It’s only proper to pay tribute to Ron Fairly with a story (or eight), because Fairly above all else was a raconteur, a weaver of tales, a fount of baseball history and lore.
For 14 years, Fairly filled his Mariners broadcasts with hilarious and apt anecdotes that would elevate the game in progress – and usually tickle the funny bone in the process.
Even better, for those of us lucky enough to get to know “Red,” were the stories off the air, always a little more ribald and risqué. And therefore that much funnier.
Fairly died at about 2:15 a.m. Wednesday, succumbing at age 81 to the effects of esophageal cancer. He had seemingly beaten the disease, but friends say it was the radiation that did him in.
His old partner Rick Rizzs talked fondly Wednesday about how much Fairly meant to the Mariners’ broadcasts in its most iconic era.
“Red really took care of (broadcaster) Dave (Niehaus) and (manager) Lou (Piniella),” he recalled. “We were all so close. We became a family. This is a sad day.”
But, because it was Fairly, the tears quickly evolved into laughter, as Rizzs recalled one of his favorite Fairly anecdotes. It was the 1963 World Series – one of four Fairly played in with the Dodgers during a distinguished 21-year playing career, and one of three in which he won a ring. Yankees outfielder Mickey Mantle had struck out feebly against Sandy Koufax and passed Fairly, the Dodgers first baseman, as he ran back out to his outfield position.
“Hey, Red – tell that bastard to lighten up,” Mantle told Fairly. “He’s making me look bad.”
Rizzs let out his trademark cackle over the phone and said, “Ron told that story a thousand times, and it was funny a thousand times. His stories never got old. Red reminded us why this game is so great: It’s the people, the players, and the moments they shared.”
Yes, sometimes Fairly accentuated the obvious, and critics loved to point it out, but he did so in an endearing way. Anyone who fixates on that aspect of his career is ignoring the breadth of knowledge Fairly conveyed, and what a polished announcer he became over the years.
Re-listening to Fairly’s call of Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1993 home run in his eighth consecutive game (as I just did) brought chills. If you’re a Mariners fan of a certain age, you can still hear it in your mind’s ear:
“There it goes! See ya later! Upper deck! Griffey has tied the major-league record!”
Here’s Rizzs’ real-life Ron Fairly story: Rizzs had left the Mariners to call Tigers games in Detroit, a three-year stint that had not worked out, for a variety of reasons. The Mariners wanted him back in 1995, but first they had to create a spot in the broadcasting crew. I’ll let Rizzs pick it up:
“It was Red who made room for me by going to the television side so I could do radio. I was deeply appreciative. The first day I saw him, on one of the lower fields in spring training, I thanked him, and he said, ‘Ricky, you’ve been here a long time. It’s great to have you back. We’ll make all this work.’ And he really did.”
And here’s my Fairly story: I grew up in Southern California worshipping the Dodgers teams that Fairly played on in the 1960s. And when I found myself in the 1980s covering the Giants, where Fairly had landed as a color man to the great Hank Greenwald, I couldn’t believe my good luck.
I wasn’t shy in asking Ron to regale me with stories of all my favorite Dodgers – Willie Davis, Maury Wills, Wes Parker, Don Drysdale and, above all my baseball hero, Koufax.
Ron was happy to oblige, because he loved those players, and those days, as much as I did. A friendship developed, and then deepened when by circumstance we both landed in Seattle in the mid-’90s. Whenever I was working on a big-picture baseball story, Ron was my go-to guy for the perfect quote or story to amplify the piece.
When Piniella brought in Stan Williams – a former Fairly teammate on the Dodgers – to be his pitching coach, Fairly bombarded me with stories about how mean he was during his pitching career. About how Williams would tape a mug shot of Hank Aaron to his locker and then toss a ball right at it, telling his teammates, “Practicing.”
And about how Williams would keep a black book with the name of every player in the league. When a player did something to cross Williams, and they all did eventually, he’d put down a star. After five stars, he’d draw a skull and crossbones.
“That meant he’d throw one at you,” Fairly told me. “You could get a star for anything. You might be out for a cocktail and never buy a round. That would get you a star. You could hit a home run and stand up there and look at it, like guys do today. Stan might give you two stars for that. He didn’t tolerate that stuff.”
For a story about baseball signs, he told me about how the Dodgers had a squeeze play that was triggered by the third-base coach, Leo Durocher, calling the base runner by his last name. One day, Frank Howard reached third, and the play was on. Durocher edged over and said:
“OK, stay awake, Howard.”
Howard looked at him quizzically and said, “Aw, Leo, you know you can call me Frank.”
Yes, I ate that stuff up. My favorite story, by far, involved my beloved Koufax, and I’m not ashamed to admit I asked Fairly to tell it numerous times over the years, just because I loved it so much. He did so happily each time. Ron said that in certain games, on certain pitches, with a small crowd, he could actually hear, from his position at first base, the ball explode off Koufax’s fingers when he threw it, a kind of whoosh sound.
“It only happened three or four times,” Fairly said. “I remember one day at Wrigley Field, only about 7,000 people in the stands, hearing that little sound, almost like a little snap right off the end of his fingers. I’m standing there saying, ‘My God, who could hit that?’ I never heard that with anyone else.”
That memory will live with me forever. After his retirement, Fairly asked me to help him with his autobiography, and shipped me an envelope filled with hundreds of pages of stories, anecdotes and memories – a treasure trove that I truly treasure. I was unable to complete the project because of other commitments, but I was delighted that Ron eventually published the book, “Fairly at Bat,” with sportswriter Steve Springer last year. It’s wonderful to have the entire Fairly oeuvre in one place.
“I loved listening to him, and fans did, too,” Rizzs said. “He made me laugh.”
Maybe it’s fitting that Fairly died on the morning of Game 7 of the World Series. Among the six teams Fairly played for was the Montreal Expos from 1969-74. The Expos are the predecessor to the Washington Nationals, who faced the Astros in the decisive game.
“That’s why I’m rooting for the Nats,” Rizzs said. “I’m rooting for Ron Fairly.”
Sounds like a good reason to me. I always rooted for Red, and I always will.
See ya later.