Gage: Five years later, we all still miss Ernie Harwell
DETROIT -- He was the nicest man I ever knew.
He was Ernie Harwell.
It's hard to believe but Ernie died five years ago today -- or, if you are reading this on Tuesday, five years ago yesterday.
We knew he was leaving us because he had said good-bye. We knew he was sick because he had not kept it a secret.
And we knew we would be sad whenever it happened, no matter how well prepared we thought we were, because Ernie was a friend.
Of us all.
The statue at Comerica Park is a fine attempt to commemorate him, but I wish there was an audio element to it.
After all, it was all about how Ernie sounded, not what he looked like.
It was about his words, not his appearance.
It was about his voice, his phrases, his ability to make us chuckle, to be neighborly -- and to make us feel as if we were living in a gentler time.
Because we were.
As long as Ernie was a part of it, the world was a kinder place than it often seems to be now.
I never heard him swear. But I did see him angry once.
Ernie was part of the team because A) for years he was better known than many of the Tigers players were and B) because most of the players considered him to be just that, part of the team.
He was Ernie to us. He was Ernie to them. He was Ernie to everyone.
And within that status, he never had to ask permission to join the players in any of their reindeer games.
Such as their pools.
Specifically, one year, their Kentucky Derby pool.
I remember it well, because one of the players back in the mid 80's -- and I won't mention who it was that got him mad, but I will -- to narrow the field -- eliminate shortstops, second basemen and catchers, outfielders named Kirk, and pitchers named Jack or Dan.
Anyway, there were horses left to pick in the pool before a road game -- and the organizer was still trying to sell them.
"I'll take one," said Ernie, sounding like he wanted to help the pool sell out more than really wanting a horse in it.
I even remember Ernie extending his hand to pick a name, only to be rebuffed.
"Sorry, Ernie, players only," was the reply.
I know I was shocked to hear it. I had never known Ernie Harwell to be anything but fully embraced by all who encountered him.
Therefore, I fully expected the reply from the pool boss to be "thanks, Ernie. Your turn."
But it wasn't his turn to pick. It was his turn to walk away, and while he did, he might have said some entirely un-Ernie-like -- because the only word I heard sure sounded like "shove."
What made the moment even more memorable was that Ernie looked at me not knowing how much of his reply I had heard -- so he winked in case I'd heard it all.
It was an "attaboy, Ernie, you don't have to take that" moment.
The only other time I wasn't entirely sure how he felt about a situation involved me as a rookie baseball writer having dinner at his house.
But losing it while everyone politely listened to music in his living room after the meal.
I never told him it was because of a greasy burger I'd eaten in Lakeland and not the dinner Lulu cooked for us.
My embarrassment about that evening lasted for years. But I'm finally telling him now.
Somewhere I know you are listening to my apology, Ernie.
And where you are, perhaps a saint from Kalamazoo just caught a ball.
Or two angels for the price of one just got their wings.
But I have two things I want to tell you -- more than two actually.
I miss you. We all miss you.
And thank you, even after I so rudely spoiled that evening, for being such a good friend all those years.
But most of all, thank you for being all that you were.