Friday, November 12, 2010

Media: Remembering Dave Niehaus

TORONTO, ONTARIO - With the exception of a scant few seasons, the Seattle Mariners have never been much of a baseball team. Yet, their popularity throughout the Pacific Northwest grew to remarkable levels and has endured in large part thanks to the effort of one man to build interest--their lead radio broadcaster, Dave Niehaus. Neihaus was the voice of the team right from its inception in 1977 until his voice was silenced on Wednesday from a heart attack. He was 75.

Whether on KVI, KIRO, or KOMO, Dave Niehaus' distinct voice immediately let you know that the Mariners were playing. Since 1983, he has been paired with Rick Rizzs (except for a time in the early 1990's when Rizzs went to Detroit), and the two have combined to narrate the summers of anyone that cared about baseball with story-telling skills that would impress the Greek epic poets. Growing up in the area, I took them for granted until I lived somewhere else--the broadcasters working the Oakland A's simply could not stack up, and if I wanted to listen to baseball, I would tune in Eugene's KPNW 1120 AM--a Mariners affiliate in that era that came in quite clearly in the Bay Area at night. Niehaus would be there to keep me interested.

Niehaus probably made a greater impact on the vocabulary of the Pacific Northwest than anyone else, certainly more profound than Howard Schultz teaching us Italian names for drink sizes. I considered any well-lit ball to be "belted," since Niehaus always used the phrase "swung on and belted deep to {whatever} field"--in Boston, the verb drew strange looks. If a Mariner hit the ball over the fences, he would continue, "and it will fly away, MY OH MY!" What he really thrived on was coming up with nicknames. Niehaus might not have been the first one to codify Ken Griffey Jr. as "The Kid," Alex Rodriguez as "A-Rod," or Jay Buhner as "Bone," but he was the one to introduce me to those short-hands. Once he started using them, the whole Pacific Northwest started using them, and at least in the case of "A-Rod," the entire world followed.

I've actually encountered a small minority of people over the years that didn't like Niehaus as a broadcaster. Uniformly, they all considered him too much of a "homer," or always focusing on the Mariners at the expense of the other team. They missed the point. That was his job--he was paid to make people interested in the Mariners, and he did this better than anyone else ever will.

This talent was so widely recognized throughout the sport and the industry that Niehaus was the second person to be inducted in the Mariners' Hall of Fame and he earned the Ford C. Frick Award in 2008, the sport's top honor for broadcasters. After his death, even my local morning show here in Toronto played a clip of Neihaus' famous call of the Mariners victory in the 1995 American League division series. I can't think of another local Seattle figure ever even mentioned on that show before.

There are no "happy totals" (as his partner Rizzs would say) right now, but Niehaus broadcast 5,284 Mariner games, nearly all of the 5,385 games so far played by the franchise. That's well over 10,000 hours of live entertainment. Mariner fans have gone through Neihaus withdrawal before, as previous heart problems had taken him off the air for limited periods, but we always knew he would be back. It's hard to imagine that the era is really over now. Niehaus would find a way to turn our attention to the future and create excitement, but it is probably a good thing the only thing in season is the Hot Stove League. It will take until the spring to face a Mariners future without Dave Niehaus.

1 comment:

Kelly said...
scroll down a bit to see a wonderful piece about Dave.

And I think this describes his announcer ability best:
(from the Seattle Times)

Niehaus often said his most meaningful award was a citation from the Washington Association for the Blind.

"They said their members could see the game through my eyes, which is the ultimate compliment for a broadcaster," he told The Seattle Times in 2006. "And you can only do that on the radio."