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Dave Niehaus: bigger than baseball

1977 Seatle Mariners cap.

How bout them M's?

With all due respect, Governor Gregoire’s obligatory elegiac Wednesday night press release got it wrong.  Dave Niehaus was much more than simply a “sports icon.” I’m not a sports fan, but I’ve long recognized Niehaus as one of the last living members of the Golden Age of Local Broadcasting, that era beginning in the 1930s and ending in the past decade or so when radio (and later TV) functioned as a kind of regional, middlebrow glue.

We may not have agreed with our neighbors about religion or politics, or had anything in common other than the climate, but by listening to and watching the same local news, sports, and entertainment, we shared a connection that made our community more of a, well, community.

The “ether bonds” fostered by local broadcasting often paid off most in challenging times — when storms or earthquakes (or sadness) might temporarily shuffle us into a group with strangers on a bus or in our office building, or with neighbors we’d never met, but whose moral support or practical assistance we might suddenly need.  What were we most likely to have in common during that Golden Age?  Local broadcasting — Pat O’Day playing Top 40 on KJR, J.P. Patches holding forth from the City Dump on KIRO, Dave Niehaus calling the Mariners.  The full list is long, but, as Dave Niehaus’ death reminds us, its living ranks are shrinking.

Bobo the gorilla died at Woodland Park Zoo when I was in utero.  I missed the 1962 World’s Fair.  I wasn’t registered in time to vote for METRO or even Forward Thrust.  I’ve only seen grainy film of the barrel roll of the Dash 80 over Lake Washington.  I’ve only heard stories about Slo-Mo IV’s incredible Gold Cup hydroplane victory in Detroit.  I never went to a War Bond Rally at Victory Square downtown.  Yes, being born in 1968 put me at a distinct disadvantage in terms of being on hand for key moments in Seattle history.

I may have missed those earlier times, but I was here for the ’95 Mariners, and I pity anyone who loves Seattle who wasn’t around for what was arguably the most exciting few months in the city’s history.  If you weren’t here then, it’s almost impossible to convey the drama that unfolded from August to October of that year as the Mariners made it to the playoffs for the first time in their otherwise hapless history.

Sure, Dave’s call of “The Double” has been played over and over again in the hours since his death was announced, and rightfully so.  But the Mariners’ incredible — unlikely?  mythical? legendary? — streak of come-from-behind wins that summer and early fall were unreal, like an even more drawn out “Ring Cycle” for baseball.  “I DON’T BELIEVE IT!,” as Dave would say (and as he often did that year).

And when I say I was “here” for the ’95 Mariners, I mean I was in Seattle — mowing the grass, raking leaves, sweeping the path, walking the dog.  I never attended a single Mariners game that year.  I didn’t have to, since I could tune in the radio around the seventh inning or so (when it got interesting enough for a non-fan like me) and hear Dave describe another nail-biting, improbable Mariners’ victory as I went about my September chores.

I’m sorry that Dave never got to go to the World Series with the Mariners. For that matter, I’m sorry that none us has ever got to go to the World Series with the Mariners.  But I swear the Mariners will never be as exciting as they were in 1995.  World Series or not.

I guess you had to be here to understand.  Thanks to Dave, I was.

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