Friday, November 12, 2010

Mariners broadcasts by Niehaus transcended generations

Although this blog has been quiet for a while, I haven't made any movement to officially retire it. I wanted the blog to still be here when I felt that I needed to write. This week, I need to write.

On Wednesday, longtime Seattle Mariners broadcaster Dave Niehaus passed away of a heart attack at age 75. It was one of those days that I knew was going to come eventually, but never wanted to think about.

I've been listening to Dave Niehaus announce Mariners baseball since I was old enough to tune a radio. Our family lived far enough away from Seattle that we only made it out to one game while I was growing up, and "Mom forbid" that we would have any type of cable TV package that would allow us to watch every game (I still thank her for that). The radio was it, and the radio was available everywhere: in the car, the kitchen, and even in my room.

A kid with no serious life obligations (there wasn't even homework during the summers) could easily pass an evening listening to a game, executing full windups and releases in the middle of the kitchen. My career aspiration by 4th grade was to be a sports radio broadcaster, due to logging uncountable hours with Seattle broadcasting legends Bob Blackburn, Kevin Calabro, Rick Rizzs, and Dave Niehaus.

Of those, Niehaus's mannerisms were the most memorable. Before long I knew all his common exclamations, such as "Swung on and belted!", "Fly away!" and "It's grand salami time!" When a declaration such as "My oh my!" came out of Dave's mouth, it wasn't a "signature phrase", it was just something you believed Dave Niehaus would naturally say when he saw something incredible. It fit.

A game with Niehaus was not just a game. It was a production, a work of art, every night. As Steve Kelley put it, with Dave, "a pitch wasn't just low, it was 'loooooow'. In a close game, Dave was almost reverential. He could have been a preacher giving a sermon when he called the late innings of a tight game."

Dave could even make the commercials he was obligated to read throughout the game sound fascinating. He would work them into the spaces in the game's action and put all feeling into the words, varying the tone of his voice as he tolled the virtues of Sterling Savings Bank. He wasn't afraid to reveal his emotion about the action on the field either. Kelley remembers:

"If a game was meandering and a Mariners pitcher couldn't throw a strike, [Dave's] voice would get sharp and gravelly, and he would say something like, 'You gotta throw strikes.'"

"The pleasure of listening to him on a stormy day in April or one of those long, lush nights in July always has felt like an inalienable right of being a sports fan in Seattle."

Indeed, Niehaus's presence was something you could always count on, something maybe too easy to take for granted. If you go to bed, the sun will come up. If you turn the key, your car will start. If you flip on the radio on a summer night, Dave Niehaus will be there calling a game with all the fervor of his soul, even if the Mariners are down 7-0 and they can't buy a hit.

My dad shared an appreciation for Niehaus's broadcasts, although as a busy father and physician he didn't have as much time to kill listening to the radio. Our opportunity to hear games together often came in the car on the way to or from some activity. A father and a teenage son can strap themselves into a vehicle and sit together in silence for hours, each in his own world. But when we switched on Niehaus, we were on the same frequency.

One night this past summer my 5 year old son was having trouble settling down to bed. I switched on a Mariners broadcast hoping that would lull him to sleep. Wincing through the beer commercials, I took a few minutes to explain what was happening in the game, then left to go to bed myself. The next morning I asked who won, and he responded in a sincerely dejected voice, "the Angels". This episode reveals three things about Niehaus's effect on my son: he communicated what happened, he explained how we should feel about it, and he didn't put him to sleep.

It's this family bond of listening to Niehaus that makes his passing so difficult. Last night I was in charge of watching the kids. Two out of three were successfully in bed, but the baby boy was agitated. In desperation, I switched on an Internet recording of Niehaus highlights. My son's eyes became wide and the pacifier began bobbing up and down in his mouth contentedly. As I watched his reflection in the computer screen, I saddened at the thought that I wouldn't get to share a Niehaus broadcast with him. Then I felt happy that, even at my son's young age, I was having an opportunity to share what Dave meant to me.

If you're a baby, too young to understand words or baseball or the magic of a summer evening, I guess you can be excused for getting soothed to sleep by the golden voice of Dave Niehaus.