On the deck behind his home, enjoying his second-favorite view of the Northwest - Safeco Field being the first - Dave Niehaus had a heart attack Wednesday.
At 75, the voice of the Seattle Mariners died, leaving an extended family that included players and fans in mourning.
“I just drove home from the grocery store and someone called to tell me the news, and I almost threw up,” former Mariners outfielder Jay Buhner said. “I haven’t cried since my mom died last year. This hurts. I lost a family member. We all did.”
For anyone who ever listened to a Mariners broadcast, from the first pitch in the Kingdome in 1977 to the last at Safeco Field in 2010, Niehaus was the familiar voice describing the game.
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Wife Marilyn, his three children and his eight grandchildren were his blood, but baseball was his life.
“He’s what you think of when you think of the Mariners,” said former first baseman John Olerud. “Dave was baseball in the Northwest.”
When then-owner Danny Kaye hired Niehaus away from Southern California, where he had broadcast everything from UCLA football to Angels baseball, he brought in a man who became an icon.
“We had the good fortune of hearing Dave all of our lives in the Northwest, and we have to appreciate and cherish that,” said pitcher Jamie Moyer. “The celebration of a life and how he touched so many people is what it’s all about.”
Through the lean, early years of Mariners baseball, Niehaus may have done as much as anyone on the field to keep baseball alive.
“The most amazing thing was, you’d have thought we were the New York Yankees and had 27 championships – he made our games sound like we were going to the World Series,” former M’s second baseman Harold Reynolds said. “We might be 20-81, but he made it sound like we always had a chance.”
Niehaus received the Ford C. Frick Award in 2008, reaching a cherished goal – induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
His often-heard “My, oh my!” became his signature call, and his broadcast of the ’95 postseason captured the imagination of fans listening to a ragtag group of Mariners beating the New York Yankees.
When Edgar Martinez doubled Ken Griffey Jr. home for the deciding run in that American League Division Series, this was Dave’s call:
“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!”
Small wonder when the Mariners opened Safeco Field, fans voted to have Niehaus – not a player – throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
“Dave has truly been the heart and soul of this franchise since its inception in 1977,” team president Chuck Armstrong said. “Since calling Diego Segui’s first pitch strike on opening night in the Kingdome Dave’s voice has been the constant with the franchise. He truly was the fans’ connection to every game.”
Niehaus had a history of heart problems. Twice he had angioplasty procedures in 1998. But he returned to the booth soon after, having quit smoking and drinking. That didn’t surprise his radio producer, Kevin Cremin.
“Dave was the best there ever was. Best guy, best announcer, best friend. No one could draw you into the moment, the drama of a game like he could,” Cremin said. “His style, his mannerisms, he was one of a kind.
“He was like a brother, an uncle, a relative to me. He brought me here; it will never be the same without him. No one could paint the picture like Dave. The Voice has been silenced, but we can still hear him. We always will.”
Reynolds, then a young second baseman, said meeting Niehaus had a profound effect on him.
“I was 19 when I met Dave, and he was one of the greatest people I’ve ever known,” Reynolds said. “He loved everyone. Those of us who spent time around him, he was a father to everyone – no matter what race, religion or what color, he loved everyone.”
Ken Griffey Jr., in a radio interview Wednesday, was obviously moved.
“It’s tough because he’s like that grandfather to all of us, especially Jay, me, Edgar (Martinez) and Dan (Wilson) and so many other Mariners,” Griffey said. “He would give you a little bit of advice, and he was tough on you when he needed to be. This is a day that I was hoping would never come.
“When I got drafted he came up to me and just looked at me and said: ‘You’re going to be a good one,’ and he said, ‘go out and have fun.’ Those are the things that I’ll never forget because he was caring and loving.
“You didn’t know if you were the number one guy on the team or the number 25 guy on the team, he treated everybody the same.”
Those who shared the broadcast booth felt the same.
“I’m so grateful I called some games this year – and the absolute pleasure and honor of sitting next to Dave for four innings a night with one of the most recognizable names in America,” Buhner said. “He could be full of bleep, but he was a beautiful person, a great storyteller. I’ll miss those (ugly) white shoes and the orange coats – and his hugs. I loved him.”
Ron Fairly recalled Niehaus the fan.
“The thing that sticks out about Dave is that he genuinely loved baseball and the Mariners,” Fairly said. “What you heard on the radio and TV, that was exactly Dave. He put everything he had into the Seattle Mariners and the broadcast every night. He was a huge Mariners fan, probably the biggest one in the Northwest.”
Former M’s relief pitcher Norm Charlton remembered Niehaus away from the broadcast booth.
“Dave did it his way. He never stopped working and having fun,” Charlton said. “He always had a smile on his face, always had a joke or two, usually not too clean but always funny. I’ll miss him. It’s a sad day for baseball.”
Hours after the news of Niehaus’ death, baseball commissioner Bud Selig issued a statement.
“All of baseball is terribly saddened tonight by the tragic news that Dave Niehaus, the voice of the Seattle Mariners, has passed away,” Selig said. “He was one of the great broadcast voices of our generation, a true gentleman and a credit to baseball. 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. Dave was a Hall of Famer in every way.”
In an interview last year, Niehaus explained why he did what he did.
“I love the game, the broadcast booth, seeing the diamond in every ballpark we go to,” he said. “It’s all I ever wanted to do, and I’ve gotten the chance to do it for a long time.
“I’ve enjoyed every minute of it. I’m a lucky man.”