Ernie’s “Turtle Time”: Memories of spring training with the Tigers

A group of Tiger players run during spring training in Lakeland in this photo from 1998.

And, lo, the voice of the turtle is heard in the land.

I don’t really know what that Bible verse means — I’ve never heard a turtle speak. But that’s what Ernie Harwell would say each spring at the start of his first broadcast of the season from Florida.

Pitchers and catchers report this week. No other calendar date holds so much hope for baseball fans. After what now passes for winter, we can wake up from our hibernation. The boys of spring are tossing the ball around.

I don’t know if it’s still quite as carefree now, but when I visited Lakeland in the early 1980s as a freelance writer with my friends Jerry Lemenu, a freelance artist, and Carl Bidleman, a freelance photographer, our hopes pretty much were realized: spring training was a blast.

With just a little effort on our part, interviewing Tiger players was not difficult. In Lakeland, the fans weren’t separated from the talent with nearly the same rigor as in the rest of the season. The distance between us and them was much smaller.

That is, of course, unless you were a player who liked to keep his distance. I recall seeing Kirk Gibson walk off the field and right past a line of fans, mostly kids, asking for his autograph — and he refused to even acknowledge them.

One of the years we went down to Lakeland, however, Gibson was sharing a condo outside town with Dave Rozema. Much to Gibby’s chagrin, the happy-go-lucky Rozema invited all three of us out to their place one evening for barbeque and drinks.

I rode out there as a passenger in Rozema’s car. It was the most alarming car ride I’ve ever taken. True to his legendary persona, Rozema displayed the attention span of a five-year old behind the wheel. Any pedestrian we passed caused his head to swivel. Well, no one ever accused the talented young pitcher of excessive maturity. (I once saw him injure himself by trying a ridiculous martial-arts-style kick on an opposing player who charged the mound at Tiger Stadium one testy afternoon.]

I still have a picture posted on the wall of my apartment of me interviewing Mark Fidrych outside the Lakeland clubhouse. Those were good times. Nobody fit the general milieu of spring training — its sleepy, playful tone of an innocent game without pressure — than the Bird and Rozie.

But my very best spring training memory was the time at ramshackle old McKechnie Field in Bradenton when Ernie Harwell, who was not broadcasting the game that day, invited me to sit next to him in the cramped radio booth, and we watched the Tigers-Pirates game together and swapped stories. I told him about the time I honored Germany Schaefer in a softball game by getting a hit and then running the bases backwards in a clownish attempt to underline the fact that a 33-4 score was already a travesty. (I’d first learned about Schaefer during a Tiger broadcast by listening to Harwell recounting how he’d steal second base, then first base on the next pitch, spawning the rule against running bases in reverse order.)

Ernie laughed and seemed to enjoy my story immensely, which made me glow all over. If I were a turtle, I would have made my voice heard loudly all over the verdant, unpretentious land of spring training.

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