Mariners broadcaster Niehaus dead at age 75
SEATTLE — For 34 seasons, Dave Niehaus narrated baseball in the Pacific Northwest.
The golden Midwestern tones and trademark "My Oh My" and "It will fly away" tags of Seattle's first baseball icon were silenced Wednesday.
Niehaus, who called the first pitch in Seattle Mariners history and described more than three decades of occasionally good and mostly bad baseball, died Wednesday after suffering a heart attack at his suburban Bellevue home, according to his family. He was 75.
"He was one of the great broadcast voices of our generation, a true gentleman, and a credit to baseball," commissioner Bud Selig said. "He was a good friend and I will miss him. But he will be sorely missed, not only in the Pacific Northwest, where he had called Mariners games since the club's inception in 1977, but wherever the game is played."
From Diego Segui's first pitch on April 6, 1977, through the end of the 2010 season, Niehaus called 5,284 of the Mariners' 5,385 games. He was the instructor for a region void of the major league game sans the Seattle Pilots' one-year experiment in 1969. Adults and kids regularly tuned in on summer evenings to hear Niehaus try and put his best spin on what were among the worst teams in baseball during much of the club's history.
But no matter how bad the Mariners were, Niehaus never let the on-field product affect his approach to the game. He always brought enthusiasm and drama to some horrible teams, horrible games and horrible seasons.
"This is the saddest day of my life. It is like I am losing a dad, someone that was a father figure to me," former Mariners outfielder Jay Buhner said. "He was the voice of Northwest baseball and the heart of the Mariners' organization. He described everything with an art and painted a picture you could see in your mind."
At Safeco Field on Wednesday night, an image of Niehaus, who threw out the first pitch in the stadium's history when it opened during the middle of the 1999 season, was shown on the video board in center field. Twitter and Facebook were full of tributes to the broadcaster.
"This is a day that I was hoping would never come," former Seattle star Ken Griffey Jr. told the Mariners' flagship radio station Wednesday night. "It's just a sad day for all of us, not just his family, but for everybody in the great Northwest."
Niehaus was the recipient of the 2008 Ford C. Frick award and was inducted into the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is the lone Seattle Mariners representative in Cooperstown.
"Dave has truly been the heart and soul of this franchise since its inception in 1977," Mariners CEO Howard Lincoln and team president Chuck Armstrong said in a statement Wednesday night.
Niehaus got into broadcasting as a student at Indiana. He worked for the Armed Forces Network in Los Angeles and New York before anchoring himself in the L.A. market in the late 1960s and early '70s, calling games for the California Angels and UCLA football. In 1976 at the baseball winter meetings, Niehaus was encouraged to interview for the lead play-by-play job with the expansion Mariners.
He got the job, and with few exceptions, never left the seat.
"All of us in this business, guys, this is the toy department of life," Niehaus said before his Hall of Fame induction in 2008. "It's a narcotic. Anyone who is involved in this business, whether it be my end or (the writing) end or the front office end, we're lucky. We're lucky people."
As much as Griffey, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson, Edgar Martinez and Ichiro Suzuki were responsible for making Seattle relevant in professional baseball, it was Niehaus telling their stories along the way.
"He was a consummate pro at everything he did," Buhner said. "I am going to miss everything about the guy — going to miss his face, his ugly white shoes and his awful sport coats. He was one of a kind."
When Griffey returned to Seattle for the 2009 season, he was constantly on Niehaus' case, playfully badgering the broadcaster while checking in to make sure Niehaus was eating right and feeling OK. The bond between the two was developed during Griffey's first spring training with Seattle as a teenager and never wavered.
When Niehaus was honored with the Frick award, his first congratulatory call came from Griffey.
"When I got to Seattle I struggled for like the first couple weeks and he said, 'Where's that smile?'" Griffey recalled Wednesday night. "He said something and I started smiling and he said, 'That's what I want to see, that's why people come to the ballpark, to see you smile.' Those are the things that I'll never forget because he was caring and loving."
Even though Niehaus has never announced a World Series game with the Angels or Mariners, his calls during Seattle's remarkable rally during the 1995 season still bring chills to those who fondly remember the brightest time in Mariners history.
Seattle trailed the Angels by 13 games on Aug. 2 before surging to win the AL West for its first playoff berth.
In the playoffs, Niehuas was behind the mic for Martinez's Game 4 "grand salami" that propelled the Mariners for one more day of the AL Division Series against the New York Yankees.
His call of Martinez's double that beat the Yankees in the 11th inning of Game 5 a day later was being replayed all around the Northwest on Wednesday night.
"Right now, the Mariners looking for the tie. They would take a fly ball, they would love a base hit into the gap and they could win it with Junior's speed. The stretch ... and the 0-1 pitch on the way to Edgar Martinez, swung on and LINED DOWN THE LEFT-FIELD LINE FOR A BASE HIT! HERE COMES JOEY, HERE IS JUNIOR TO THIRD BASE, THEY'RE GOING TO WAVE HIM IN! THE THROW TO THE PLATE WILL BE ... LATE! THE MARINERS ARE GOING TO PLAY FOR THE AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP! I DON'T BELIEVE IT! IT JUST CONTINUES! MY OH MY!"
Niehaus later said Martinez's double wasn't his favorite call during his career. That honor belonged to the first pitch from Segui that set Seattle on its voyage. But Niehaus realized "The Double" — as its become known in the Northwest — was the one he'd be the most identified with.
Niehaus had heart problems in the mid 1990s that forced changes in old habits. He stopped smoking and started eating better. He is survived by wife Marilyn, sons Andy, Matt, daughter Greta and six grandchildren.
"Dave was the best there ever was," said Mariners producer/engeiner Kevin Cremin, who sat next to Niehaus on Seattle broadcasts for the last 28 years. "Best guy. Best announcer. Best friend. No one could draw you into the moment, the drama of a game like he could. They broke the mold when they made Dave."