It might be a strange thing to say, but I think a piece of my life passed away last Wednesday.
Dave Neihaus, the voice of the Seattle Mariners, died suddenly of a heart attack after 33 years with the team. That's the entire history of the club - and the entire history of me.
I was born within a week of the Mariners first spring training in 1977 and have been hearing the wonderful sounds of Neihaus as far back as I can remember. When I was a kid we lived around the Seattle area - on the hill, in Lynnwood, Everett. I can clearly remember many summer evenings out in the backyard with my dad, me playing while he was up to one project or another, all the while with a tiny handheld radio tucked in his shirt pocket, the sounds of Neihaus and the Mariners loud and clear. These are my first baseball memories. That and wiffle ball games with frisbees as bases. Even when we would go to the games at the Kingdome a couple times a year my dad would still have his little radio with him so Dave would be a part of the experience.
The sound of Neihaus calling a game has followed me through my life, and the many ups, and mostly downs, of following the Mariners.
At my first job after high school, as a photo tech at the Coos Bay World newspaper in the fall of 1995, I remember sitting perched around a little stereo with the guys from the sports department, listening intently to game five of the American League Division Series as Neihaus made his most famous call, what would come to be known simply as "the double:"
"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!"
A lot of folks will go to the patented lines of "My oh my!" or "It will fly, fly away!" as their favorite Neihaus lines, but for me, I'd go with "It just continues!" It was one he didn't pull out of his bag of tricks very often, but when he did you knew it was something big. That moment, as we all jumped in the air in excitement, was indeed something big, huge even, for us fans.
That is exactly why when the Mariners were three outs away from winning the AL West title two years later I muted the TV at my future sister-in-law's apartment and turned on the radio for the ninth inning so I could remember that moment with Dave.
But with a team like the Mariners these kinds of moments tended to be, unfortunately, few and far between over the years. During the last 33 years Neihaus called 5,284 of the Mariners 5,385 games, only 34 of which were playoff games. The Mariners have also had only nine winning seasons during that stretch as well. And this is perhaps why Neihaus was so great. Despite watching some of the worst baseball to be played in the modern era, Neihaus continued to bring people back night after night, season after season. Gene Autry, the singing cowboy who owned the California Angels, once told Dave, "You call a hell of a game. Not the game I'm watching, but you call a hell of a game!" referring to Dave's creativity on the air.
The summer of 1997 I was living on my own in Centralia. The Mariners and I turned 20 and the team was having, up to that point, their best year record-wise. Without the funds for cable, I spent the vast majority of my nights lying on the couch with Dave on the radio next to me. He was like an old friend, there to keep me company in a strange, lonely place. In the midst of a long, poorly played game one night, he went off on one of his tangents, as he would do, sometimes telling stories. On this occasion, over the course of a few innings, he taught me how to keep a scorecard. A few days later on a rainy Saturday afternoon, I put these new skills to work as Randy Johnson pitched a one-hitter at Detroit, striking out 15.
After hearing about his passing, I thought back, trying to remember if I had ever had the chance to meet him. I hadn't. I'd met Rick Rizzs once a few years back, but the closest I came to Dave was back in 2002, when the M's were playing a preseason game against the Padres at Civic Stadium in Portland. I was shooting the game (one of only two M's games I've covered for my job) and had an all-access pass (which still hangs on a bulletin board in my house) and I made sure to take a walk up to where the broadcasters were set up before leaving. Dave was bundled up in a huge team jacket, as it was a cold spring day, and was busy at work. He had a big smile on his face, which didn't surprise me, as he always sounded like he was talking with a smile on the radio, win or lose, good game or bad.
He also had the tendency to get so excited when something good would happen that he made himself hoarse and out of breath. "Swung on and belted, deep to right field!" Sometimes he would only get through the first half of that signature line before his voice would audibly change. Perhaps the best combination of this was his grand slam call. "Get out the rye bread and mustard grandma, it's grand salami time!"
A few years ago I received a Mariners bottle cap opener in the mail that when used plays the grand salami call. I have to say it's become rare for me to have a frosty adult beverage these days, but as I write this there is nothing I'd rather do than dig that out of the drawer and pop open a cold one for Dave.
Fly, fly away Dave, our summers will never be the same.