One spring about 15 years ago, the Seattle Mariners front office and staff challenged the media to a softball game in camp, and we played it on the half field of the Peoria complex – the one with the regulatiion infield and an outfield fence right on top of you.
Howard Lincoln was playing first base, Rick Rizzs was at third and I’d hit home runs in my first three at-bats against traveling secretary Ron Spelecy – two of them on fly balls that would have been easily caught on a normal softball field. About midway through the game, Dave Niehaus wandered over and stood near the first base dugout, happily amused by all our efforts.
My fourth at-bat, I walked to the plate and suddenly heard that voice describing my first three at-bats as if he were broadcasting to the entire Northwest. Suddenly, I was the strong left fielder from the News Tribune, taking a pitch from the crafty Spelecy, waving the aluminum back and forth. I think everyone on the field smiled, and I had no more hit one of Spelacy’s floaters than Niehaus went into maximum volume.
I heard “That ball is belted’ and ‘it will fly, fly away’ and by the time I got to second base, laughing, Dave was wildly describing my fourth home run of the day as if I’d actually accomplished something. When I trotted home, Dave was beaming and so was I. He knew the impact his voice could have and he’d actually enjoyed mock-broadcasting the moment for me.
Try forgetting something like that.
Dave broadcast what he saw, what he felt and what he thought, and there were times players didn’t always like what he said – usually having had it told to them through some second party who listened to the broadcast.
The year Tony Phillips came into Seattle with the White Sox and was ejected from two games, Niehaus described both on-field blowups. A week later, in Chicago for a series there, he and I were sitting in the visitors dugout watching the White Sox take batting practice when Phillips spotted him. He walked over, clearly irate.
“Niehaus!’ Phillips yelled. “I got a bone to pick with you! I heard you said I needed anger management.”
Dave didn’t blink, though he might have shaken his head.
“No,” he said. “I said you were a candidate for anger management.”
“Oh,” Phillips said. “Well, that’s true.”
All three of us laughed.
I’d been covering the Mariners 20 years with Dave when I had a heart attack in 2008 and died. I got better, but I was in a coma for a few days, in the hospital three weeks. One of the first telephone calls to my home that first night was from Dave. I wouldn’t hear if for a few weeks, but my wife heard it when she got home from the hospital and it may have saved her sanity. We still have the message.
Here was that wonderfully warm, familiar voice telling me I was going to get through this, describing his own attacks in ’96 and how he’d come back as strong as ever. When she heard it, my wife cried. When I heard it, I did, too.
Dave Niehaus could do that to you, and his voice was only part of it. He was a Hall of Fame broadcaster in the booth, and out of it a man who cared for those around him. He may not have been family, but he made you feel he was.