Does any city have a better collection of play-by-play announcers who've become media treasures?
They are icons and enigmas. Everyone knows them, and yet few really do.
So I was expecting larger-than-life giants of Seattle sports radio, men with egos as large as their legendary voices.
But something different walked through the front doors of The Seattle Times lobby on that sun-drenched morning last month.
Bob Robertson was first, followed by Bob Rondeau. They crossed paths and chatted comfortably in a stairwell, showing no signs of the animosity that fuels the cross-state rivalry between the Washington Huskies and Washington State Cougars.
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Minutes later, Dave Niehaus and Steve Raible, the play-by-play announcers for the Mariners and Seahawks, strolled in together looking as if they’d just stepped off a golf course.
And, finally, Kevin Calabro, the longtime Sonics voice and new Sounders FC play-by-play man, arrived.
This small exclusive fraternity was complete.
“Now that you got us all here, what’s next?” Robertson said.
What followed was a lengthy discussion about their business and the athletes and games they cover. We talked about their influences and traced the origins of some of their memorable catchphrases.
We explored how television and the Internet have changed their profession and how they manage to stay relevant while doing a 1950s job in 2009. They shared their fears about ex-jocks taking over the booth and relived their greatest and worst moments in broadcasting.
And finally they talked about the state of Seattle sports, mapping where it has been, where it is now and where it is going.
“You plan to write about all this or just videotape it?” Niehaus asked.
The short answer is both.
There are times, however, when the printed word is woefully inadequate to tell a story. This is one of those times.
Radio — the place where they live — is a far better medium for this story, but we chose video to record the very first round-table of the men who have narrated Seattle’s sports soundtrack over the past half century.
We put them on stage inside a near-empty auditorium and turned on the cameras and microphones. They sat in a semicircle — Raible, Niehaus, Robertson, Rondeau and Calabro — and fired off a steady stream of ad-libs and one-liners for almost two hours.
In a five-part series that concludes today, we posted video of our discussion on our Web site, seattletimes.com.
It had been a dream of mine for many years to gather them in one place to talk about sports, and listening to them blend their voices into a harmonious choir was like listening to jazz great Miles Davis riff alongside Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington and Quincy Jones.
I half expected alpha-dog battles between the Seattle sports radio stars, but watching them mix and mingle and take nonverbal cues from each other was like watching the original Dream Team of Magic Johnson, Larry Bird and Michael Jordan run a five-man weave.
For anyone who loves language, storytelling and sports, this was the place to be.
They shared a lifetime of stories that dripped with descriptive detail and take-you-there narratives. Their anecdotes exploded with similes and their metaphors painted a rainbow of colors to black-and-white narratives.
And the humor. We laughed and laughed and laughed.
A few jokes were deliciously off-color, but mostly they poked fun at themselves and each other.
A few insights from the discussion:
• Niehaus is hilarious. His Harry Caray impersonation is spot on and no one tells a better story.
Describing his challenge to stay connected with a young and diverse group of Mariners, the 74-year-old said: “Our clubhouse is like the Tower of Babel. You gotta take a Rosetta Stone in there, they speak so many different languages.”
• Raible has a deep admiration for broadcast history. He often paid tribute to his mentor Pete Gross, the former Seahawks voice, and broadcaster Pat O’Day. And whenever Niehaus spoke, Raible seemed to pay close attention.
During one exchange, Niehaus asked Raible: “How long did it take for you to lose your accent?”
Said Raible: “I had a little bit of one, and if we go out and bend an elbow one evening, it will sort of slide back in there.”
• Robertson, who broadcast his first game in 1948, is a reminder that Seattle became a major sports town in a relatively short span.
“It’s been interesting to see the coming of different sports,” said the 80-year-old Hall of Famer. “Now you have the growth of women’s sports at the university and high schools and even in the pro ranks. That’s a change that I’m sure back when I was doing Seattle Rainier baseball, we’d never thought we’d be reading about a women’s [softball] team going after the national championship and maybe the best athlete in town plays there.”
• Rondeau told a story of how his casual comment to a colleague in a men’s restroom ignited a “Jake Locker is leaving the UW for baseball” Internet rumor last year.
“The thirst for immediacy is much more apparent in the media world we live in today,” he said. “The Internet has replaced us [radio] in that regard, but when it comes to things like that, reporting rumors as fact, I’m OK not to be a part of that evolution.”
• At 53, Calabro is the baby in the bunch. Aside from Robertson, he’s also the most versatile. And he could probably make money reading the Yellow Pages with that rich baritone voice. He’s that good.
Over the course of two hours they concluded the NBA is not returning soon, the stadium issues at UW and WSU will not go away, 2008 was by far the worst year in Seattle sports history and television and the Internet are not going to kill radio.
“They still need us,” Raible said defiantly.
Niehaus said radio provides an intimacy with fans unlike any other medium.
“You can be creative,” he said. “Sometimes people say I’m too creative and I understand what they’re talking about. … Gene Autry [former Angels owner] used to say, ‘David you do a helluva game. Not the game I’m watching, but a helluva game.’ “
Whenever I hear them on radio — whether I’m driving down I-5 or working in the office — I’m astonished at how good they are. Do we realize how good we’ve got it in Seattle?
Does any city have a better collection of play-by-play announcers who’ve become media treasures? I suspect not, but then I’m partial.
Since leaving that near-empty auditorium, I’ve thought a lot about our morning together. I’m reminded of the stories they told and how much we laughed. And I remember how surprisingly human they were — for icons.
Percy Allen: 206-464-2278 or email@example.com