Friday, May 7, 2010

Caught By a Man from Saginaw!

I felt like some sort of deranged uberfan, but I probably just looked like a geek.  Standing there in the hallway outside of the broadcast booth at Camden Yards, I was thankful for the brief burst of air conditioning.  It was a stifling August day, and my radio station-supplied Orioles t-shirt felt a bit plastered to my body.  First pitch was only about 10 minutes away, and both myself and Jim Hunter, one of the announcers form the O's radio crew, couldn't quite figure out why it was taking so long for Ernie Harwell to come out of the men's room.

During my time at Sports Talk 980 in Washington, DC, I had the opportunity to take of advantage of a number of sporting events and free-ticket opportunities.  A few years before the Montreal Expos bolted for the nation's capital, most people from the area followed the team from Baltimore.  It's been eight years since I lived there, so perhaps some still do.  Our station was the D.C. affiliate, which meant that there were plenty of chances to head north on I-95 and soak up the ambiance of what is one of my favorite ballparks of all time.  Those free tickets that I would get for that Sunday contest between the Orioles and Tigers were particularly special, because I would have the opportunity to meet one of my play-by-play heroes.

It's no secret that baseball is my favorite sport.  One of the ways that I enjoy it best is to hear it played on radio.  I often tell Donna that if I were to start my broadcasting career over again, I think I would have tried to travel the baseball play-by-play route.  Obviously it's too late for that now.  Unlike the ample opportunities available for broadcasters to hone their skills calling high school football and basketball games, very few options exist for those who aspire to call the action on the diamond. A career in the booth usually means trying to hook up with a minor league team.  Sure, it can be a full-time job, but it also means low pay, moving to places like Wichita Falls, Texas or Binghamton, New York, and filling time between games as a sports information director, box office assistant, or as a helper on the field rolling up the tarp after a thunderstorm.

When I was a kid, me and my Philco transistor were best friends.  During those humid July nights, I would hold the radio up against my ear on the pillow and use my thumb to spin the dial.  If the Indians were getting hammered, as was usually the case, I would switch ballparks.  Sometimes I'd land on WLW at listen to Marty and Joe call the fortunes of the Big Red Machine. ("...and this one belongs to the Reds!")   Sometimes it would be the Cards on KMOX, with the voice of Jack Buck ringing throughout the Midwest.  One night it would be the Cubs on WGN, and another night the Braves on WSB.  But invariably, I'd twirl that knob so that it would land on 760 and WJR. There was something soothing about the Southern-tinged tones of the voice of the Detroit Tigers, an easy, home-spun lilt that one would expect to hear if you were sitting on the porch and listening to, say, Andy Griffith.

Ernie Harwell was everything that many current play-by-play men are not: graceful, unpretentious, and devoid of this recent trend of announcers being somewhat bigger than the game.  Ernie Harwell didn't have to beat you down with inane statistics, as is the case with many radio and TV crews today.  He was the quintessence of what a baseball play-by-play announcer should be, one who describes the action on the field because the listener can't be there to see it for himself.  He didn't feel the need to fill in every space between pitches with a boat-load of biographical data on the player in the batter's box.  You knew when Mickey Lolich picked up the rosin bag.  You knew  when Dick McAuliffe was playing on the cut of the grass.  You knew if the wind was blowing in from right field.  But it doesn't mean that Ernie didn't get excited.  He did.  When Al Kaline ripped one into the gap, or when Gates Brown crushed one into the seats in left, you knew it!  But as was Ernie's style, his enthusiasm was real, genuine.

And, of course, the "Ernie-isms" are legendary.  Sure, every baseball announcer has his own unique lexicon, but on those humid July evenings, Ernie's somehow stood out.  Is there a better way to hear a double-play called as "two for the price of one"?  And how he knew that the man who caught that pop-up behind the visitor's dugout was from Saginaw, I'll never know!  Still, amongst all of the action on the field, Ernie always remained the Southern gentleman, easily complimenting Mark Belanger on a fine fielding play, or even referring to the Red Sox first baseman as "Mr.Yastrzemski".  No, he may not have possessed the poetic flair of a Vin Scully or the mellifluous tones of a Jon Miller.   That fluid baritone drawl, though, describing the exploits of his beloved "Tiges" was enough to keep me from changing the dial.

Needless to say, I was brimming with enthusiasm and excitement as I made my way to the Inner Harbor that Sunday.  The night before, Fred Manfra had had Ernie in the Orioles booth and asked him if he would call an inning, (I taped it, and still have it on a compact disc) so I knew the Sunday game would be the final time that Ernie would be visiting Baltimore.  I had asked one of the promotions assistants if she could get me a credential to go up to the broadcast booth to meet Ernie.  She arranged for me to rendezvous with Jim Hunter, who would then introduce me to "Mr.Harwell".        

So there I was, standing in the hallway outside of the broadcast booth, holding my copy of Ernie's book, "Stories from My Life in Baseball", watching Jim Price make funny faces at Fred Manfra through the glass of the Tigers booth, while waiting for Ernie Harwell.  As Jim and I chat, a short man in a checkered shirt, tan slacks, and a cap comes bouncing down the hallway, almost skipping.  Jim blurts out, "Ernie, could you pop over for a second?"  Ernie smiles and says sure, and Jim introduces me.  I shake his hand, tell him what a big fan I am, and explain how much I've enjoyed his broadcasts over the years.  "That's fine, Mac.  Glad to have ya listening".  I really didn't want to ruin the moment by correcting him, but I did tell him that although I was raised as an Indians fan, I've always had a soft spot for the Tigers.  Knowing that he was due in the booth, I finally asked him to sign my book.  "It's Matt, right?," he asks.  I nod and watch him scribble in my book.  Jim Hunter had also asked Fred Manfra if he would take a few photos, which he did. After a quick minute of talk, Ernie announced that he needed to get to the booth.  We shook hands, I thanked Jim, and then floated downstairs on the way to my seat in the ballpark.

Ernie Harwell died this week from cancer.  He knew it was terminal and he decided to let nature take its course.  In interviews, he didn't gripe or moan.  Like the gentleman that he was, he told reporters that he had had a great life, both in baseball and outside of the game, and whatever happens, happens.  I've been feeling sad this week because of it. It's a strange feeling, mourning the death of someone whom you don't know.  And yet, I think it's in some ways a more difficult passing to deal with.  No, meeting someone in a hallway for a couple of minutes doesn't qualify as "knowing" them.  But my moment with Ernie Harwell was the culmination of a number of great moments, when I, like many fans,  got to know the affable gentleman from Georgia the next best way: through the small, tinny speaker of a transistor radio on a humid summer night.




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