The Voice, Dave Niehaus, has been silenced. But Mariners fans who spent the past 34 seasons listening to him will always remember his vivid descriptions of the games.
We honestly were beginning to believe he would go on forever, weren’t we? Mostly because we couldn’t — or didn’t want to — imagine a world without the voice.
Dave Niehaus has been silenced now, though the echoes of his calls will live on, joyously, in our mind’s ear, as well as in replays that will be dragged out and savored for perpetuity.
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“The Mariners are going to play for the American League championship! I don’t believe it! It just continues! My Oh My!”
Now we grapple to come to terms with this sudden, gaping hole in our lives. It’s a reality that won’t hit home completely, I suspect, until the first spring-training game next March, when we will be jarred not so much by the new voice that replaces (or tries to replace) Niehaus, but by the absence of the one that serenaded and soothed us for 34 years.
In the shocking aftermath of Wednesday’s news that Niehaus had died at age 75, Rick Rizzs, his longtime partner and a man who unabashedly revered Niehaus, summed up his gift in nine words.
“If Dave said it,” Rizzs mused, “it was the right thing.”
Heck, even the players themselves, after some heroic feat, would eagerly wait to hear how Dave had called it, as if the accomplishment wasn’t truly validated until it got the Niehaus stamp of hysteria.
“You wouldn’t hit a grand slam without wanting to hear the ‘rye bread and mustard,’ there’s no question about that,” Dan Wilson said.
Niehaus voiced both our jubilation (“Fly away!”) and our frustration (“Can’t anyone throw strikes?”). But more than anything, it was the constancy of Niehaus that embedded him in our hearts and souls.
Appropriately, it was Niehaus himself who captured the essence of why so many Mariners fans are mourning so deeply right now. Over the years, every time another baseball radio icon died, I would gently approach Dave for a reaction to put in the newspaper. Harry Caray, Jack Buck. Ernie Harwell, just last May.
It was 1998, after the passing of Caray, whose voice wafting out of the Niehaus family Zenith in Princeton, Ind., first planted the announcing bug in Niehaus. Dave was visibly shaken.
“Part of my boyhood died along with Harry,” Niehaus told me. “He was my hero. It’s like your youth is gone, and it’s something you can never regain.”
That precise sentiment is being felt all over Seattle, Washington state, the Pacific Northwest — really, all over the world, because that’s how far the Niehaus tentacles spread.
It’s about fathers and mothers connecting with sons and daughters over baseball, and then the grown children bonding with their own kids through Niehaus’ words.
As Rizzs, again, put it so aptly: “The beauty of it was he was there every game, day in and day out, week after week, month after month, season after season.”
“One of the beauties of David,” said team president Chuck Armstrong, “is people who hadn’t met him thought he was a close personal friend.”
He was there during the dreary early years of the 1970s and ’80s, when losing season followed losing season. And yet the Mariners still had among the highest radio ratings in baseball. That was the lure of Niehaus.
“I was around when we stunk, basically,” said former outfielder Dave Henderson. “He was the deal. That was it. That’s all we had.”
Fans loved that Niehaus would get just as fed up as they would.
“The only thing Dave didn’t like was bad baseball,” Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln said. “That drove him crazy. And he would come and tell us that. One of the things that was so charming about him was he told the truth. You knew one of the ways he’d do it, he would say nothing. Silence was all he needed, and you knew he was not feeling good about something.”
When the Mariners’ breakthrough came in 1995, many fans were as happy for Niehaus as they were for the players, or even themselves. And he was at the absolute peak of his skills in that magical season, his frenetic calls lifting an entire region to new heights of baseball euphoria.
Rizzs talked this week about how a big part of Niehaus’ mastery as a broadcaster was not just the call, but the setup. That was never more evident than on his signature moment, Edgar Martinez’s double to beat the Yankees in the 11th inning of Game 5 of the Division Series.
Everyone can recite Niehaus’s frantic words after the ball was hit, but Rizzs marvels over what immediately preceded them:
“Right now, the Mariners looking for the tie. They would take a fly ball, they would love a base hit into the gap, and they could win it with Junior’s speed.”
Amazingly prescient — and afterward, Rizzs said, “I just took off my headphones, because I knew he was going to handle it. My goal was to get out of his way, and let him do his thing. He didn’t miss a beat.”
Those who knew him best had become convinced long ago that Niehaus was never going to retire. Team president Chuck Armstrong said Niehaus, in his later years, was worried the Mariners would try to ease him out of the booth — something they had no intention of ever doing.
“He and I would talk every year,” Armstrong said. “He was nervous. I said, ‘We’re not going to do with you what they tried to do with Ernie Harwell in Detroit. You’re here as long as I’m here, and as long as you’re physically able.’ We would have to reassure him and go through that.”
Just a few weeks ago, Armstrong said, a member of the Niehaus family asked him to talk to Dave about cutting back on his schedule in 2011. But Niehaus always resisted such efforts, and those who were around him the most came to believe they were fruitless.
“He wanted no part of it,” said Jay Buhner, who has worked as a part-time broadcaster since his retirement. “He was a workaholic. I think he felt probably more at home sitting up in that booth in his little black easy chair with his headset on than he did anywhere else.”
Added Buhner, tears welling in his eyes: “Every day — and thank God I did this — every day I was up there, I made sure I said how much I loved him, and gave him a hug.”
Such was his all-encompassing love for the job — the travel, the camaraderie, the thrills, even the maddening Mariners lapses — that even into his mid-70s, Niehaus eagerly awaited the dawning of each new season, which followed shortly after his Feb. 19 birthday. Armstrong said that when he asked Niehaus once how long he planned to keep doing it, he replied, “Until I get my ring.”
And even though his calls weren’t quite as sharp in his later years, the mistakes more frequent, that was beside the point. His was still the voice that validated the big moments. If he said it, it was still the right thing.
Rizzs would periodically ask Niehaus about retirement, and each time he would scoff.
” ‘I’ll die in the booth,’ he’d always say — and we were afraid of that,” Rizzs says now. “We didn’t want that to happen.”
Buhner heard the same sentiment from Niehaus.
“He’d say, ‘I could only be so lucky to go sitting here in my chair with my headset on.’ Instead, it was on his deck, but at least it was at home, getting ready to turn the barbecue on, watching the sunset, I’m sure, and with Marilyn right there next to him.”
Niehaus always told his colleagues he knew what he wanted on his tombstone: “Game 162, season over.”
“It’s kind of funny,” Buhner said. “Dave would always say (at the end of a season), ‘Now it’s time for the next chapter. Now it’s time for the postseason.’ Now he’s starting his postseason.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or firstname.lastname@example.org