Pirates broadcaster back home for Opening Day in Detroit

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Sitting in the visiting radio booth at Comerica Park, firing off emails more than two hours before first pitch, Joe Block was all business Friday morning.

Odds are, the last time — the only time, actually — he attended an Opening Day in Detroit, he wasn’t.

“I’ve only been to one Opening Day in Detroit, the final one at Tiger Stadium,” Block said of that 1999 game. “I was 21, and a bunch of buddies and I went to Harmony House and ordered tickets. We were lucky to get in.

“It’s a neat thing. It’s nice to be back.”

Block is starting his third season as a lead broadcaster for Pittsburgh Pirates games, and it just so happened, they were in town to start the 2018 Major League Baseball season.

When the schedule came out late last season, he took a quick glance at Game No. 1 and was, understandably, excited.

After all, it meant getting to come home — harder and harder to do these days with a wife, two children and the rigors of a 162-game schedule, not counting spring training — and getting to spend time with friends and family, including his grandparents, who are 89 and 92.

“Absolutely,” said Block, a Roseville native and Michigan State alum. “To think, to start the season in Detroit, I knew there would be a couple off-days built in.

“To be able to get back and see everybody, I got to see Little Caesars Arena last night, which I thought was really cool. Just to be out here, to watch baseball, and do it just driving in from my folks’, that’s really neat.”

Block watched the Pistons beat the Washington Wizards downtown Thursday night, after Opening Day Take 1 was rained out. Earlier, he took a drive over to the Old Tiger Stadium site, where the Detroit Police Athletic League recently unveiled its $21-million Corner Ballpark.

While driving downtown Thursday, he was tuned in to WJR 760, the old longtime flagship station of the Tigers, and they were playing a brief clip of Ernie Harwell calling a home run.

That, more than anything, was the full-circle moment.

“He said, ‘Looooong gone,’ and I started tearing up right away,” said Block, 40, sitting in the press box named after the legendary voice of the Tigers. “Ernie would’ve been 100 years old.”

Block’s broadcasting career has taken him all over the country, from the minor leagues (where you’re part-broadcaster, part-ballpark custodian) in Montana and Florida and Minnesota (where his “apartment” was a screened-in porch), to the major leagues in L.A. and Milwaukee, even to the NBA for a bit. He’s done college football, college basketball, you name it. If it paid, he played.

Baseball long has been his passion, though, and his first big break in the game came when he was hired for the Dodgers’ postgame gig in 2011, when he got to know Vin Scully. His biggest break came just one year later, when he landed a job on the Brewers broadcasts — after having nailed the long and wildly casual “interview” with Bob Uecker at an Arizona grub pub. He worked four years alongside Uecker, whom he considers the funniest man he’s ever met.

Scully. Uecker. Harwell. Now that’s quite the trifecta of acquaintances. Harwell, of course, came first.

“As a lot of broadcasters can say this, Dan (Dickerson) included, he was a big part of shaping me when I was working in the minor leagues,” Block said, sitting just feet away from the booth where Harwell did Tiger games from 2000 until his retirement in 2002.

“I met him at Tiger Stadium in the upper center-field bleachers, where when he wasn’t doing all the games for that weird time in the ’90s, he was just sitting up there watching the game and keeping score.

“He would do the first three, four innings, then sit up there, and he’d go home to Lulu and have something to eat. He took a special interest in a lot of young broadcasters, me included, and shaped a lot of what I keep reminding myself to do these days.

“What a great broadcaster, what a great person he was, and a good friend to me, too.”