September 16, 2009 at 8:02 pm

Tom Gage

Thank you, too, Ernie

Ernie Harwell's attorney Gary Spicer pours over his client's massive pile of get-well wishes. (Clarence Tabb Jr./The Detroit News)

Detroit

Think of it as a celebration.

Ernie Harwell will speak into a microphone tonight at Comerica Park. But it won't be like old times. It never again will be like old times.

He's not returning for an inning to the broadcast booth.

He won't be telling us a man from Portage caught that ball.

He won't be saying a hitter was guilty of excessive window shopping -- as much as we wish he would.

As much as we wish he could.

But when he's about to convey what we all have meant to him, aren't we doing Ernie a disservice to think only in terms of what he's meant to us, however natural it is?

This man has been part of our lives a long time.

His voice came into our living rooms. It mowed the lawn with us. His voice soothed us when we lost the loved ones with whom we used to listen to the games.

Dad. Mom. Uncle Henry. They all were part of the Ernie era.

But our friend is ill now. Seriously ill. His cancer is being called incurable. We know what that probably means. So does he.

We can't honor him in loftier fashion, though, than to meet the challenge he's facing the same way he is. With peace. With serenity.

And by accepting with all our hearts the gratitude he's about to express.

Ernie is 91. The love of his life -- Miss Lulu as he often calls her -- is still with him. Even now, in his own kindly way, he smiles -- ready to enjoy every moment of his remaining time.

Be it months or, hopefully, years.

Let us not be down, therefore, when we see him. Or when we hear him. Or hug him, Let us celebrate the life he's had. And rejoice that we've had someone in our lives, who is still in our lives, worthy of such affection.

The itinerary

This is how the evening will go: Before the game, Ernie will spend a few minutes in the clubhouse speaking to the team.

"I'm going to stand in the background, because I'll choke up for sure," manager Jim Leyland said.

It would be typical for Harwell to stop in and say hello to the umpires, too. For that matter, it would be typical for him to greet vendors, ushers, elevator operators, and everyone else he sees as if they were his closest friends.

That's because, collectively, they were.

Collectively, we all were -- because the entire baseball landscape meant everything to him. Still does. Make no mistake about that. Still does.

After leaving the clubhouse, Harwell will come to the press box to greet those of us who used to see him every day. He won't be maudlin, so I hope we won't be. I trust him not to be, however, more than I trust us.

There was the time my son, when he was growing up, had a bad bout with his ears. Multiple operations to insert tubes. Maybe your children went through the same thing.

While I drove Ernie to the ballpark in Anaheim, Calif., one day, he suddenly said a prayer for him.

There also was the time, many years ago, when a certain writer was new to the scene, and apparently looking overwhelmed.

"C'mon," Ernie said. "I'll show you around."

That's never been forgotten.

But as I said, I trust him not to be maudlin, more than I trust us.

"I get chills and teary-eyed just thinking about it," broadcaster Dan Dickerson said of the impending visit.

The speech

In the third inning, Harwell will come down to the field from owner Mike Ilitch's suite. These two men are dear friends. That needs to be said.

Ilitch and Tigers president Dave Dombrowski drove out to see Harwell last Saturday. That's when Ernie asked if this visit would be all right.

"He doesn't want to get in the way," Dombrowski said. "Get in the way? There's no such thing as Ernie Harwell getting in the way."

Once on the field, Harwell will step up to the microphone and say whatever it is he plans to say. It won't be about him, though. In all likelihood, it will be about you.

That's Ernie.

He will thank you -- family from Ortonville, single Mom from Redford, retiree from Dexter -- for what you've meant to him. This will be his time not only to voice his appreciation, but to celebrate it.

And it will be up to you to accept his appreciation with the full awareness that the moment is more about what we mean to him than what he means to us.

The emotion

"It's going to be historic," said Brandon Inge, "an honor just to be there. Even ahead of time, I know it's something I'll always remember."

You all, of course, have shown what Ernie means to you. You've shown it with your letters to him, your notes, your e-mails, your thoughts, whatever you've directed toward him for years -- but specifically lately.

Now you'll be required to make a difficult adjustment when facing the thought of losing him.

Don't be sad.

He's not.

He'll be out there on the field, in front of all of us, celebrating the magnificence of a relationship.

We won't be entirely successful in not being sad, of course. As Marc Antony said in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, "If you have tears, prepare to shed them now."

And tears will be shed, no doubt.

But, otherwise, cheer yourself hoarse.

That's what you do at celebrations.

Cheer -- and be happy that you've known such a friend.

tom.gage@detnews.com">tom.gage@detnews.com

Ernie Harwell at his Tiger Stadium perch in 1990. (The Detroit News)
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