It’s Ken Griffey Jr.’s turn to take the hallowed stage Sunday, and there’s a tinge of sadness that Dave Niehaus will not be there to see it. They are the two icons of Mariners baseball, and developed an unlikely but unbreakable friendship over the years.
Before Ken Griffey Jr., there was Dave Niehaus, basking on the Cooperstown, N.Y., stage as the first blue-blooded Mariner to earn recognition at the Hall of Fame.
“Fantasyland,’’ he called it, and never has there been a more appreciative honoree than Niehaus when he received the Ford C. Frick Award for broadcasting achievement during the 2008 induction ceremony.
Now it’s Griffey’s turn to take the hallowed stage Sunday, and on this day of joy and reverence, there’s just a tinge of sadness that Niehaus will not be there to see it. They are the two icons of Mariners baseball, and developed an unlikely but unbreakable friendship over the years that transcended their differences, generational and otherwise.
“He would be thrilled to death, just like everyone else,’’ said Marilyn Niehaus, Dave’s widow. “I believe Ken was very saddened by David’s passing, and he missed him.”
“He’d cry like a baby, he really would,’’ Mariners broadcaster Rick Rizzs mused about Niehaus, his longtime partner. “It’s (like) one of his kids. He couldn’t have been more proud of Junior than the success of Greta, Andy or Matt. They had that special relationship, that tremendous love for one another.”
“I know it would be the equivalent of a family member graduating college or something,’’ agreed Andy Niehaus, one of three Niehaus children, two of whom will be in attendance Sunday with Marilyn.
“It would be a proud Dad moment. He would feel the same way as Chuck (Armstrong, former Mariners president) and Ken’s dad — my baby boy is all grown up. He’d shed a tear. Probably say something like, ‘You got a plaque, I only got a picture, you SOB.’ ”
That was the essence of the Griffey-Niehaus relationship, constant teasing and good-natured badgering that worked because it came from a foundation of mutual respect and fondness. Griffey used to love to rag Niehaus’ colorful (but not always color-coordinated) clothing, particularly the white shoes he favored.
“Are you taking Marilyn to the prom again?’’ he’d crack, and when Niehaus wore shorts in spring training, Griffey would stare at his pale legs, shake his head and say, “The sun is free, you know.”
Andy Niehaus believes Griffey and his dad bonded so tightly because they shared baseball, great talent and, especially, “both had a fantastic sense of humor. They could always make each other laugh. When Junior had a bad day, my dad would come to the clubhouse and tell a joke or something and get him smiling. And vice versa, when my dad was down, Ken would do the same.”
What Andy Niehaus realizes now is that Griffey came along at just the right time for his dad, jolting a franchise that had limped along in relative anonymity, marked by underachievement.
But that all changed when The Kid burst upon the scene in 1989, electrifying not just Mariners baseball but the sporting world at large.
“My dad knew early what we had here, and it put a skip in his step,’’ Niehaus said. “He knew immediately Ken was something special.”
Andy remembers hearing the buzz about this new prodigy and asking his dad what Junior was like.
“Well, son, he’s a cocky kid, but he has a reason to be,” Niehaus told him. “I would be, too.”
Griffey’s exploits soon came pouring forth, a pantheon of prodigious blasts and eye-popping defensive plays. And to a generation of Seattle fans, they were enhanced into legend by virtue of Niehaus’ calls. Griffey once said that he would rush home after a big game so he could hear how Niehaus described it.
“There was always something to behold when he came to bat, a possible event in the making,” Andy Niehaus said. “You didn’t have that with everybody. But with Ken, it was a possible explosion at the plate every single time, and Dad got to see every one of them. It made his job, so to speak — he never called it a job — much more enjoyable.”
No one got to witness the Niehaus-Griffey dynamic more closely than Rizzs.
“They not only had great respect for one another, but great love for one another,’’ Rizzs said. “Junior was The Kid, he was always The Kid. Dave was the respected, beloved broadcaster, one of the greatest in the history of the game. And Junior knew that.
“He would kid around with Dave all the time and get Dave going. Junior did that with a lot of guys. But it was special with Junior and Dave. They just had this respectful, caring relationship for one another that was just fun to watch and be a part of all those years.”
Rizzs, in fact, said the rapport between the two was instantaneous.
“From the time they first met, it was like, ‘Hey, you’re going to be a part of my family. Whether you like it or not, you’re a part of my family. I’m talking about my family, not the Mariners family. … But my Niehaus family.’
“Junior got to know Marilyn, he got to know Greta and the boys. When Dave loved you, he really made you a part of his family. That relationship started off the instant they met.”
When Niehaus suffered a heart attack in 1996, it was Griffey who gently admonished him to lead a healthier lifestyle, a conversation he recalled during a recent conference call.
“I told him he didn’t need to make all the trips,’’ Griffey said. “I said, there’s another Hall of Famer in L.A., Vin Scully, who after awhile said, I’m not going to go on all the trips. And he will always be the voice of the Dodgers, just like Dave will be the voice of the Mariners.
“I wanted him to have time to settle down and hang out with the grandkids. But that’s the way he was. He was going to fight it and be there for every game. That’s what he loved to do. And you can’t take that type of passion away, that’s not something you can just go out and buy. You’ve got to love it, and he loved it.”
Though Niehaus didn’t necessarily heed Griffey’s advice, “That’s where their relationship really became personal,’’ Rizzs said. “It was always personal, but when someone in your family is really hurting, Junior was always there, just like he was there for sick kids.
“Junior could talk to him. Dave was stubborn. He was very stubborn about certain things. But Junior had a way, through all the kidding, (but) now it wasn’t kidding, it was serious. This is what you need to do. Go do it. And he did it in a loving manner.”
And when Niehaus died of a heart attack in 2010, a grief-stricken Rizzs realized Griffey was hurting just as badly.
Griffey flew out for a memorial service at Safeco Field that Rizzs moderated.
“One of toughest things I ever did was trying to get through that,’’ Rizzs said. “I couldn’t get through a certain part, and all of a sudden I felt this bear hug. I was engulfed by Jay Buhner, Norm (Charlton) was up there, Junior. They were all there, because Dave had such an impact on all the guys here. They loved him.”
Now many of those same people will be in Cooperstown to salute Griffey. I’ll think back to the time in 2008 when I had the privilege of accompanying Dave and Marilyn Niehaus as they viewed Dave’s Frick Award exhibit in the Hall of Fame for the first time.
En route, we passed through the plaque room, where the Hall of Famers are immortalized.
Dave turned to his wife. “This is the holy sanctum,” he said. “You don’t even want to speak in a loud voice, it’s so hallowed. People speak in whispers.”
On Sunday, Ken Griffey Jr. moves into the holy sanctum. And once again, Dave Niehaus will be right beside him.