The Detroit Tigers are scheduled to play the Toronto Blue Jays on Sunday in a game that doesn’t matter. It is the last game of the season for each team and both were statistically eliminated from playoff contention long ago.

Paul Wong
David Enders

Sunday’s game is important for what happens off the field. From the visitors broadcast booth at the Toronto Skydome, Ernie Harwell will make the final call of his 55-year career as a major league baseball radio announcer.

It will be impossible for me not to feel as though a piece of my childhood (yeah, I know I’m only 21) is slipping away when the 84-year-old Harwell signs off for the last time. He represents a bygone era. A time before baseball alienated many of its fans with walkouts over already inflated contracts, before steroid use was an issue and when 70 home runs in a season was an impossibility.

Harwell’s simple home run call of “long gone” is an anomaly in this ESPN era of bombastic commentary. With Harwell, everything receives the same gravitas. He has never considered himself a color man, but instead a reporter. His commentary comes from his encyclopedic knowledge of the game and its players.

“Over the years there have been some players who said, ‘I’m not talking to the media.’ They talked to Ernie,” said Paul Carey, Harwell’s former broadcasting partner.

Harwell played cards with Jackie Robinson and Roy Campanella when his career started with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948 and he still looks natural mixing in the Tigers clubhouse with players not much older than myself.

I was lost in the pregame confusion of that clubhouse a couple years ago when Harwell walked up and offered his hand.

“Haven’t seen you around here before. I’m Ernie.”

I’d like to say that moment led to a great friendship, but the truth is I don’t make it to Tigers games that often. The point is that Harwell still introduces himself with a humility unbefitting someone who has for so long been all but untouchable.

Teams, fans and colleagues have paid tribute to Harwell all season long as he made farewell trips to major league ballparks. He has insisted he doesn’t deserve the fanfare.

“I’ve always looked at myself as just a worker, a guy who shows up and just wants to do the job. … This is something that is very hard for me to understand” he said after his final home game Sunday in Detroit.

He does deserve it. He deserves it for lending dignity to a sport that has been on a long, hard slide for some time. He deserves it for sticking with a team that will finish its ninth straight losing season Sunday. He deserves it because just turning on the radio brings back a better time for baseball. He deserves it because he never tells the listeners anything, he just lets them know.

He deserves it for not complaining when former Michigan football coach Bo Schembechler fired him after the 1991 season. (Schembechler was the team’s last president under former owner Tom Monaghan.) Harwell was back in the booth by the 1993 season, with an offer from new owner Mike Illitch to stay as long as he liked.

Sunday, I will turn on the radio and listen one last time. I’ll smile when Harwell, in his soft-spoken Georgian accent, throws out one of his timeworn similes. When he says the batter “stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by,” or when he claims that a foul ball was “caught by a man from Escanaba.” (It was a long time before I figured out that wasn’t a literal truth.)

My childhood dreams of playing baseball were long gone – though I still contend I could have been a breakthrough left-handed shortstop – by the time I first set foot in a big league clubhouse, armed with pen and pad instead of bat and glove.

But Harwell brings it all back. I’m 10 again, sneaking a portable radio to my room so I can listen to games after my parents tell me to go to bed. Those were days when my friends and I still traded baseball cards, when all I wanted to do when I grew up was turn double plays for the Tigers and darkness was the only thing that stopped our pickup games.

I ran into Harwell as I was leaving the ballpark Sunday. He was on his way across the street to Ford Field, where he was scheduled to be honored during halftime at the Detroit Lions-Green Bay Packers game. He looked tired; ready to go home. But when I asked him what the ceremony at Ford Field involved, he smiled and answered with his natural, self-effacing humor.

“Who knows? They’ll probably throw something at me.”

David Enders can be reached at denders@umich.edu.

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