make sure they knew about Harwell -- not just the broadcaster, but the person -- because so many players weren't here during his final season as the Tigers' play-by-play broadcaster in 2002. He might not have had to.
The respect was evident. The Tigers dugout emptied onto the field as Harwell prepared to walk out. Every player stood facing Harwell, either outside the dugout or in the bullpen, as he spoke. The Royals stepped out of their dugout to do the same.
That gesture, shortstop Adam Everett said, wasn't planned in advance.
"He came in here and talked to us," catcher Gerald Laird said, "and I was kind in awe of some of the names he mentioned that he knew through the years in baseball, like Ruth and Ted Williams. This guy's been around the greats, and he's great himself. It's definitely something I'll cherish the rest of my life."
Laird, like many of his teammates, had never met Harwell. Everett met him for the first time Monday, when Nate Robertson and a couple other people visited Harwell at his home in nearby Novi.
"He's a tremendous guy, sharp as a tack," Everett said. "The first thing he said when I came in was, 'Georgia boy!' "
Harwell, like Everett, grew up in Georgia. When Everett mentioned his hometown, Harwell knew exactly where it is.
"He's just amazing," Everett said. "To see where he's at right now, and the way he's handling it, it's just unbelievable."
Harwell's upbeat tone was similar as he thanked reporters in the press box that bears his name. It wasn't an interview, but a greeting.
"I'm a failed newspaper man myself," he said. "I wanted to be a sportswriter when I was younger, working on the [Atlanta] Constitution, doing everything that nobody else would do. Thought maybe I'd be the next Grantland Rice, but it didn't happen. God had another plan for me. Couldn't get a job on the paper, and I got into radio. Stuck with radio and television, and it stuck with me up until 2002.
"It's wonderful to see so many friends here, so many smiling faces. It's just great to be with you, and I'm happy to say hello."
Harwell is still moving around well, though he said to media members that he didn't "feel too good, a little shaky." That was the only reference he made to his health.
In the third inning, once Harwell finished speaking, he waved to fans, who gave a standing ovation as he came back through the tunnel behind home plate.
"If we're all at peace with ourselves as much as he is, that's pretty good," Leyland said.
Jason Beck is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.