A columnist learns from his wife that the death of Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus strikes close to home.
Pardon me, but I must write these words while wiping away my wife’s tears. She just came home. She just found out that the voice of her youth, Mariners Hall of Fame broadcaster Dave Niehaus, died of a heart attack. She just hugged me and saturated the part of my shirt that covers my heart.
“Dave Niehaus is like Disneyland,” she just said. “It’s safe, and it’s happy because it’s always the same. Very few things are constant in life.”
Niehaus was a constant. He has been the Mariners’ voice for their entirety, from Diego Segui’s first pitch in the franchise’s inaugural game in 1977 to Ichiro’s fly out to end the miserable 2010 season. He has been there — for you — longer than “we’ve lived so far,” my wife just said.
Before I moved here four years ago, I explained to a friend the reasons I was excited about this new job. When I listed the Mariners, he joked that it should be hard to garner any enthusiasm about following a club whose most beloved employee is an announcer.
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“Dave Niehaus is good,” he said. “But he can’t be the jewel of your team. That tells you the Mariners have very little history.”
We argued about it for a while. Since I’ve been here, I’ve heard variations of that joke many more times. When Niehaus became the first Mariner honored by the Hall of Fame two years ago, the snide remarks resurfaced. He’s the best thing the Mariners have? Hahaha! What a terrible franchise.
But those fools never fully understood that they were diminishing an icon for cheap humor.
If the Mariners were a storied ballclub with multiple championships, Dave Niehaus would still be the jewel of the franchise. In fact, if you put more team success with his voice and his storytelling and his enthusiastic style, Niehaus’ legend would’ve grown larger than it already is.
Instead, he achieved something greater. He made the Mariners real the hard way. He made you care about them, even though it took the Mariners 15 seasons to post a winning record, even though they’ve been to the playoffs four times in 34 seasons. He was that special, that personable, that likable.
“He is Mariners baseball,” a grieving Ken Griffey Jr. declared during a 710 ESPN Seattle radio interview Wednesday night. “Everybody talks about all the players. We can’t hold a candle to that man.”
Griffey went on to say of Niehaus, “He’s one of the greatest men I’ve ever met and had the privilege of knowing.”
I can’t stifle my wife’s tears.
“I totally feel like childhood is over now,” she just said.
Pardon me, but I must write these words while thinking of my own family. It’s hard to work like this because, as journalists, we thrive on detachment. There’s no story we haven’t told, no tragedy we haven’t planned for, no sacred cow we haven’t milked. Then something like this happens, and we learn that even detachment comes unfastened.
Niehaus was a family member to Mariners fans. He was a family member to anyone he encountered, really. I remember meeting him in the Mariners’ clubhouse at Safeco Field four years ago. He introduced himself, and there’s nothing weirder than having the Dave Niehaus extend his hand and say, “Hi, I’m Dave Niehaus. Welcome to Seattle.”
“I can’t work here if I don’t know who you are,” I told him.
He brushed off the admiration, and the next thing you know, I was cool enough with the Dave Niehaus to joke with him, sometimes at his expense. Never has someone so important, with such a strong voice, yielded to humility so instinctively. Niehaus was a good man whose heart was always where it should be, and that’s why listeners loved him.
“I don’t know why I’m crying like this over someone I never met,” my wife just said.
If you didn’t meet him, you still knew him.
You lived Mariners baseball through him. He started talking about the M’s as a 41-year-old who had already accomplished much in broadcasting, including calling UCLA games featuring John Wooden, the most revered coach of all time. Niehaus kept you connected with the Mariners when there was little to love, and then he made you cry in 1995 when Edgar Martinez doubled in Junior.
In his later years, you kept listening, even as he lost some of his suave. The 75-year-old couldn’t judge fly balls as well anymore. Sometimes, it took him a while to get a call right. Still, as the Mariners have struggled for most of a decade, Niehaus kept you intrigued.
“When we suck, it won’t be the same,” my wife just said. “We suck now, but we suck in a different way. It’s, like, manufactured sucking. Back then it was, like, fatalistic sucking. The Mariners were kind of lovable losers. No expectations. They didn’t know what they were doing, but Dave Niehaus did.”
My, oh, my, he did. Baseball in this city will never be the same.
Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer