MIKE BURKE

Allegany Communications Sports

The baseball world has spent the past week mourning the death and celebrating the life of the legendary Brooklyn and Los Angeles Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully, as well it should. The smooth, soothing sound of his voice was baseball and the standard he established in the booth calling a sporting event is the standard by which sports broadcasting is measured.

Most of us never even met Vin Scully, but every single one of us knew him, as it was no accident that he was behind the microphone to tell us about the most memorable moments in baseball history, beginning with Jackie Robinson in 1947.

Many of us here were blessed to have known and be friends with the Hall of Fame broadcaster for the Baltimore Orioles and Colts, the late Chuck Thompson. He was a friend to all he met as Cumberland was one of his favorite places to be, having visited here so many times for any number of occasions.

Chuck was a man of kindness and honest respect and gratitude for the baseball fan, and those of us who were fortunate to listen to him every summer day and evening could hear that kindness and genuine goodness in his voice. We will continue to carry fond and heartfelt memories of the man who was the voice of baseball and the Baltimore Colts for millions of fans in Maryland for over half a century. We were blessed to know Chuck Thompson as our friend.

Another man who carried the same gifts and goodness for the baseball fan was Chuck’s predecessor in the Orioles booth, Hall of Fame broadcaster Ernie Harwell, who left Baltimore to become the forever voice of the Detroit Tigers. Everything Chuck meant to the fans of Maryland was everything Harwell was to the baseball fans of Michigan and around the country.

I know firsthand of the goodness of Ernie Harwell, for one of the biggest thrills of my life took place at Oriole Park at Camden Yards during the 1993 All-Star Game at what was then Baltimore’s brand new ballpark.

My press credentials for the two-day baseball festival stationed me in the auxiliary press box on the second level in left field. I wasn’t the mainstream media for this event, so I was just tremendously grateful to have been allowed to enter the ballpark to live a baseball fan’s dream. Little did I know.

Tuesday night prior to the game, I was sitting in my seat minding my own business when somebody tapped me on the shoulder. I had a mouthful of hot dog firmly in place and I nearly choked on it when I realized the somebody tapping me on the shoulder was Ernie Harwell.

“Hello,” he said, “I’m Ernie Harwell.”

Thinking on my feet, I managed to say through the hot dog, “Yes, sir. You certainly are.”

Brilliant.

He smiled the kindest smile I have ever seen and he extended his hand.

“Well, who are you?” he asked in that voice … that beautiful, rich resonating voice that we older baseball fans instantly recognize to be, like Vin Scully’s and like Chuck Thompson’s, the voice of summer and the voice of baseball.

“Mike Burke?”

“Great, Mike,” he said. “Where are you from?”

“Um … Cumberland, Maryland?”

“That’s wonderful!”

“Yes, sir.”

So there I was, sitting just two seats down from the great Hall of Famer Ernie Harwell, loved and respected by one and all, and there we were, just the two of us sitting in the auxiliary press box prior to the Major League Baseball All-Star Game. He was sitting in his seat peeling his apple with a pen knife. I was sitting in my seat with my mouth dropped wide open to my feet.

Okay, collect yourself. You can do this.

“So, Mr. Harwell …”

“Please, Mike,” the great Ernie Harwell said, looking at me from beneath his stylish beret that made him a comfortable fit for a street-side café in Paris. “I’m Ernie.”

He’s Ernie.

“Thank you, Mr. Harwell … So, what do you think of Camden Yards?”

More brilliance. Only this time, it really was.

“I spoke at a symposium this morning, and I said that Oriole Park will be the standard by which all ballparks are built in the future,” he said, looking away from his apple and directly into my eyes. “You see it already in the plans for the ballparks in Cleveland, Texas and Denver, and I hope when we get our new ballpark in Detroit it will be just like this one.

“It’s a wonderful ballpark — and it is a ballpark, not a stadium — and it’s a wonderful place to come to see the greatest game in the world.”

“I’ve never been to Tiger Stadium, but I’ll see it one day (I didn’t),” I said, feeling somewhat more comfortable. “Do you really want to see them replace it?”

“You really should get there soon,” he told me. “You’re obviously a baseball fan, so there’s no place like Tiger Stadium, but it’s well past time. It’s old, it leaks, there is no room in the concourse the way there is here and the fans don’t have nearly the room in their seats as they should. Its time has just passed. Time doesn’t wait for any of us, Mike. I have a special place in my heart for Memorial Stadium, too, you know, but you are very lucky to have this beautiful ballpark here in the downtown. Enjoy it every day that you can.”

“I love this place,” I remember saying, “but I already miss Memorial Stadium. I grew up there.”

“Remember,” the great Ernie Harwell told me before biting into this apple, “it’s not the building that brings the memories. It’s the people and what happens in the building that you hold dear for the rest of your life.”

Twenty-nine years later, I remember. And I hold it dear.

Mike Burke writes about sports and other stuff for Allegany Communications. He began covering sports for the Prince George’s Sentinel in 1981 and joined the Cumberland Times-News sports staff in 1984, serving as sports editor for over 30 years. Contact him at [email protected] and [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeBurkeMDT