(I wrote this essay originally ten years ago today, the day after the passing of the Mariners' Hall-of-Fame radio announcer Dave Niehaus. It's published here unedited from the original. We miss you, Dave... )
Fifteen years ago Dave Niehaus narrated the greatest summer of my life.
When the 1995 season began, the Mariners were still bad; not in the sense of the product on the field, but in terms of their standing in the community. They might provide some good moments during the season, they had several exciting and supremely talented players (Junior, Edgar, and a late-season call-up at SS named Alex Rodriguez), the most intimidating pitcher in the game in Randy Johnson, a fiery and already near-legendary manager in Lou Piniella; but still we assumed somewhere inside that they would just play another season like the last several: compete into July, and fade toward the end. This was natural for us: Seattle was a football town all the way, and when the weather started to turn, we stopped caring (those few of us who cared at all) about the Mariners. To care about the Mariners was to care about something that had never once provided a return on your emotional investment. To attend a game was to give up a precious slice of the only 3 (in a good year) months of great weather in Seattle to sit in the highly functional but(t) ugly, cold, and emotionless Kingdome. The Mariners were a temporary distraction during your evening commute, something to fill up a few columns in the sports pages for your morning coffee. They amused older folks who had childhood connections to "real" Major League teams; they were not a real team themselves.
To have a connection to the Mariners required some particular circumstances in life: maybe you were devoted to the game itself, something that can only be learned from a parent or parental figure. I wasn't: I was devoted to the Seattle Mariners, and it was because of a life lived with a grandfather I never met, and whose face I didn't see until probably 1995 itself: Dave Niehaus.
When I was 6 or 7, after my parents split up, my mother moved us from Olympia, Washington, to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was determined that I would spend summers with my father in Olympia, so at the end of every school year I would travel 1500 miles to spend 2 months living with my dad, away from my friends. I tried to play baseball in Santa Fe once, but practices start right before the end of the school year, and I left before the games began. I couldn't play in Olympia because the teams were already set by the time I arrived. My father lived in a rural area, and there were very few boys my age around who might try to bring me onto their teams.
With no responsibilities to any sports leagues or summer programs, I would usually go with my dad on his road-trips for the Department of Natural Resources around the hinterlands of Washington State (Othello, Colville, Twisp). Countless hours of riding in state pickups across vast expanses of nothing were made bearable, and even enjoyable, listening to Dave Niehaus call Mariner games. The team was often terrible, and this was Dave's time: his stories of Armed Forces Radio in the '50s, Gene Autry (the Cowboy, owner of the Angels), the great ballplayers he'd seen and known for decades, sometimes pieces of American history (his only known interest beyond his family and baseball... he hated golf); these were woven into the tapestry of a game and a season, connecting that moment on a dark highway in silence, sitting next to my dad, to a story of baseball, America, and humanity itself.
I became adept at "riding" the analog radio dial while my dad drove, milking every last second out of the weak, scratchy signal so we could piece together the plays we missed. Spike Owen, Alvin Davis, Gaylord Perry, Glenn Abbott: These men loomed large in my psyche, and all the information began with Dave's voice, and existed in my mind as described by him. Though I would become a huge Sonics fan after we returned to live in Bellevue in the mid-'80s, when they were winning a championship I was with my mom in the Southwest, so they didn't have the early-childhood-hero status of the boys of summer. Listening to games with my dad, and attending one or two games in Seattle, were the highlights of every summer from '77 to '84.
When I returned to the Northwest, we moved in with my mom's parents, and I became very close to my grandfather. We watched games together in his living room, and attended games at the Kingdome. My grandfather was a Detroit Tigers fan in the '30s, and would expand and expound on Dave’s history lessons. He was in San Diego in the ‘40s, in the Navy, and remembered Dave from Armed Forces Radio. Though he was a Seahawk season-ticket holder, he was a baseball fan first and foremost, and my connection to the Mariners combined with his history as a fan forged another strong union around the broadcasting of Dave Niehaus.
… and then in 1995, the Mariners caught lightning in a bottle. On August 2nd we were 13 games out of first place, behind the hated Angels (for whom Dave had worked prior to being hired by Danny Kaye to call M’s games). Two months later, while my friend Jason Stotler and I sat in the first row behind home plate, Luis Sojo hit an inside-the-park grand-slam Single (aided by 2 Angels Errors) to win a 1-game playoff over the Angels, and send the Mariners to their first post-season. The 8 weeks in between were the most intense, thrilling, and sustained sports experience of my life, transcending “regular” fans to encompass an entire community: businesses closed early for weekday matinee games; cars stuck in traffic cranked their radios for pedestrians nearby; every cultural event in town had a radio on somewhere. As the summer wore on and the astonishing streak of comeback wins continued, the crowds gathered in the kitchen, the lobby, and around the parking booth to listen to Dave Niehaus’ soaring, triumphant celebration of that gloriously improbable team started to outgrow the number of people paying attention to whatever “official” gathering they were attending. One night I was supposed to meet all my friends at the Sit-n-Spin on 4th for a live-reading night (aka beer-and-bullshit session), around 9:30. Home games started at 7, so I figured I’d head down a bit late once the game ended. Around 10:45 I got a call from Jason, asking if I was coming down. “Are you kidding? We are in the 13th inning!” He laughed and told me everyone was in the kitchen of the restaurant listening to the game on a transistor while the performances went on in the main room. That was the Summer of ’95: Everywhere you went in Seattle, Washington, and the Pacific Northwest, Dave Niehaus was keeping your friends, family, and community connected through and to the exploits of the greatest team I’ve ever known.
From that moment through 2001, the Mariners were important in baseball, and Dave Niehaus rose to that task. No backwater play-by-play man of a forgettable team, he assumed the mantle of serious baseball with dignity, gravitas, and responsibility. We were legitimate contenders, and poor play or questionable strategy was not going to slide on his watch. He was always optimistic, but knew that the greatest prize would elude any who took for granted their opportunity to compete for it. He knew the baseball was for the players to play and the management to plan, but as Fan #1 ⎯ our willing, unelected, but unanimous representative ⎯ he demanded accountability wherever he could. He welcomed with delightful enthusiasm the Japanese influence on our team, especially the otherworldly Ichiro. He mourned the losses of Junior and Rodriguez, but knew the realities of the business, and gave a fair shot to every new acquisition, as if to say: “Management thinks you can play, so go out there and show us, son.” If you did, he was on your side; if you didn’t, he wanted to know why.
Then the Mariners were bad again, and aside from the brief Junior revival of ’09, have remained (and likely will for awhile) a bad baseball team. The Products of ’95 (as I would derisively call those fair-weather fans) dropped away, wondering what ever happened to Joey Cora and Dan Wilson. The rest of us settled back in to a familiar rhythm (myself from Los Angeles now, where Dave helped connect me to my hometown). This was not difficult for me; to the contrary, Dave Niehaus calling Mariner losses was like the comfort of a childhood blanket. After my grandfather passed away, he was with me every time I watched a game or listened to the radio broadcast. I felt my relationship with my grandfather in the relationship between Dave and Mike Blowers. They clearly enjoyed each others’ company. Dave’s respect for Blowers as a player, particularly his defensive play at 3rd, obviously meant the world to Mike. When Dave started to make a few more mistakes, Mike’s instinctive ability to gently correct him felt very much like me helping my grandfather out of a fishing boat in his 80s: The details might not look as good as they once did, but the relationship is what mattered.
That was how Dave Niehaus elevated a baseball broadcast from a sports contest to a mythology of our lives: remembering the relationships that had so enriched his life. I never was a huge fan of Ron Fairly as a broadcaster, but Dave had known him and loved him forever. I believe (though I know some disagree) that Rick Rizzs can carry on that tradition, but I know he knows it won’t be the same; just as my memories of my grandfather won’t be the same to my children. We must endeavor to make our own memories, to impart that respect for life and people, to hope our efforts might reach a young boy or girl, and mean as much to them as my grandfather did to me, and Dave Niehaus did to countless Mariner fans for 33 years.
I think I’ll go call my dad…
- Jacob Sidney Dietzman, 11 November 2010