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“Ernie” is a Tiger tale worth a trip to Detroit

Will David Young (holding baseball) plays late Ernie Harwell play 'Ernie' written by Mitch Albom now playing Detroit's City Theatre.

Will David Young (holding baseball) plays the late Ernie Harwell in the play "Ernie," written by Mitch Albom, now playing at Detroit's City Theatre.

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IF YOU GO

“ERNIE”: Playing at 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday through June 26 at City Theatre, 2301 Woodward. Tickets are $20-$25, with a portion of the proceeds going to Harwell’s favorite charities. You can save $5 on Tigers tickets when you buy tickets to the play; (800) 745-3000,
olympiaentertainment.com.

Updated: June 16, 2011 12:18AM



DETROIT — The voice of a summer road trip belongs to baseball.

It’s comforting to hear the measured pace of baseball while dodging in and out of speedball truckers on an endless interstate.

I’ve been known to listen to AM radio static nearly drown out the Cubs’ Pat Hughes while driving through West Memphis, Ark. On satellite radio, I can hear the dignity of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ Vin Scully. He knows the value of muted silence just like a guitarist knows what chords not to play. Or I can switch to the droll hipster tones of Jon Miller, a perfect fit for the San Francisco Giants.

But there was nothing like Ernie Harwell.

Just as Harry Caray spoke to the irreverent, rowdy side of White Sox and Cubs fans, Harwell hit home with the direct, blue-collar ethic of Detroit Tigers fans. Harwell died on May 4, 2010, at the age of 92. He is the subject of the theatrical tribute “Ernie,” which runs through June 26 at Detroit’s City Theatre.

“Ernie” is very much worth a road trip.

The 85-minute play takes place in a cold, concrete tunnel at the Tigers’ Comerica Park. It’s September 2009, and a dying Harwell is poised to give a farewell speech to the fans who knew his voice for 42 years. Harwell meets a young, hyperactive fan who becomes a conduit for his fading memories.

Will David Young, 71, plays Harwell. A veteran of Jeff Daniels’ Purple Rose Theatre in Chelsea, Mich., he looks like Harwell and portrays him with the perfect balance of warmth and sincerity. “Ernie” is written by Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom, author of the best-selling memoir Tuesdays With Morrie, which also became a play. With Albom in the mix, you can expect a big dose of sentimentality. There’s nothing wrong with that.

Before my Detroit trip, I was drinking with fellow writers at the unsentimental Matchbox in Chicago. We were talking about critics of sentimentality in prose. Like shoves on an L train, cynicism is everywhere. Sentiment is fine as long as it is balanced with hard reality. Harwell understood this, which is why he resonated all over Michigan. That’s why I saw many tears at a sold-out performance of “Ernie.”

Albom’s play transcends the sport with commentary on the Depression, commitment and his choice to have Jose Feliciano sing the national anthem at the 1968 World Series.

Harwell became a born-again Christian in 1961 and was married 68 years. His wife, Lulu Tankersely, 92, missed opening night on April 28. But former Tigers Frank Tanana and Dan Petry were in the house. In the darkest corner of the tunnel, Harwell muses, “When you’re young, you never think about what is precious ... when you’re old, you never stop.”

There are gentle digs at political correctness, which resonated with the middle-age crowd of 400 people.

When Harwell met Lulu, he recalled, “She was a hillbilly. Today, she would be an Appalachian American.”

The plainspoken humor does not need adornment, such as Harwell’s famous phrase after a called strikeout: “He stood there like a house by the side of the road and watched it go by.” That’s poetry in motion. And yes, there are cliches, like how every kid can still see their first ballpark.

Harwell was a renaissance man, penning poetry and more than 400 songs. His first recorded song was “Upside Down,” which appeared alongside “Kosher Chitlin’s” on the 1967 “Something Stupid” album by Homer and Jethro.

“Ernie” also addresses Harwell’s passion for the downtown Tiger Stadium, where baseball was played between 1912-1999.

The outer shell of the historic ballpark has been razed, but the field remains. Volunteer groups have cleaned up the field and plan to plant sunflowers in an idea lifted from the movie “Field of Dreams.”

Some Detroit residents have been running the imaginary bases — illegally.

“Technically, they are trespassing,” said Robert Rossbach of the Detroit Economic Growth Corporation. “It is not a park and is not being maintained as a public space.”

You can still drive by the field at Michigan and Trumbull on your “Ernie” adventure.

Other baseball-worthy stops:

† Book Cadillac Hotel, 1114 Washington (bookcadillacwestin.com). New York Yankees legend Lou Gehrig collapsed on the hotel’s grand staircase in 1939. A couple of days later, he went public about his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) at a press conference in the hotel. Rates at this beautifully renovated property range from $150 to $1,500 for a grand suite. It’s a nice 10-minute walk to City Theatre, a block away from Comerica Park.

† Magic Stick (as in baseball bat), 4120 Woodward ( majesticdetroit.com ). This 19-year-old billiards, beer and rock hall has spawned more hits than Sweet Lou Whitaker. The Magic Stick is part of the Majestic Theater and Garden Bowl complex, one of the oldest bowling alleys in the country. Upcoming shows include the Japanese garage-power trio Guitar Wolf on Wednesday; the hard core thrash of Cerebral Ballzy, May 26; Robert Gordon’s vintage rockabilly, June 3, and Daniel Lanois’ Black Dub, June 9.

Tune into a baseball game during your trip. And think of an endless summer.



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