For the first time in 35 seasons, Dave Niehaus’ whiskey baritone will be silent. Folks, this is going to be a long, strange adjustment. Few people, places or things have ever occupied such a special spot in Seattle’s psyche. Emerson once said, “Every hero becomes a bore at last.” Safe to say Mr. Emerson never met Mr. Niehaus.
With untrammeled zest, Niehaus articulated the grand rhythms of baseball’s language. He made the long drive shorter, the dull afternoon brighter. With warm-hearted humor, lovely bursts of laughter and sweet storytelling, he made the most maddening Seattle Mariners loss a little easier to take.
Niehaus, like the other great ones I’ve had the fortune of sharing the national pastime with—as a kid, the Giants’ Russ Hodges, later on, the Dodgers’ Vin Scully, and in recent years, the Cardinals’ Mike Shannon—knew well that it is radio, not TV, that is the principal theater in which the drama of baseball unfolds.
I first met Niehaus at Jacobs Field, now Progressive Field, in Cleveland. It was October 10, 1995, Game 1 of the American League Championship Series. I was with the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, sent to handle the less granular, more feature-oriented coverage. After all, this was the first time Seattle’s baseball team had ever played for a chance to go to the World Series—and the local media weren’t inclined to downplay its importance.
It was cold as hell that night and, after introducing myself, I walked with Niehaus for a few minutes toward the stadium and wished him well before he headed up to the broadcast booth. He was in his glory, laughing, smiling. I’d never seen a man so happy. At last, his grand salami time had arrived—just compensation from the baseball gods for having to describe so much dismal Mariners play since 1977.
I am a Giants fan. Have been all my life. That October day in Cleveland, a column item I’d written for the P-I had caught Niehaus’ attention. It chronicled all the whining and whimpering I’d been hearing from fans bemoaning Cleveland’s failure to win a World Series since 1948. Noting that the Giants hadn’t won a ring since 1954, I concluded, “So cry me a river.”
“I loved how you pointed that out,” Niehaus said in that gentle, genial way of his. “They needed to be reminded that there are a lot of long-suffering baseball fans out there.” Then, shaking his head, he added wistfully, “You know, I’d sure like to see us win one. Maybe this will be the year.”
It wasn’t, of course, and never would be in Niehaus’ lifetime.
Returning last summer to Seattle after a nearly seven-year stop in St. Louis, I thought how odd it was to be back in a city where pitchers don’t have to hit. Still, I’d again be able to marvel at Niehaus’ genius for making the game seem bigger than it is. So when Niehaus died of a heart attack last November at age 75, selfishly, I felt cheated. One can learn to endure a nondescript team playing in an American League city. But a full season without Niehaus? That seemed too much to bear.
It’s apt that the Mariners this year will replace Niehaus with a committee of radio broadcasters, none likely to be memorialized with a statue outside Safeco Field as Niehaus will be. Art Thiel got it right when he wrote for seattlepi.com on the day of Niehaus’ death: “Through all the ownerships, through all the managers, general managers and players, through all the controversies, excitement and despair, Niehaus stood astride the franchise, the man from whom all sought a secular blessing.”
It will be a while before we ask Grandma to break out the rye bread and mustard. Seattle’s Hall of Fame voice is gone, our spring diminished. My, oh my, how different our Aprils will sound.