It’s hyperbole to say that I grew up with Dave Niehaus. It’s cliche to say that I fell asleep to his voice, Walkmen wrung around my head as the Kingdome’s buzz rocked my eight-year-old self to sleep. It’s silly to say that the man was the soul of an oft-gutless organization, the beating heart, and bleating voice of a team that was more laughable than laudable—of one of the two organizations that has never, ever made a World Series.
It’s all over the top. But it’s all true. I was raised on Dave Niehaus, just as I was raised with the rain-soaked fall and Stanich’s grease and the hardcourts of CYO basketball.
The man filled in all the odd, in-between spaces of life in the Northwest—the times between the Blazers and the Rose Festival, the drives to the coast and to the Sound and to Mt. Hood. He came out my car stereo on those innumerable drives to and from Seattle, translating the sound of the game into a language we could understand. He was always, always there.
And now, he’s not.
Dave passed away yesterday at the age of 75, felled by a heart attack.
You could tell his best days were far behind him. Any time the camera found him—which seemed rarer by the season—he looked bloated and red, struggling to stand, struggling to breathe. His physicality was notably frail. A few years back, he began suffering heart troubles, missing large stretches at a time. But he was back. He was always back, always with a story, telling us of Amaral’s speed and Sexson’s hacks and Ichiro’s magnificence. Always with the same mellifluous voice, the one that wouldn’t falter no matter how many losing seasons he had to endure.
His voice wasn’t what one would expect from a Hall of Fame announcer. It was tiny and excitable, rather than booming or hearty or loquacious. As the guys at Lookout Landing said, you could always tell when the Mariners were doing well—Dave’s voice had the range of the most talented choir singers, even if his pitch wasn’t always something to write home on.
In 1977, when the Mariners were first born, when Diego Segui first fired the fastball across the meat of the plate and returned professional baseball to the Pacific Northwest, Dave was there. When the 1980s saw the team claim the dregs of the decade, he was there. When Edgar struck that Double, sending Cora flitting home, sending Junior spinning behind him—“THE THROW TO THE PLATE WILL BE … LATE! THE MARINERS ARE GOING TO PLAY IN THE AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP! I DON’T BELIEVE IT! IT JUST CONTINUES! MY OH MY!”
Dave was there. When Ichiro rose, when 116 flopped, when Lou and Buhner and Junior all faded from the game, Dave was there. And Dave continued on to the next one, always with us tailing ever eager behind.
I don’t know where or how Dave ranks against the greats, against the Harry Carays, against the Ernie Harwells, against the Harry Kalases. His voice, in a sense, exists in a vacuum, and I have to take others’ words—and those of the voices who elected him to the HOF in 2008—as evidence of his position in the framework of baseball.
I only had a few chance encounters with him, between spring training and work in the world of sports journalism. But I feel like I knew the man intimately, unequivocally, unremittingly. I knew him, and all that he asked was that I listen. And that was all I wanted to do.
He was our grandfather, the one with the painfully white shoes and the seamlessly sewn narratives, connecting past to present, simultaneously wry and professional. He was the team’s lone constant. He was also the team’s greatest export, and the greatest part of baseball in the Northwest.
A friend of mine once said that life is but a movie—the only thing that’s missing is the soundtrack. Dave was that soundtrack. Now, the track is over.
Rest in peace, Dave. You’ve finally made it to your World Series. Have a Grand Salami for us.