Ernie Harwell, the longtime radio voice of the Tigers, salutes the fans in an emotional address during the third inning Wednesday at Comerica Park. (Robin Buckson / The Detroit News)
They began to stand, section by section, row by row, unsure whether to clap and cheer or simply watch and listen. And then Ernie Harwell walked out of the tunnel and onto the bright diamond, a bounce still in his step, and as the ovation grew, the answer was clear.
Yes, it was a time to cheer and cherish, because this was not a sad twist at the end of a good story. This was about the connection between life and death, between people of all ages, between a familiar voice and a vast, appreciative audience.
Harwell, 91, is better at greetings than farewells, so he didn't fully say goodbye Wednesday night, even as he battles an incurable cancer. In the middle of the third inning, the beloved former Tigers broadcaster took the microphone and thanked the Tigers and the fans, and if there was a somber undertone, he cut through it quickly.
"It's a wonderful night for me," Harwell said as the Tigers players stood outside their dugout, watching with everyone else. "I really feel lucky to be here, and I want to thank you for the warm welcome."
There were no tears from Harwell, but none were expected from the unrelenting optimist, who accepts his fate with unassuming grace. This also was a night for the fans to pause in the middle of a pennant race and honor a man they knew by the sound of his voice and the depth of his kindness.
For 42 years in Detroit, Harwell was the sound of summer, from a time when words mattered more than pictures, when eloquence mattered more than volume. He's truly one of our enduring treasures, a Georgia man who came here for the love of baseball and want of a radio job, and never left.
After a video tribute, near the end of his short speech, Harwell addressed his situation with a positive twist, naturally.
"In my almost 92 years on this Earth, the good Lord has blessed me with a great journey," he said. "And the blessed part of that journey is, it's going to end in the great state of Michigan."
It's too early for eulogies, but not too early to describe what he means to so many. When Harwell was done speaking, 67-year-old Ray Tylenda turned away, his eyes watery.
"If he's happy, I'm happy for him," said Tylenda, a vending supervisor at Comerica Park. "He knows what's coming and he's ready for it, and that's wonderful. It gives hope to the rest of us, that we can handle it the same way."
Somehow, the message remained uplifting, which wasn't a surprise.
Harwell never has been into somberness or sentimentality. When he signed off as Tigers broadcaster on Sept. 29, 2002, his parting words were simply, "I thank you very much, and God bless all of you."
There is a commonality to the man that is indescribable. When he arrived at the ballpark Wednesday and headed to the clubhouse, he was flanked by Tigers owner Mike Ilitch, general manager Dave Dombrowski and others. True to his nature, he greeted the clubhouse attendant with a hearty, "Good evening, good evening," and then continued his life's mission, which I swear is to connect with every person he meets.
He talked to the players, then went down the hall to talk to the umpires. And then he came upstairs to greet the writers and broadcasters, his voice still strong, quivering just a bit.
'Boy announcer' returns
"Wow," he said as he entered the press box. "Well, the boy announcer returns."
The reporters laughed and clapped, those that knew him well and those that knew him the way millions in Michigan knew him, through living room radios and bedroom radios. Harwell was fond of saying that in all his years as a broadcaster, "I put more people to sleep in this state than anybody in history."
He would have stood and joked forever but he had many more rounds to make, as the days get shorter, as the days get fuller.
"I don't feel too good," he admitted. "I'm a little shaky."
Accepts his fate
Harwell doesn't shy from the fate that beckons. He says he's excited about the next adventure, and for a man of such faith and peace, I believe he is.
Before the game, Tigers broadcaster Jim Price had to turn away as he talked about his one-time partner.
"I'm sorry, but this is a tough deal," Price said, looking down. "I've always felt like I'm a better person when I'm around him. He treated everybody the exact same way. I was talking to him the other day, and you know what he said to me? He said, 'Why are you sad? Cheer up. I'm ready for this.' "
Price looked up, then softly added, "Honest to God, I thought Ernie would never die."
This is Harwell's final embrace, and his words should echo. Why are you sad, if he isn't?
He says he might have a year left, maybe six months, maybe less, as the cancer near his bile duct is inoperable. He spends a lot of time at home with his wife Lulu, sifting through hundreds of cards and letters, and greeting visitors from afar.
Still can laugh
"He laughs a lot, as engaging as ever," Tigers broadcaster Dan Dickerson said. "It's not, 'The end is near, woe is me.' He wants to continue to live his life as he always has, as long as he has."
Harwell has filled almost 92 years with enough life for all of us, and on this night, he did what he has done so many times. Succinctly and eloquently, he described what he saw and what he felt, and by the end, people were cheering. One more time, Harwell made it seem like everything would be all right.