'Long gone,' but not soon forgotten

To those who love baseball, it is more than a game. F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called it "the faith of 50 million people," as Daniel Burke noted in a recent Religion News Service feature:

It follows a seasonal calendar -- begun this year on Easter Sunday -- and builds towards a crowning moment. Its players perform priestly rituals, its history abounds with tales of mythic heroes, and its fans study and argue arcana with the intensity of Talmudic scholars.

Sadly, baseball has lost one of its true saints: Ernie Harwell, the longtime voice of the Detroit Tigers.

Despite his love of the game, Harwell put his faith not in baseball, but in Jesus Christ. In his final months, Harwell, 92, made no secret of his strong Christian faith and his belief that God had a better home waiting for him. In an October 2009 video interview with Mitch Albom that accompanies this post, Harwell talked about his spring-training conversion at a 1961 Billy Graham Easter crusade in Bartow, Fla.:

"That's what made the big change. I surrendered my life completely, and now whatever he (God) wants suits me fine. ... It's a great blessing that he has given to me that in my final days, I can really know where I'm going, whose arms I'm going to end up in and what a great, great thing heaven will be."

As you'd expect, both Detroit newspapers devoted extensive space Wednesday to Harwell's death, with plenty of colorful baseball anecdotes and warm personal tributes.

But how'd they fare on the faith angle?

Well, the Detroit Free Press didn't exactly strike out. But the big part of the bat came nowhere close to the ball, either. Let's call it a weak infield fly.

Up high in its nearly 3,900-word main obituary, the Free Press references Harwell's faith:

"I'm ready to face what comes," he said at the time. "Whether it's a long time or a short time is all right with me because it's up to my Lord and savior."

In the ensuing months, in an emotional farewell ceremony at Comerica Park, in his columns for the Free Press and in interviews with national media, Harwell referred to death as his next great adventure, a gift handed down by God.

"I've had so many great ones," he said. "It's been a terrific life."

But that's it. The end. There's no mention of Harwell's conversion experience back in '61. No discussion of the role faith played in his life. The only other reference to God is this quote from his final broadcast in 2002:

He wrapped up the address and 55 years as a major league broadcaster by saying, "I thank you very much, and God bless all of you."

Interestingly enough, Harwell also said something else that day, but this didn't make the story:

"Now, God has a new adventure for me, and I'm ready to move on."

As part of its package on Harwell's death, the Free Press makes other quick references (in columns by Albom and Rochelle Riley) to Harwell's faith, but nothing substantial.

Meanwhile, let's be blunt and say that The Detroit News missed the religion angle altogether, as best I can tell. As Harwell would put it, "They stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched that one go by." Seriously, the News' main obituary has more than 1,700 words -- not a one of them "God," "Jesus," "Christian," "faith" or "heaven." We get tributes like this:

Upon learning of Harwell's death, Tigers owner Mike Ilitch said:

"Ernie Harwell was the most popular sports figure in the state of Michigan. He was so genuine in everything that he did -- from his legendary broadcasting to the way he treated the fans and everyone around him. He was truly a gentleman in every sense of the word. Ernie has a special place in the hearts of all Detroit Tigers' fans and the memories he created for so many of us will never be forgotten."

That's wonderful. But was there something inside of Harwell that made him such a gentleman? Was there a reason he was so genuine? Could it -- just possibly -- have something to do with his faith?

By contrast, I was pleased to see ESPN highlight Harwell's faith in a significant way.

In a video accompanying its obituary, ESPN notes that Harwell started each season by referencing a Bible verse -- a passage from Song of Solomon:

For, lo, the winter is past, The rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; The time of the singing of birds is come, And the voice of the turtle is heard in our land.

ESPN includes an AP quote from Harwell on his faith in "God and Jesus" and links to a December 2009 feature on how Harwell's spirituality provided peace as his friends and fans said goodbye. That feature ends this way:

"I have great faith that heaven's there and I'll see my brothers and my mom and dad when I get there," Harwell says. "I think it's better than here. I think God always has the best for us.

"I just have faith. It's just there. It's not any big deal."

No, it's a real big deal, an important part of who Harwell was. Coverage of his life -- and death -- should reflect that.

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