When Harwell passed, it was indeed a sad day, but in many ways, a day many knew was coming. While Harwell had been retired for nearly a decade, he remained a part of the Tigers community. He found himself at games from time to time, occasionally joining the broadcast team for an inning or two. He also did public service announcements in the metro Detroit area, and even ran a blog about healthy living for Blue Cross Blue Shield.
When he was diagnosed with terminal bile duct cancer in the fall of 2009, he made his way to Comerica Park and gave one last heartfelt goodbye. (If you're interested in watching the video, the YouTube link is available here).
With Sparky however, he was a character, who we got to know well during the season. And in the off-season, he would jettison to his home in California, and would emerge again the following February in Lakeland.
When he retired after the 1995 season, he mostly disappeared. He returned to Detroit in 2000 for a day when the club honored him for his Hall of Fame induction, and again in 2006 to throw out the first pitch of game two of the World Series. He also returned in 2009 for the 25th anniversary of the great 1984 club that he led. Beyond that, Sparky became a figure in Tigers' fans memories, but no longer in the present.
However, whether or not he remained an integral part of the organization over the last 15 years, he'll always be an integral part of Tigers' history. He was the last man to help deliver a world championship to the organization 26 years ago, he won over 1,300 games in his 17 years leading the Tigers, and led them through the good times and bad.
For those that covered the team at the time, he was an engaging personality that was always entertaining to cover. I unfortunately was too young to ever get the opportunity to interact with him, with Sparky retiring almost a full decade before I began covering the team and the organization as more than a fan in 2004. So, I have no stories to recant from his managing days, and because he wasn't around much after he retired, there was no opportunity to get to know him.
But I'll remember the games, the highlights, and the stories. I'll remember thinking his bright white hair made me think he'd be good friends with my grandfather, even though he was only 61 in his last year of managing. I always picture him in one of those old-school, nylon Tigers jackets that were the style in the early 90's, before Starter jackets became the thing.
But what I might remember the most are the eccentric comments that would come out of his mouth. His rants yelling about the f!@#$%^ writers, saying the word Cincinnati in an accent that I could never truly identify, or the defiant comments he'd make about the players job being to play and shut their mouth.
In reviewing many of his famous quotes this afternoon, one quote truly stuck out to me.
"I cannot get rid of the hurt from losing, but after the last out of every loss, I must accept that there will be a tomorrow. In fact, it's more than there'll be a tomorrow, it's that I want there to be a tomorrow. That's the big difference, I want tomorrow to come."
It was that approach, that attitude, that helped me, and I'm sure many Tigers fans make it through many, many seasons of losing and more losing. The game today may hurt, but there's always a game tomorrow.
For Sparky, there is no more tomorrow, at least not with us. But the memories Sparky helped produce will last Tigers fans a lifetime, and so will the lessons he taught us.
The Tigers family lost another treasure on Thursday. He may not have gone out with a tearful goodbye to a packed house of fans like Ernie did, but we'll miss him all the same.