During my time at the University of Michigan, from June 1989 until August 1993 (with a few breaks in between), I tried to pay attention to what was going on in the Detroit metro area. '

Michigan experienced a change in governors, when Republican John Engler defeated incumbent Democrat James Blanchard in the 1990 election, and the Malice Green case generated much discussion. The economy served as a constant source of tension, even well before the auto companies needed bailouts from the U.S. government.

In the sports world, the Pistons won a second straight NBA championship, and the Lions even made the playoffs, and in Ann Arbor, the Fab Five got everyone talking.

But when it came to mere buzz, in those pre-yakosphere (copyright Neil Best) days, nothing came close to when the Tigers told Ernie Harwell that his services wouldn't be required following the 1991 season.

The outrage was off the charts. There were rallies, and protests, and editorials galore. My goodness. I was familiar with Ernie's work at the time, and enjoyed it, but I recall thinking, "Wow, this seems a little over the top."

But in one of the best results of my decision to do what I do, I got to meet Ernie and speak with him a number of times over the last 12 years or so of his life. And now, looking back, I totally understand the Ernie love.

Ernie died last night, as you surely saw, and we knew this was coming, so we had time to prepare our thoughts. My primary thought was simple: When you were around Ernie, you were happier.

I remember meeting him for the first time at Joker Marhant Stadium in March of 1998; as it turned out, Ernie spent just the 1992 season away from the Tigers before new owner Mike Ilitch brought him back. I was standing in four territory during pre-game batting practice, chatting with some other writers, when Ernie came over with smiles and handshakes for everyone. As I learned, that was Ernie's standard M.O., every single day.

We weren't close, not by any stretch; he probably didn't even retain my name, just knew my face. But if Ernie gave you five minutes, just talking about the Tigers and the Yankees and the game in general, he made you feel like his best friend. He was just such a warm man, so easygoing. If he had any worries, he never revealed them. Every day was a wonderful day in his world.

My favorite Ernie anecdote is going to sound a little nutty, but what the hell: My grandmother passed away in mid-December 2005, and I took a few days off of work to mourn and rescheduled a vacation until around Christmas. I was on that vacation, in Florida, when Newsday editor Norm Cohen called me on my cell phone.

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It turned out that, earlier that month, I had agreed to supply Norm with a "year-end" interview with a baseball figure, someone who could put the year in perspective. Here I was on vacation, and I didn't feel like dealing with it, but a commitment was a commitment. Who could I get on the phone Christmas week?

Then it occurred to me: Ernie. I got his phone number and when I dialed, I got his wife, Lulu.

"He's exercising right now," Lulu told me. "Can you try him back in about an hour?"

I did as told, and Ernie - although I can't imagine he knew precisely who I was. He probably had a general image of a young-ish New York baseball writer, the same way the chef from "South Park" called everyone "Children" - gladly took a few minutes to talk baseball, in the heart of winter.

I just dug up that interview on Nexis, and here's my favorite exchange:


Me: Back to steroids for a moment. Are you concerned that the game's record book, particularly concerning home runs, is now tarnished?

Ernie: I don't think so. I think you sort of have to put it in context. Back in 1909, Ty Cobb won the so-called Triple Crown hitting a mush ball. Then Babe Ruth had the lively ball. All of those things change - the size of the ballparks, too. People sort of accept the fact now that steroids were taken. The fans didn't seem as excited as other people were.

Ernie was a month and eight days younger than my grandmother, and to have such a great conversation with him at that point, to hear him so sharp and active...I don't know. After losing my grandmother, it just heartened me all the more to hear Ernie's voice. It gave me a boost that I can still sense.

We'll hear nothing new from that mellifluous voice. But to those of us who enjoyed it for so many years - in person, on our car radios, whatever - we can't go over-the-top enough in talking about that voice, and the human being behind it.

Thanks to Bob Tufts for this link of a great Ernie monologue. Here's a great tribute to Ernie from Howie Karpin

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--The Yankees won, again, and props to A.J. Burnett, who has been spectaculr this season. Burnett always has generated much suspicion throughout the baseball community, because he spent so much time on the disabled list. Yet if he puts up another 200 innings pitched this season, it would mark his third consecutive season doing so, after doing it just twice in his first seven big-league years.

(Yes, yes, it's only May 5, I know.)

--Good column by Jim Baumbach on Javier Vazquez. Baumbach takes an emotion-less, statistical view. Just as Burnett, CC Sabathia and Andy Pettitte will hit a speed bump at some point, based on track records, Vazquez figures to get better, based on track record.

--Nick Swisher continues to play well. I think Swisher's reported personality - you know, the whole class clown thing - actually distracts people from the fact that he's a really good player, and extremely valuable.

--Jorge Poasda and Mariano Rivera are healing, and it appears that both will avoid the disabled list.

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--Out in Cincinnati, Rod Barajas kept the Mets out of what would've been an undesirable situation today: Trying to avoid a 1-5 road trip, sweep against the lowly Reds and return to a .500 record.

Barajas has the reputation of being a "clutch" player, and I agree, on a visceral level, it seems as though the big moments don't scare him. You might even remember earlier that, earlier this season, he hit a rocket that could've been a walk-off hit but instead turned into a great, game-ending catch by Washington's Willie Harris.

So I figured, let's check the numbers. Barajas has a lifetime .283 OBP and .411 SLG. For his career, in "late and close" situations, he's at .271 and .394.

Oh. In any case, between his power and defense, Barajas has been a clear upgrade over the Mets' catchers of 2009. And he's ridiculously cheap; at most, he'll make $1.9 million.

--The Mets scratched Mike Pelfrey's bullpen session. There will be understandable anxiety surrounding this issue until Pelfrey takes the mound Friday night and shows he's healthy.

--More bad news for the Phillies, as Ryan Madson will miss at least two months after breaking his right big toe for kicking a chair. It bears repeating: How badly would the Mets be getting crushed if this happened to one of their players?

Oh, and that reminds me, speaking of setup men: Jerry Manuel should probably hit the brakes on Fernando Nieve.

--Former Met Ron Hunt, whom I got to know last year thanks to this story, is having a fundraiser at the Brooklyn Cyclones' ballpark in September. Here is all of the relevant information.