WALLA WALLA — As I listened to a Mariners pregame radio broadcast over my headphones recently as I jogged up Tieton Street, I was reminded of how much I miss Dave Niehaus.
The M’s broadcast team was discussing a fine throw by center fielder Michael Saunders the previous night that cut down an enemy runner at home plate and temporarily preserved a tie game Seattle would eventually lose to Boston 5-4 in 15 innings.
As part of that discussion they replayed Niehaus’ famous call of Ichiro Suzuki’s stunning throw from right field to third base in April of 2001 that has become such a cherished moment in Mariners lore.
It’s impossible, of course, to recreate Niehaus’s voice inflections, his innate timing and his sense of excitement here on the printed page. You have to use your imagination for that. But here’s the call verbatim:
"Terrance Long, his lead over at first, here comes a 3-2 pitch on the way, swung on and a ground ball punched into right field for a base hit. So heading to third base is Long and the throw to third base and they have him nailed at third base on a tremendous throw from Ichiro. I’m here to tell you that Ichiro threw something out of Star Wars down there at third base. He fired a shot about two feet off the ground all the way on the fly to David Bell and Terrance Long was D (pause) O (pause) A (pause). What a throw."
Vintage Dave Niehaus, the Mariners’ Hall of Fame play-by play announcer from the team’s inception in 1977 until his death in November of 2010 at the age of 75. In the blink of an eye that April afternoon he incorporated a movie reference, a police/hospital acronym and typical baseball jargon into a high-decibel description of what was happening on the field.
Niehaus had a natural gift that allowed his listeners to feel as though they were right there beside him in the broadcast booth as he painted pictures of what he witnessed on the field of play. He could drop his voice several octaves as a pitch would sink “loooow” and out of the strike zone, then suddenly rise in a crescendo of emotion as the Mariners made a key play in the field or delivered an important hit.
I grew up in the Midwest, one ear glued to my transistor as I listened to the likes of Harry Caray and Ernie Harwell and Herb Carneal, three of the greatest play-by-play announcers of their era. I never realized until late in his career that Dave Niehaus belonged to that very same club.
Today’s Mariners broadcast team has a tough act to follow.
Rick Rizzs, Niehaus partner in the booth from 1983 through 1991 and again from 1995 until Niehaus’ death, is now the lead announcer in the radio booth. And Dave Sims, in his seventh season, handles play-by-play duties for television.
Aaron Goldsmith, new to the organization this year, is partnered with Rizzs and Mike Blowers, a former big league player, joins Sims on the TV side.
Although Rizzs would no doubt be the first to admit he can’t duplicate Niehaus’ flare — who could? — his play-by-play skills are above reproach. He can accurately describe what’s happening on the field with the best of them and far better than most that I listen to over satellite radio.
If Rizzs has a shortcoming, it’s his inability (unwillingness?) to be critical when things are going badly for the M’s, which has been more often than not in recent years. And that stands in stark contrast to Niehaus, who was never afraid to place blame where and when it was due.
Sims is another consummate pro with a wealth of national experience. He has called big league baseball and college basketball games for ESPN as well as NFL games on Westwood One/CBS. The two-time Emmy Award winning broadcaster has also worked NCAA regular season and tournament basketball games and is the co-host of a weekly XM Satellite Radio show “Basketball and Beyond” with Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski during the winter months.
You wonder, though, if Sims has ever completely bought into the Seattle scene, or if his Mariners gig is little more than a summer job.
Not so Blowers, however, who grew up in the Northwest, graduated from Bothel High School in Spanaway. Wash., and played baseball at Tacoma Community College and the University of Washington before being drafted by the Expos in 1986. Blowers played 11 seasons in the big leagues, including three different tours of duty with the Mariners, and his best year was 1995 when he hit .257 for the M’s with 23 home runs and 96 runs batted in.
As a TV analyst, his playing background provides an abundance of experience and insight that adds greatly to any telecast. It’s just that Blowers can’t seem to muster an ounce of emotion.
His voice is as flat as a Nebraska cornfield, and that makes it hard to get excited about anything he has to say.
At 29 years of age, Goldsmith is easily the youngest of the quartet. And the least experienced.
But with his enthusiasm, his richly textured voice and solid play-by-play skills, Goldsmith has a bright future in the broadcast field. And I’m sure the Mariners knew exactly what they were doing when they made Goldsmith their first fulltime radio hire — other than Rizzs, of course — since Niehaus’ death in 2010.
Soon to be 60 and now in his 28th season in Seattle — sandwiched around a three-year stint as the Tigers’ lead announcer — it would seem that Rizzs is to Goldsmith what Niehaus was to Rizzs.
And if and when the day comes when Goldsmith assumes the lead role in Seattle, he realizes the standard he will be held to.
“Nobody will ever replace him,” Goldsmith said of Niehaus when he was introduced in Seattle. “Nobody wants to replace him.
“To me, it’s just a tremendous honor to be given the challenge to try and keep that standard of excellence on a daily basis. Guys have done this on the highest level here, and it’s up to me to not drop that torch. That’s something that will always be in the front of my mind.”