erik lundegaard

Friday February 22, 2008

My Oh My!

One of my favorite people I don't know personally, Dave Niehaus, the voice of the Seattle Mariners since 1977, was elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame earlier this week. About effin' time, I say. He's real baseball. He's given me more moments of pure joy than most people I do know personally. Fans in the Pacific Northwest know what I'm talking about. Below is an article I wrote about him in 1996. It's partly nostalgic — Kingdome, Junior's 199th career homerun — but most of it is still true:


Between the second and third decks of the Kingdome, up a flight of stairs from the press box and surrounded on all sides by luxury suites, sits a narrow, blue-carpeted, three-tiered room. Because each tier holds a thin table equipped with headphones and swivel chairs, the room is reminiscent of a tiny lecture hall. Except no students are present, while the would-be professor sits at the bottom tier with his back to the room, looking out over the artificial green of the Kingdome's vast interior. He wears headphones and talks into a microphone held in place by duct tape.

“It's been a wild, woolly, Pier 6 brawl, and the bullies so far have been the Kansas City Royals,” he bellows.

It is from this enclave, in these unassuming surroundings, that Dave Niehaus makes Mariners baseball come alive for 400,000 radio listeners.

“He's the best broadcaster in baseball,” Rick Rizzs, Niehaus' broadcast partner for 10 of the last 13 years, mentions before gametime. “He can set the scene, he can bring you in, he can make you feel it, smell it, touch it, and be a part of it.”

Tony Ventrella of KIRO-TV concurs. “He's got such great knowledge and — the thing is — stories. He's got a story attached to everything. And he's a great storyteller. Some people know the stories, but they don't tell them as well.”

In conversation it doesn't take long for Niehaus to reveal these talents, whether he's talking about Gaylord Perry's 300th win or his preference for outdoor baseball.

“You go to Fenway Park in Boston — which is my favorite park by far and it was built in 1912 — and you can smell it, you can smell the baseball. You look at the ladder that comes down The Monster, you look at the Yawkey's names written in Morse Code right by the ladder, you look at that seat 502 feet away in right field where Ted Williams hit the homerun off Freddie Hutchinson. There's so many things there for a baseball nut like I am.”

On the air Niehaus often recounts his childhood in Princeton, Indiana: sitting on the porch, sipping lemonade, catching fireflies and listening to Harry Caray broadcast St. Louis Cardinals games. Yet as a child he never thought of becoming an announcer. “Subliminally maybe,” he says, “[but] I was going to go to dental school. And then I woke up one morning in college and said 'I can't stare down somebody's throat at nine o'clock in the morning the rest of my life,' and I wandered by the radio and television school there and changed my major.”

He worked for the Armed Forces radio network, broadcasting baseball and basketball and hockey. From 1969 to 1976, along with Dick Enberg and Don Drysdale, he was the voice of the California Angels. Then came an offer from a nascent Seattle organization, and Niehaus was on hand to help launch The Good Ship Mariner on April 6, 1977; it almost sank off the dock.

“Frank Tanana shut us out,” he recalls, “and Nolan Ryan shut us out the next night. I was beginning to wonder a) whether we would ever score a run, and b) whether we'd ever win a ballgame.”

It wasn't until 1991 that the Mariners even finished above .500 for the season. Meanwhile, Niehaus, his reputation growing, was getting offers from bigger markets with outdoor stadiums, but he didn't budge. He liked the Pacific Northwest. And he wanted to be here when Seattle baseball turned around.

Last year he got his wish.

The story is familiar by now. Thirteen games back in August. One exciting come-from-behind victory after another in September. The one-game playoff with California to clinch the A.L. West title. Losing two games in New York and then coming back to the Kingdome to win three in a row. It was some of the most exciting baseball people had ever seen, and much of it was imprinted with Niehaus' voice: the smooth, low tones that tend toward capital letters when the action heats up:

“And Junior right down on the knob of the bat, waving that black beauty right out toward Pavlik; has it cocked and Pavlik is set. The pitch on the way to Ken Griffey Jr. and it's SWUNG ON AND BELTED! DEEP TO RIGHT FIELD! GET OUT THE RYE BREAD GRANDMA, IT’S GRAND SALAMI TIME! I DON'T BELIEVE IT! ONE SWING OF THE BAT, THE FIRST PITCH, AND KEN GRIFFEY JR. HAS GIVEN THE MARINERS A 6-2 LEAD OVER THE TEXAS RANGERS. MY OH MY!”

This mixture of adult professionalism and youthful enthusiasm has helped turn Niehaus into a local icon. He is so popular that in Seattle's first ever post-season game, he — not the Mayor, not the Governor — but he threw out the first pitch. He is so identified with the Mariners that in the book A Magic Season: The Year the Mariners Made Seattle a Baseball Town, his profile is included among the players. Fans leaving exciting games wonder how excited Niehaus must have been during this or that homerun, or this or that astounding catch. Some don't have to wonder; they bring their radios with them.“He's a fan of the game,” says Mark Bitton of Aberdene. “He's not just being a broadcaster. You can hear it in his voice. He's excited about it, too.”

“I brought the radio because I came with my son and his four friends,” Peter Maier of Seattle mentions, gesturing to several boys roaming the third deck aisles while the Mariners fritter away another lead. “So Niehaus is my adult friend.”

Almost directly below Maier, in the broadcast booth, Niehaus holds nothing back. “This is an ugly, sloppy ballgame,” he tells his listeners. He confers with producer Kevin Cremin. Both keep score. Cremin hands him notes, advertisements, and Niehaus smoothly segues into them between pitches. His observations are quick, his word choices evocative. Speedy Tom Goodwin hits a “soft, little dunker” that he turns into a two-base hit when Buhner merely “lopes in on the ball.” He finds humor in the Kansas City catcher involved in a hit-and-run: “Big Sal Fasano was just lumbering down the line toward second.” Between innings he shows off the sealed envelope in which Ken Griffey Jr. has predicted the day he will hit his 200th homerun. “Knowing Junior's sense of humor I'll probably open it up and it'll say 'Today',” Niehaus laughs.

An inning later, Junior hits number 199; but the game is lost, part of a disappointing homestand for the M's. Niehaus, however, is as philosophic about such losses any veteran player.

“I've done well over three thousand games — and that's just for Seattle — and I've never seen two games alike. Of course you want the club that you work for to win. But I just enjoy the aesthetics of the game, the artistry of baseball. I look at one game like it is: 1/162 of a season.

”There are times when you get in an eight or nine game losing streak and you think 'Will this ever end?' It will. Sometimes it doesn't seem like it, but it will.“

Sure enough, the next night the M's pitching settles down, the big bats come out, and Dave Niehaus' voice rises as quickly as the trajectory of Paul Sorrento's latest homerun:

”The pitch to Sorrento BELTED! DEEP TO RIGHT FIELD! UPPER DECK TIIIIIME, YES! A two-run homerun by Paul Sorrento and the Mariners are up 7-0! Fly Away!"

Posted at 07:59 AM on Friday February 22, 2008 in category Baseball  
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