Keatings Corner: Talkin' Detroit sports heroes ... Gordie, Al and Ernie
Feb. 3, 2011
More often than I'd admit, the kid from Detroit can feel like a kid again. Even though being a kid was awhile ago.
An interview was arranged this week with Gordie Howe, and it reminded me of how special it was to grow up in this town.
It caused a little retrospective on all that we've seen and those whom we know.
Gordie will likely have his small dog with him. He doesn't travel anywhere without Rocket, named for his all-time Montreal rival, Rocket Richard.
Gordie's not around as much as we'd like, but you see the absolute awe from today's hockey players when they're in his midst. Still with a smile that's as quick as his wrist shot or his elbow once were, you have the unique double-sided sense that when you're around him, he could be your older neighbor and yet remains a hockey god.
I've relished the chance to get to know Al Kaline over the years. Another first-ballot Hall of Fame player whose exploits I heard described on the little transistor radio under a pillow thanks to the booming coverage of WJR.
You secretly wanted the opposing team's runner to try to score from second on a single to right field because you just had a sense Bill Freehan and the ball would be there waiting for him.
Interestingly enough, in part because of his employment contract with Mike Ilitch, but I believe moreso because he's such a Detroiter, Kaline invariably wants to talk hockey. It's fascinating when the fan discovers another fan.
Of course, the voice that described most of Kaline's signature moments was Ernie Harwell's. He might have been one of the most unathletic people you'd ever see, and yet, he ranks near the top of my all-time sports heroes.
I've told many people when I was offered the chance to return to Detroit from Denver, one of the you've-got-to-be-kidding-me lures was a chance to work with Ernie, who was doing play-by-play on television for a time. He was kind, supportive, funny and self-deprecating, and made you feel inferior only because his life was better than yours.
And that was a gift. He made you want to be a better person, professionally and otherwise.
That theme continued with George Kell. Perhaps one of the best days I've had in the business was a trip to Swifton, Ark., to spend with the retired Tigers broadcaster and Hall of Famer.
With awe and off the record, we talked about his avid viewership of Tigers games over the satellite. Comparing the TV world from this day and time to his. Watching him just shake his head and smile as he recalled travelling with Kaline and Harwell and Carey on the baseball road in the 70s and 80s.
I got a chance to relate to Kell an experience. It was a day after he'd been retired for a few years and he was invited back into the booth to do an inning of play-by-play. Those of us in the production truck who knew that voice so well, just looked at each other and one remarked, "Listen to the quiet. Listen to the game going on. This is baseball."
Before Dave Bing got busy with this little political diversion, we spent a day at his company's headquarters reliving some of his great moments at Cobo Hall. His was a sensational career on some tragically mediocre teams. Where have you gone, Crash Mengelt?
Bing's passion for the city, then and now, should inspire us all.
I'm struck by the fact that Barry Sanders is still a bit of an uncertain hero in this city. One of the most amazing football players in history may not have the complete adulation he should because of how he chose to end his career.
Umm, after all it was HIS career. It's perhaps a final and fitting indicator as to his unique talents, his unique nature.
The more contemporary heroes will grow in stature as they slip away from our present day consciousness.
Steve Yzerman, Igor Larionov, Chris Osgood, Brett Hull, Luc Robitaille, Larry Murphy, Ivan Rodriguez, Kenny Rogers, Isiah Thomas, Chuck Daly, Tom Izzo, Thomas Hearns are all on lists compiled by those who have a sense of the sporting landscape in this state.
But there's also a place on any such list for parents and kids.
The great little stories. The small special victories. The battles in the basement. The games of catch. The moments in the stands. The pride in victory and competing. The rides home. The kisses goodnight.
Who is your all time sports hero?