April 6, 1977, was the night we all started suffering together. The difference the past third of a century is that, for Dave Niehaus, the optimism always seemed to trump what for many of us was the fatalism of a kind of cursed brand of Seattle baseball that never would lead to anything transcendent.
Niehaus, who died today (of a heart attack, it’s being reported as I write this), seemed to realize that what is transcendent about baseball isn’t necessarily winning pennants or proceeding through the playoffs to a World Series championship. That stuff is transitory.
For him it was the virtual eternity of the daily ritual during the endless-seeming season: tape the pregame comments with the Seattle Mariners manager; visit with his press-box peers (well, nominally so); wander onto the field during batting practice, bantering with anybody about anything; accept the adulation of what may have been more well-wishers and admirers than anyone connected with Seattle has ever had.
Then came the good part. Whether it was the 7-0 loss to the Angels opening night, 1977, or the Refuse to Lose epic fifth game of the ’95 playoffs with the Yankees, it didn't seem to matter with Niehaus. Whether the M's won or (more likely for this franchise) lost, he genuinely loved everything connected with baseball.
He must have. Under his watch as the only lead announcer the club ever had, the M's obviously under-performed. They're now but one of two remaining franchises never to play in a World Series and their roster and management woes have been described, reported, and lamented to distraction.
But the on-field folly never fazed Dave Niehaus. He just loved the damned game.
His artistry as a raconteur was such that he could digress during an M's dressing-down (never better than with Ron Fairly) in tangents intended to distract listeners from the disaster on the field. I'd pay a lot to have a tape, for example of the time the M's were being annihilated and, observing it dutifully but peripherally, Niehaus and Fairly kept a patter going about, of all things, the variety of exotic "meat" they’d eaten. It went on for a full half inning. I paraphrase:
Fairly: “Ever eat snake?”
Niehaus: “Yep.” Pause. “Just like they say. Tastes just like chicken.” Pause.
Niehaus: “Uh huh . . . just like chicken.”
On this and many occasions the "game-calling" was much better than the game. It was little wonder that Niehaus won a Baseball Hall of Fame appointment. If he'd announced in a major market, the honor might've arrived a decade sooner.
Detractors I know from other markets sometimes called Niehaus a hopeless "homer." Most announcers are. But I probably listened to as many minutes (well, hours, days, years) of Niehaus as anybody and I distinctly recall many instances of him leveling with listeners about the shortcomings of the almost-always short-came club.
During his recent years I wondered (and mused in writing) whether Niehaus’s eyesight was bad. His one-time expert observations of, say, a ball hit into "deep" center field lately were describing a ball that turned out to be a routine fly-out.
I also took issue with his incorrigible use of "irony" when he really meant "coincidence."
One ongoing Niehaus mischaracterization was his reference to the "batter" as the “hitter,” infectious in that, top to bottom, all M’s personnel seem to have taken on the same way of referring to the guy at the plate.
I’ve long-since appreciated that Niehaus understood the distinction. But he realized that merely to be a "batter" isn’t nearly as kinetic, optimistic, hopeful as being known as the "hitter." If Niehaus called the guy a hitter, maybe that’s what the player would become.
One can’t comprehend what it will be like next season without the mellifluous voice of this master audio artist coming across the airwaves for hundreds of hours of narration that have become synonymous with summers in Seattle. The first call I got when the news broke a while ago, not surprisingly, was from my 31-year old son, lamenting the loss from a perspective of a generation of lucky listeners who have never known anything but Niehausisms. (Who but Niehaus eschewed the clichéd “that’s two outs,” preferring “that’s two in the mud”?)
Knowing the announcer only peripherally, though, I would imagine he would have advised those who are certain to endure the void of his absence simply to keep watching and listening to baseball, and loving it as he did. It won’t sound the same. How could it? What so many of us clung to with this clumsy, often crummy franchise is gone.
Left behind is the most obvious, hauntingly optimistic epitaph imaginable: Fly, fly away.
Next page: A KCTS 9 video where Niehaus talks about his induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.