I never met Ernie Harwell. Didn't know much about him beyond the basics in his biography (he was the legendary voice of the Detroit Tigers) and one curious fact about him (he was the New York Giants' TV announcer when Bobby Thomson's homer off Ralph Branca, which sent the Giants to the 1951 World Series, was immortalized by a radio call).
But as I read the accounts from all corners of the game, from people who met him and who were touched by him, I'm reminded of something I've had the privilege of learning over and over in my short time working in baseball, yet seem to forget all too often: This is a sport of gentlemen.
Oh, sure, it's a sport of scoundrels, too, with spitballers and steroid users, liars and louts. That dichotomy is what makes it beautiful.
In the end, though, nobody remembers the scoundrels. People remember the gentlemen like Ernie Harwell; those who were around him every day and those who barely met him all had stories to tell at the news of his death yesterday.
My only connection to Ernie Harwell is John Lowe, the veteran scribe who's covered the Tigers for the Detroit Free Press for more than 20 seasons and like Harwell, watched more losing teams than I'd ever care to see. Most fans know Lowe as the inventor of the quality start; I know him as a mentor and a friend who still wears a sport coat (and on most days, a fedora) to the ballpark, who e-mails birthday wishes to everyone he knows each year and who understands that baseball is a gift that should be shared through grace and class.
I met John as a high school senior in the Metrodome press box in 2001, and every time I've seen him since, I walk away with a smile on my face or a thought in my head. I think it's because like Ernie Harwell, he's operated by the simple, yet vital, creed that keeps baseball hewn to its past: Use words economically, never underestimate the value of a smile or a thank-you and take time to appreciate the traditions of this grand game, preserved in ballpark cathedrals, Florida spring mornings and sunny Saturday afternoons.
As I read this obituary Lowe wrote about Harwell in this morning's Free Press, that creed leapt off my computer screen. For whatever reason, I don't remember it as often as I should. Sometimes, I think it's the strains of the job - of competition, of immediacy, of the quest to be the cleverest in 140 characters - that get me chasing lesser things. Mostly, I think it's because I can, and should, aspire to be better.
I don't have any touching anecdotes to add about Ernie Harwell beyond the volumes that have already been written, so I'll wrap this up, other than to say this: I'm struck by how greatly a man who went from a stuttering kid in Georgia to an iconic voice in Michigan could impact so many lives, simply by being a gentleman.
That's what I want to be, too.