If Rizzs always seems happy, always upbeat no matter the situation, why wouldn’t he be? He is living his dream, and he spent enough years toiling in the minors to appreciate being in the big leagues.

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Growing up just south of Chicago in Blue Island, Ill., Rick Rizzs would come home from school and watch the end of Cubs games with his mother, listening intently to broadcaster Jack Brickhouse.

“There were times when I would go downstairs, turn on the TV and turn off the sound and pretend I was Jack Brickhouse and do play by play,” Rizzs said. “My mother would go, ‘What’s going on down there?’ and I would yell, ‘The bases are loaded and Ernie Banks is up.’ ”

More than 50 years later, Rizzs, 64, is calling games, but on a much bigger stage. He is in his 33rd season announcing Mariners games, a constant since 1983 except for his three years with the Detroit Tigers, when he was tasked with the impossible job of replacing the beloved Ernie Harwell.

Did you know?

• The last name Rizzs was shortened from Rizzitiello when his grandfather arrived in the United States from Italy.

• Rizzs was honored with the Keith Jackson Award last year by the Seattle Sports Star Committee. The award is given for excellence in communicating sports stories in the state of Washington.

Scott Hanson

Rizzs has been the lead radio announcer for the Mariners since the 2010 death of his great friend and broadcasting partner, the legendary Dave Niehaus. But it was another legend, Brickhouse, who originally spurred Rizzs.

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At age 12, Rizzs wrote a letter to Brickhouse telling him his dream was to become a major-league broadcaster.

“I would listen to games on the radio, and I would hear that voice coming from the radio and I remember saying, ‘I would like to be that voice,’ ” Rizzs said. “I said that would be a cool job, to be a major-league broadcaster, so I sat down and wrote a letter to Mr. Brickhouse. And he wrote me back.

“I had that letter for years. It was my inspiration. He said, ‘Get a great education, believe in yourself and work hard,’ and that’s basically what I did.”

If Rizzs always seems happy, always upbeat no matter the situation, why wouldn’t he be? He is living his dream, and he spent enough years toiling in the minors to appreciate being in the big leagues.

“The question I have been asked most since coming to Seattle is this: Is Rick really as nice of a guy off air as he is on the air?” said Aaron Goldsmith, who joined the Mariners as Rizzs’ partner in 2013. “And I say, ‘Yes, it’s absolutely the same guy.’ The Rick you hear on the air who is optimistic and thoughtful and thankful is the same person that we interact with on the bus, in the hotel, on the plane, walking around the street. That’s Rick.”

You will get no arguments from Kevin Cremin, who worked with Rizzs for 32 years as the producer and engineer of the radio broadcasts, or Gary Hill, who replaced the retired Cremin this season and has shared some play-by-play time with Rizzs.

“Rick is one of the best guys in the world,” Cremin said. “He might be even nicer than he is on the air. He’s nice to a fault, but it’s not a fault.”

Said Hill: “He loves calling baseball games and loves being at the ballpark every day. He has a genuine passion for what he is doing, and it shows.”

On famous phrases

Goodbye, baseball

• Rizzs’ home-run call was “going, going, gone” until he changed it to “Goodbye, baseball” to honor former Rangers announcer Dick Risenhoover, who died of cancer in 1978. When Rizzs was working in Amarillo, he spent an afternoon in 1976 chatting with Risenhoover when he came to Amarillo in an offseason caravan. “Mr. Risenhoover had a call, ‘Goodbye Mr. Spalding,’ ” Rizzs said. “So I tweaked it a little bit and went with ‘Goodbye, baseball,’ and it’s in honor of Dick Risenhoover, who encouraged a young broadcaster.”

Grand salami time

• After partner Dave Niehaus’ death in 2010, Rizzs began using his friend’s call for grand slams: “Grandma, get out the rye bread and mustard, it is grand salami time.” Said Rizzs: “My job, for as long as I am here, is to remind people that Dave Niehaus was here for 34 years and was one of the greatest announcers in the history of Major League Baseball. And my job is to carry on his legacy, and I want people to remember Dave Niehaus through that great call he came up with in 1995.”

Holy smokes

• Rizzs began another of his catchphrases, “Holy smokes,” while in the minor leagues. “I heard Holy Toledo and (announcer) Harry Caray had Holy Cow, and I came up with Holy Smokes … and my dad used to say it, so it was natural,” he said.

Scott Hanson

There is a unique relationship between baseball fans and radio announcers. Not only are the announcers painting a picture for the listeners, there is enough down time to weave in stories, including some that are personal. A connection develops.

Rizzs and his storytelling have long been a part of summers around here. We know about his son Nick, 38, and grandkids Jaxon, 14; Braedon, 10; and Ryan, 3.

“You have a lot of time between pitches, and you have that time that you need to fill,” Rizzs said. “It is wonderful you can tell these stories and people find out about us. They know about our lives and other people in our lives. It is wonderful we can have that connection.”

In the spring of 1983, during his first spring training with the Mariners, Rizzs got the chance to connect with the man who helped make it all possible.

“I said, ‘Mr. Brickhouse, you don’t remember this, but when I was 12 years old I wrote you a letter and you wrote me back,’ ” Rizzs said. “I said, ‘Because of you I am the new announcer for the Seattle Mariners, and I’m doing today’s game between the Mariners and the Chicago Cubs.’ He said, ‘Really?’ And he gave me a big hug. I finally had a chance to see my hero.”

• • •

‘The greatest lesson’

After playing second base for four years at Eisenhower High School in Blue Island, Rizzs went to college at Southern Illinois. On his first day at school, he went to the office of baseball coach Richard “Itchy” Jones and said he wanted to play for him.

Jones invited Rizzs to try out for the JV team. About 200 tried out, and Rizzs figured, “I am not going to make this team,” and decided to leave.

“So I have my hand on the door (to leave), and then I thought, ‘What the heck am I doing?’ ” he said.

So Rizzs turned around again, this time back to the field.

“And I stayed with it,” he said. “I was the first one out there, and the last one to leave, even took extra ground balls and did everything I possibly could. A lot of guys probably had more talent than I did, but I outlasted them.”

“It was the greatest lesson. I didn’t give up on myself. And I thought at that point, ‘Whatever God throws in front of me, I will be ready to handle it.’ ”

For two seasons, Rizzs played on the JV team. As a junior, he was working out with the varsity team when he decided to put all his energy into broadcasting. He knew if he was going to be in the big leagues, it would be as an announcer.

The next year, Southern Illinois lost in the 1975 NCAA baseball regionals that Rizzs broadcast for the school radio station. It was 1 a.m. when he finished the long drive home.

His parents were waiting, curious what their son had in mind now that he just graduated and had no job.

“I told them I could beg for a job at WGN (radio station in Chicago),” he said.

But his college friend, John Dittrich, had called that day. Dittrich graduated a year before Rizzs and had landed a job as general manager of the Alexandria (La.) Aces, the Class AA farm club of the San Diego Padres.

Dittrich needed a visiting-clubhouse worker to shine shoes and wash uniforms.

“I said, ‘That sounds like fun,’ ” Rizzs said sarcastically. “But he said, ‘I will let you do three innings of play-by-play.’ ”

Sold.

“I thought it would be a summer job,” Rizzs said. “That was 44 years ago.”

Rizzs was making $200 a month, plus 50 cents per player per day in tips, and having the time of his life, living with two players and “making just enough money to survive.”

The franchise moved to Amarillo, Texas, the next year. Rizzs went, too. Like players, broadcasters often work their way through the minor leagues to reach the majors. Rizzs gave himself 10 years to land a big-league job.

“You’ve got to pay your dues,” he said. “Your hopes and dreams are the same as the players — and that is to get to the big leagues. And for some reason, and I don’t know why, but I gave myself 10 years. And thank God that I did.”

In 1978, Rizzs was hired as the full-time radio announcer of the Memphis Chicks, a Class AA team in the Montreal Expos system.

“I didn’t have to do laundry anymore,” he said.

He landed a job in 1981 with the Columbus Clippers, the Yankees’ Class AAA team, and became sports director at WBNS radio. Rizzs also broadcast road Ohio State football games and did a morning-drive show, getting up at 4 a.m. after broadcasting games the night before.

Baseball remained his passion, but in 1983 time was running out on his 10 years when he heard from a friend that the Mariners had an opening for a No. 2 announcer to pair with Niehaus.

For getting the job, Rizzs can thank Niehaus, who signed off on the hire, and Girl Scout Cookies.

Yes, Girl Scout Cookies.

• • •

A dream come true

Rizzs was one of two finalists for the Mariners job. The night before his interview with team owner George Argyros in Southern California, Rizzs was in a cookie-eating contest with local celebrities at a Columbus mall to kick off Girl Scout cookie sales.

“It was the dumbest thing I have ever done in my life,” Rizzs said. “I go to this contest and eat 33 cookies in three minutes — and I didn’t even win. I finished in third place.”

The next morning, Rizzs had severe chest pains.

“I thought I was having a heart attack,” he said. “My chest hurt so badly, and I couldn’t breathe.”

Rizzs rushed to a hospital. Doctors did not think he had a heart attack, but he would have to delay his trip a day so he could undergo tests.

The next day, after learning he had suffered a stretched sternum, Rizzs was in Argyros’ office.

“After about an hour talking with him, he says sternly, ‘Now why did you miss the appointment yesterday?’ I told him, and we laughed about it,” Rizzs said. “After a few minutes, he reached over the table and shook my hand and said, ‘Welcome aboard. Anybody willing to sacrifice their life for the Girl Scouts is my kind of guy,’ and I got the job.”

His dream was coming true.

Soon, he would be working with the man who became much more than his broadcasting partner.

Mariner broadcasters Rick Rizzs, left, and Dave Niehaus share a laugh before a game at Safeco Field in 2004. (Rod Mar / The Seattle Times)
Mariner broadcasters Rick Rizzs, left, and Dave Niehaus share a laugh before a game at Safeco Field in 2004. (Rod Mar / The Seattle Times)

• • •

Working with Dave Niehaus

Not a day goes by when Rizzs doesn’t expect Niehaus to walk into the broadcast booth. Rizzs said Nov. 10, 2010, the day Niehaus died, was one of the worst days of his life, and he misses him dearly.

“I loved the man,” Rizzs said. “We got along great. He was like my older brother. He was the greatest mentor and the greatest friend. I could not have asked for a better teacher, partner, friend to do this job with.

“He was the best thing that ever happened to me, and I learned so much from one of the greatest announcers of all time. His family became my family, my family became his family.”

Marilyn Niehaus, Dave’s widow, concurred.

“What a great guy,” Niehaus said. “He took great care of Dave when his health was failing. Our family and kids think the world of him.”

It was Dave Niehaus who convinced Rizzs to apply for the Detroit job after the 1991 season when Harwell was being forced out, and it was Niehaus who made sure Rizzs got his old job back when Rizzs was let go by the Tigers just before Christmas in 1994.

“Dave said, ‘You want to be a No. 1 broadcaster — you gotta go,’ ” Rizzs said. “So I did.”

• • •

No fun in Motown

Rizzs knew replacing Harwell would be hard. Rizzs told Harwell that when he encouraged Rizzs to apply.

“I said, ‘Ernie, I feel sorry for the poor son a gun who has to replace you,’ ” Rizzs said.

But having Harwell’s blessing and Niehaus’ encouragement, Rizzs went for the job. When Bo Schembechler, who was the team president, called to offer Rizzs the job, Rizzs went silent.

“I thought, ‘This is going to be the hardest announcing job in the last 30 or 40 years, trying to replace Ernie Harwell,’ ” Rizzs said. “But off I went. It was quite the learning experience.”

On opening day, there was a protest outside Tiger Stadium over Harwell’s ouster. Inside, fans were waving 10,000 Ernie Harwell faces on sticks; a local radio station had given them out. There was a sign flying around the ballpark that said, “Where is Ernie?” And all year, in the center-field bleachers, was a big banner that read, “We want Ernie.”

“To have to see that every day, it was difficult,” Rizzs said.

That year, the Tigers underwent an ownership change, and Harwell was brought back the next season for a more proper farewell.

Rizzs would do six innings and Harwell three, the plan went. That left Bob Rathbun, who was Rizzs’ partner the year before, stuck doing pregame and postgame shows.

“I said, ‘Bob Rathbun didn’t spend 10 years in the minor leagues (before getting a big-league job) to do pregame and postgame shows,’ ” Rizzs said. “ ‘He’s talented, he’s a friend, and I will give him two of my innings.’ ”

Harwell was gone again the next year. But the pressure continued, with Rizzs feeling he had to call every game as “if it was Game 7 of the World Series.”

“I learned it’s much better being the guy who replaces the guy who tried to replace the legend,” Rizzs said.

Being let go in late 1994 turned out for the best.

“I was so fortunate and am so glad I didn’t miss the 1995 season,” said Rizzs, referring to the late-season charge that got the Mariners into the postseason for the first time. “Oh my goodness, to work with Dave that year — and have the whole world discover how great Dave Niehaus was — was truly a blessing.”

• • •

Everyone loves a winner

Like players, broadcasters can cement their legacy in the postseason, when everyone is paying attention.

While current Mariners have been through just a part of the team’s 17-year playoff drought, Rizzs has lived through almost every game of it. Losing takes its toll on broadcasters and players alike.

“It is 100 times better when the team is winning,” Rizzs said. “When a team is winning, everyone is having fun, it seems like everything is right with the world. It just goes by so quickly, and you want it to keep going. You want to play in October, that’s what it’s all about. This year’s ballclub, we’re going to get there.”

You can count on Rizzs being prepared for his job no matter what happens the rest of the season. He gets to the ballpark several hours before game time, talking with players, coaches and making notes. He also does a couple of hours of prep work each morning at home.

“I will never forget my first year working with Rick — my first year in the major leagues — and I could not beat Rick to the ballpark,” Goldsmith said. “I kind of tried for a while. Every day I would roll in at 2 o’clock (for a 7:10 p.m. game) and Rick’s car was there. Then 1:45 the next day and his car was there, and the next day 1:30, and his car was there. And 1:30 was kind of my cutoff. ‘Uncle. You win.’ I’ve stopped trying to beat him to the ballpark ever since.”

For Rizzs, it’s a labor of love. But he also feels a responsibility.

“It is like anything else: If you are prepared, you are going to do a good job,” he said. “I just don’t want to let the fans down.”

Mariners announcer Rick Rizzs, right, was the unlikely recipient of a foul ball during a 2016 game against the Red Sox. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)
Mariners announcer Rick Rizzs, right, was the unlikely recipient of a foul ball during a 2016 game against the Red Sox. (Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times)

• • •

‘I’m having too much fun’

Rizzs said he is still having the time of his life. The grind of a 162-game season is nothing compared with his time in the minors.

“I get a chance to go to some of the greatest cities in this country, stay in wonderful hotels, travel first class with guys that love what they do, and it’s actually pretty easy, especially when you love what you are doing,” Rizzs said.

From mid-February until at least the end of September, Rizzs’ time is dominated by baseball. In the offseason, he has plenty of time for family and Toys For Kids, a charity he and former Mariner Dave Henderson began in 1995.

After a game one night, Henderson and Rizzs were out having a drink and watching the local news when they heard a story “that there were 8,613 people that they could count who were homeless, the ones they could track.”

“And I turned to Hendu — over 8,000 people, I said, ‘How many are kids?’ … I said, ‘Let’s get the guys together, we will pool our own money and buy these kids toys at Christmas time.’ ”

That fall, Rizzs and Henderson rounded up a group of 12 who donated $18,000, which bought toys for about 300 kids.

It grew from there. This year, with the help of an annual dinner and auction that raised $409,000, Rizzs said the charity donated more than 9,000 toys to kids helped by more than two dozen nonprofits, and gave two $5,000 scholarships in honor of Henderson, who died in 2015.

“It’s been really rewarding,” Rizzs said.

Calling games is also rewarding, and Rizzs would like to do it for six or seven more years.

“I’m having way too much fun (to retire soon),” he said. “But after 70 or 71, I don’t want to get on a plane unless I want to get on a plane. I want to spend time watching my grandkids. If I could work until 70 or 71, I would be thrilled with that. My journey would be over, and I can pass it over to a young guy — like Aaron Goldsmith, who is doing such a great job — just as Dave Niehaus did for me. I think that would be one heck of a career.”

It would also be further confirmation that dreams can come true.

When Rizzs gets letters from youngsters about broadcasting, he writes back to them and tries to call them. He remembers how Brickhouse inspired him and hopes he can have a similar impact.

“I wanted to be a major-league broadcaster, and I did it,” he said. “It’s the greatest country in the world, because if you set your mind on something and you really want it, you can do it. You just have to believe in yourself and don’t worry about what other people say. Just work hard and believe in yourself, and you can accomplish your goals.”