White Sox

Harwell Gone, but not Forgotten

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Harwell Gone, but not Forgotten

Wednesday, May 5, 2010
3:16 PM

By Chuck GarfienCSNChicago.com

I knew he was sick. I was aware his time was short. And yet, it still came as a shock when a producer uttered the words in the newsroom last night.

Ernie Harwell died.

Of the many words in the English language, those are three that will always cause a lump in my throat.

I didnt know Ernie well. But then again, what made the longtime Detroit Tigers announcer so special was that everyone felt like they knew him. For 42 years, his gentle, syrupy voice with that smooth Georgia accent filled the state of Michigan with a baseball soundtrack that told the story of the Detroit Tigers.

During that time, his stories could become a part of your own story, thanks to a voice that left such an impression, it would travel deep into your memory bank and never leave, reminding you of life moments -- both big and small -- and the sound of Ernie in the background.

My introduction to him came when I arrived in Traverse City, Mich., for my very first sportscasting job. I went to this remote spot in Northern Michigan not knowing anyone. But I did know baseball. And very soon I became quite acquainted with this fellow coming out the speakers of my car radio making this below-average baseball team sound like they were dancing the Nutcracker.

His style had a presence and grace to it that was the complete opposite of the two men I grew up listening to in Chicago, Jack Brickhouse and Harry Caray. If these three legends ever formed a rock band, Jack and Harry would be at the front of the stage singing vocals and lead guitar, Ernie would be in the background playing bass.

And doing so with a smile as wide as Michigan. Besides the voice, thats what you remember about Ernie. The smile. It was always there.

As I drove from town to town, covering stories in distant parts, Ernie was always there too, talking about bad Detroit Tigers baseball, but acting as a companion on long, lonely trips through the darkest roads of Northern Michigan.

If I visited there today, something tells me I could still hear his words echoing off the trees.

After working in Traverse City for 18 months, I returned to Michigan six years later for a job in Detroit, where I would get to meet the man who I used to travel with so much.

He often wore a baseball cap or beret and liked to bury both his hands in his back pockets as if he was digging for arcade tokens.

The kid in him never left.

And while my job at the ballpark was to cover Tigers players like Bobby Higginson, Tony Clark and Jeff Weaver, whenever Ernie would come around, I always just wanted to follow him.

He was usually the more intriguing story.

One day I asked him if he would sit down with me for an interview. At first, the ever-humble Ernie said something like, It must be a slow news day. But he politely agreed to chat about his career and told stories that he had recounted for years, but delivered them as if they had just happened the night before. Not because the camera was on, but because Ernie truly cherished all of the fortune that occurred in his life, and enjoyed sharing it with others.

One of my favorite Ernie stories is how he got his first job as a sportswriter for the Sporting News in 1934. Living in Atlanta, he wrote a letter to the editor saying that the newspaper didnt have a good correspondent covering the Atlanta Crackers, Ernies hometown baseball team. He felt like he could do a better job.

The editor asked Ernie to mail him some of his work and if it was good enough, hed be hired. Sure enough, Ernie passed the test, and was offered the job. However, Ernie neglected to share one important piece of information.

He was still in high school.

In 1943, Harwell became the play-by-play announcer for the Crackers. How rare was he? Five years later, he would be traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers for catcher Cliff Dapper, becoming the only announcer in the history of the game traded for an actual player.

Ernie later called games for the New York Giants and Baltimore Orioles before coming to Detroit, where he broadcast Tigers games for 42 years.

Along the way he would be known for many catchphrases.

When a visiting player would be called out on strikes, Ernie would say, He stood there like the house by the side of the road and watched it go by.

When a patron would catch a foul ball in the stands, youd hear, A fan from Ypsilanti will be taking that ball home today.

But my all-time favorite was Ernies home run call.

That one is lonnnnnnnng gone!

And now, Ernie is too.

Gone, but never forgotten.

Chuck Garfien hosts White Sox Pregame and Postgame Live on Comcast SportsNet with former Sox slugger Bill Melton. Follow Chuck @ChuckGarfien on Twitter for up-to-the-minute Sox news and views.

James Shields, Joakim Soria and some other potential midseason trade candidates for the White Sox

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USA TODAY

James Shields, Joakim Soria and some other potential midseason trade candidates for the White Sox

Another day, another quality start for James Shields.

The White Sox once more didn’t win a Shields start. Despite an increasingly good-looking season stat line, Shields can’t seem to rack up many wins, with just two to his name on the season. But of course, wins are not exactly the most important barometer in this rebuilding campaign.

Speaking of the rebuild, the White Sox are getting closer to the trade deadline, it’s about a month and a half away. And Shields’ continued success could have Rick Hahn’s phone ringing as July 31 creeps closer. After six innings and three runs in Sunday’s loss to the visiting Detroit Tigers, Shields has seven quality starts in his last 10 outings,

After last season’s struggles that ended in a 5.23 ERA and 27 home runs surrendered, getting anything for Shields might’ve seemed a bit of a fantasy. But Shields has delivered, especially since the end of a rocky April.

“It’s very important to try to eat as many innings as you possibly can,” Shields said of his consistent efforts of late. “Early on in the season, we were ruining our bullpen by not going deep into games. My main focus is to go as deep as I possibly can. … Consistency’s the name of the game.”

Does it make him one of the most attractive names on the market? No, probably not. Is it going to fetch a highly ranked prospect? No, probably not. But it might fetch something, and in a season where guys believed to be afterthoughts like Dylan Covey and Daniel Palka are working their way into the conversation about the White Sox future, who wouldn’t want something added to this rebuilding effort?

And Shields isn’t the only White Sox player who could bring something back.

The bullpen was stocked with potential sign-and-flip guys over the offseason, and a few of those veteran arms have had good runs that could earn them a similar fate to the bulk of last year’s relief corps. Anthony Swarzak, Tommy Kahnle, David Robertson, Dan Jennings and Tyler Clippard were all dealt away last summer. Could Hahn employ a similar strategy this season?

The bullpen hasn’t been quite as good as it was last year, which made all of those players attractive additions for contending teams around the league. But veterans like Joakim Soria, Luis Avilan, Bruce Rondon, Xavier Cedeno — guys who hoped to rediscover some old magic — could still draw interest.

Soria owns a 3.12 ERA. Avilan’s is at 3.10. Cedeno hasn’t given up a run in his six relief appearances. Rondon has shown blow-em-away stuff at times. It’s been a nice recovery for some of these sign-and-flip veterans.

“They’ve had an opportunity to get their chances to work on different things and become really effective performers,” manager Rick Renteria said of some of his veteran relievers prior to Sunday’s game. “I think Joakim has risen his level of game back what he was pre last couple years, I think he’s reinvented himself a little bit. He has an up-down breaking ball now, he’s continuing to attack the strike zone, he’s throwing 93 miles an hour with his fastball, he’s commanding the zone. He’s doing everything he can to be as good a closer as he was in the past. His history and his experience also allow him some confidence to be put in situations to close out ballgames.”

Soria could perhaps draw the most interest because closers are often in demand in July. But last year’s trade-a-thon showed that teams are willing to trade prospects away for relief help of any kind. Many of the return pieces in those deals might not get rebuild-loving prospect followers thrilled. Casey Gillaspie and Ryan Cordell haven’t exactly put their names at the forefront of the discussion about 2020 and beyond. But remember that Blake Rutherford came over in the deal that sent Robertson and Kahnle out of town (Todd Frazier went to the New York Yankees in that trade, too). So an acquisition that could improve the rebuild can most definitely happen, even with middle relievers.

There’s no guarantee that any of these guys, be it Shields in the rotation or any of the arms out in the bullpen, will get traded or even draw significant interest. But for a team in the White Sox position, you’d have to assume they’d be open to making a deal and getting something to add to this rebuilding process.

Eloy Jimenez reminds Frank Thomas of Vlad Guerrero, and more rebuild thoughts from the Big Hurt

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AP

Eloy Jimenez reminds Frank Thomas of Vlad Guerrero, and more rebuild thoughts from the Big Hurt

Here’s a comp that’ll get White Sox fans really excited. It’s a Hall of Famer saying that the organization’s top-ranked prospect reminds him of another Hall of Famer.

“The kid Eloy (Jimenez), I’ve really watched him a lot. He’s a tremendous (player),” Frank Thomas said. “He reminds me of a young Vlad (Guerrero) that can cover the whole zone and use the whole field. I’m interested in seeing how he progresses.”

Eloy a young Vladdy, eh?

Don’t tell actual young Vladdy that — Vladimir Guerrero Jr. is ranked one spot ahead of Jimenez on MLB Pipeline’s list of the best prospects in baseball — but that’s one heck of a comp for a player that White Sox fans are already immeasurably excited about.

Thomas was back on the South Side on Sunday to join Hawk Harrelson in the broadcast booth for the latter’s sendoff season. He spoke a lot about what Harrelson meant to him and the White Sox, but he also answered questions about the team’s ongoing rebuild. Thomas has kept a close eye both in his roles as an analyst for FOX and someone who will always be invested in this team.

“It’s Chicago, and we’re used to winning,” Thomas said when he was asked if the White Sox needed to undergo such a process. “You normally get away with this in a smaller market, but you’ve got to understand they’ve taken their time with it. They wasted a lot of money for a five-year period trying to continue to be successful the way we were in the past and it wasn’t working.

“The game has changed. The game has totally changed. It’s a different ballgame now. It’s all about the youth. … The hardest part they’re going to have, though, is figuring out who’s going to be here and who’s not going to be here because over the next couple years they’ve got so many young talented players in Double-A and Triple-A that someone could actually force some of these guys out. It’s going to be a hard decision what they’re going to have to do.”

That’s the good problem Rick Hahn and his front office would like to have.

While fan buy-in to the rebuilding effort has been tremendous, there are some who will continue to question the willing suffering through losing seasons at the major league level while the contending team of the future develops in the minor leagues. But if you look at the teams that have won and played in the World Series in recent seasons — and even seasons long past — the process almost seems mandatory if you want to reach that level.

“It is,” Thomas said. “I’ve watched it firsthand. I first saw it with Cleveland when I was playing. Cleveland did it. Then you saw the Royals do it. You saw Houston do it, and they’re tearing it up with that youth. There’s been some other teams that have had a lot of success with it, too. I think Billy Beane has been great with it in Oakland for many, many years. They just haven’t had the luxury of keeping it together and going for the World Series, but he continues to create young superstars and basically trading them off for whatever the organization needs.”

Thomas, the greatest hitter in White Sox history, was also asked about the greatest hitter on the White Sox right now, Jose Abreu. Abreu’s future is the topic of much conversation surrounding this team, what with his contract running out at the end of the 2019 season, just when the White Sox hope to be fielding a perennial contender.

Abreu has been remarkably consistent — and one of just three players ever to hit at least 25 homers and drive in at least 100 runs in each of his first four seasons — but Thomas thinks there’s a side of Abreu we still have yet to see.

“I just don’t think we’ve seen the best of him,” Thomas said. “That’s because it’s a youth movement and the protection’s been up and down for him in that lineup. I’ve seen him be inconsistent at times, but I think he’s a much better player than that. But I understand when you’re not winning every day and it’s not as motivating because losing’s tough on everybody. But the guy’s an incredible player, an incredible hitter.

“I think the next couple of years we’ll see the best of him if he’s still here. I think this guy has a chance to be one of the great ones.”

With one last question about the modern-day White Sox, Thomas was asked about manager Rick Renteria, who he raved about. But with Renteria’s recent history with the Cubs, when he was replaced with Joe Maddon right before the North Siders started their phase of contention, he has yet to be the manager of a team with expectations. The plan is that he soon will be, and Thomas is interested to see what happens when that becomes the case.

“I think he’s done a hell of a job. I really like Ricky a lot,” Thomas said. “But who knows what they’re going to do in the future. When this team becomes what they think it’s going to be, either you get it done or you don’t. That’s just what it’s going to be. That’s the way Jerry’s handled it for many, many years.

“We’ve had some decisions that weren’t all happiness at times, but it’s about winning once they get their team here. I hope it’s Ricky because he’s done a hell of a rebuild job with the Cubs, he did a hell of a rebuild job here. It’s just time for him to get a good team out on the field and see what he really can do. I’m hoping he gets a chance of having a full team to put out there for 162 games and see what he can do.”