The Mariners played their first game at Safeco Field since the death of longtime broadcaster Dave Niehaus, and they honored him with an emotional tribute.

Share story

The most emotional opening night in Mariners history didn’t even see a first pitch until after the grandchildren of the late broadcasting legend Dave Niehaus shouted “Play ball!” with soul-tingling harmony.

By then, it was impossible to discern whether it was appropriate to watch a baseball game or roam Safeco Field and hug every person in the sellout crowd.

It was a kind of night that made you feel, well, human. And better. Better in general, but most specifically, better about missing Dave. Almost five months have passed since Niehaus died at age 75, but this was the first home game since his heart attack. This was the first time a crowd this big had gathered without him.

The event had to be special — sad, funny, joyous, the works — and it had to complement a game instead of serving as another memorial service. To their credit, the Mariners honored their friend with an amazingly dignified spectacle.

In a 13-minute pregame tribute, emotion blanketed the ballpark. When the video board showed Niehaus’ face for the first time, fans stood and applauded for more than a minute. Seattle rapper Macklemore performed his inspired “My Oh My” Niehaus tribute. Four men who know Niehaus well — Rick Rizzs, Kevin Cremin, Ron Fairly and Jay Buhner — unveiled a sign above the press box that features a microphone and reads “Dave Niehaus 1977-2010.”

And then Niehaus’ wife, Marilyn, threw out the first pitch, flanked by 11 family members. Mariners ace Felix Hernandez caught her toss and hugged the family. The woe-whipped Mariners have done plenty wrong in their history, but for 34 years, Niehaus was their singular source of consistent excellence, and on this night, the franchise celebrated him with tear-inducing pride.

Grown men wept, and young children paid attention. You could feel the good intentions in the air on an uncharacteristically beautiful April day in Seattle. In terms of emotion, Mariners president Chuck Armstrong could only compare it to the first game at Safeco Field after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks nearly 10 years ago.

“It might be the closest we’ve had since then,” Armstrong said, fighting back tears. “Where else can 45,000 people come to experience something like this together? That’s one of the wonderful things about baseball and professional sports.”

Armstrong’s mind then wandered to July 1999, to the opening of Safeco Field. The Mariners surprised Niehaus and told him to throw out the first pitch just minutes before.

“He broke down then,” Armstrong said. “He was so touched. But he was really the only choice.”

That’s Niehaus. He had an ego, like all great ones. But it never overpowered his humility. He knew he was a big deal because excellence requires confidence, but he couldn’t fathom how big. He was a normal guy, and for all the pageantry of this latest public tribute, his loved ones miss normal things about him the most.

Cremin, the producer/engineer for M’s radio broadcasts, had worked with Niehaus since 1983. He wishes he could see his friend enter the booth and throw down his score book right now. Niehaus had one of those huge, full-season score books, and he always announced his arrival by dropping the thing as if he’d just hauled bricks for half a mile.

“It was dramatic,” Cremin said, laughing. “I don’t know why, but he always did it.”

Before the game a portion of First Avenue South was renamed Dave Niehaus Way South. The city council declared April 8 ” ‘My Oh My’ Dave Niehaus Day.”

Marilyn was touched by this latest celebration, but she admitted the day was “bittersweet.” As wonderful as it was to see Niehaus’ catchphrase “MY OH MY” written in the infield dirt Friday night, it’s too bad that its inspiration wasn’t here to see it. This very public grieving is heartwarming for the Niehaus family, but it’s difficult, too. The reminders never cease. Still, on a night like this, there’s joy in knowing how many people the family’s patriarch touched.

“We were always proud of Dad,” son Andy Niehaus said. “We knew he was famous. But when he passed, the outpouring of love was overwhelming. We felt so much pride for his accomplishments. We look back on what he meant to the baseball community and fans, and it’s so much more than we even envisioned. To them, he was like family. Therefore, they became a part of ours.”

On Friday night, that large, diverse, complicated Seattle family gathered for one final tribute to a man with a voice that it never tuned out. And it was an incredible celebration, even if it preceded an awful game. In fact, it’s probably fitting that Niehaus outshined a terrible Mariners performance. He did that quite a bit over 34 years.

“It was amazing,” daughter Greta Niehaus Dunn said. “The amount of love from all of the people is so overwhelming. Our family is so floored. It makes us so proud that we were fortunate to have him as a dad. It’s so nice to see how many people he touched.”

She brushed her hand just beneath her left eye. Happy tears. On this night, you could’ve filled the Puget Sound with them.

Jerry Brewer: 206-464-2277 or jbrewer@seattletimes.com,Twitter: @Jerry_Brewer