Dave Niehaus was smiling the last time I saw him.
This was on Oct. 20, after the Mariners had formally introduced new manager Eric Wedge in the interview room at Safeco Field.
Since the 1977 inception of the Mariners’ franchise, Niehaus had called more than 5,000 games, while attending not quite as many press conferences. During the announcements of firings, he would stand in the back of the room and look on with a regal expression that would convey gloom, but never doom. The happier occasions would find Niehaus, eyes glowing on high beam, as huggable as a teddy bear.
The hiring of Wedge was an especially happy occasion for Niehaus, a southwestern Indiana native eager to explore his common background with Wedge, who grew up in Fort Wayne, Ind. Niehaus and Wedge were born a generation apart, but they shared Indiana roots that included everything from a childhood infatuation with baseball to the soothing sound of ice cubes rattling in a tea pitcher on a steamy summer evening – along with grandma’s rye-bread salami sandwich.
For Mariners fans who had come to think of Dave Niehaus as the distant uncle who moved into their house for six months a year and yet never wore out his welcome, the news of his death Wednesday inspired an appreciation of a man born with a gift. Actually, it was a gift package: a distinctive, melodious voice of somebody who had seen the world; a mind able to spontaneously process moments in vivid detail; and, most of all, a spirit that never strayed from the premise that if baseball is a perpetually unfolding story, baseball broadcasting should be steeped in story-telling.
Had Niehaus spent the last 33 years of his career as a provincial secret known only to those of us in the Pacific Northwest, his life still would have been fulfilled in both professional and personal terms. That he was brought to the brightest stage in American sports – the Baseball Hall of Fame, which inducted him into the broadcasters’ wing in 2008 – gave permanent credence to what the rest of us knew all along.
Regrets? Well, there was the failure of the Mariners to reach World Series. The giddy energy of the 1995 team, which vaulted from the wild-card fringe in September to an American League West championship and then a stirring resurrection in the division series – “the Mariners are going to play for the American League Championship! I don’t believe it! It just continues! My, oh my!” – finally lost its steam against Cleveland.
And there was the 2001 team that cruised, like a luxury car designed with sophisticated gadgetry, to a record-tying 116 regular-season victories. Capable of elevating baseball to an exercise in beautiful precision during the summer, those Mariners stumbled through the first round of the playoffs and were unable to escape the second round.
It was our misfortune never to hear Niehaus describe the final at-bat that would’ve delivered the Mariners into the World Series. But having had the privilege of listening to that voice provide games in high-definition detail for more than three decades, why dwell on what could have been?
Better to celebrate what was. Niehaus endured two angioplasties in 1996. His three kids were grown up, his status as a local legend secure. Retirement was a plausible and perhaps healthy alternative.
Except by then a new Seattle ballpark had advanced beyond artists’ conceptions and primitive blueprints. Nothing about baseball appealed to Niehaus more than the scene – the sun, the clouds, the breeze, the configuration of the mowed grass – and when the Mariners relocated from the Kingdome to an outdoor park with a retractable roof midway through the 1999 season, the heart-surgery patient was rejuvenated.
Despite a second 101-defeat season in three years, Niehaus remained on top of his game in 2010. Sure, the ball-strike count wasn’t always accurate, and a few names were misidentified – as if it’s possible to consistently distinguish light-hitting shortstop Jack Wilson from light-hitting shortstop Josh Wilson – but the edge was there.
Here’s Niehaus describing reliever Jesus Colomé’s struggle to throw a strike: “Watching him pitch is like watching a hen lay a dozen eggs all at once. It’s gotta hurt!”
Baseball broadcasters are employed by the club – it’s their job to negotiate the fine line between conveying disappointment and disgust.
Niehaus, the Hall of Famer recognized as the Mariners’ most endearing personality, didn’t have to abide by those rules. He called it like it was, to the ugly end of a grim season.
And yet, two weeks later, he was back at Safeco Field, bubbling about the energy Eric Wedge figured to bring to the dugout in 2011.
Definition of a broadcasting treasure: A man who calls games for the same team over 34 seasons, and when he dies, more than four months before the season opener of his 35th season, we already miss the voice we came to recognize as part of the family.