Commentary

Seattle legend Dave Niehaus dies

Longtime broadcaster brought games and players to life, connected generations of fans

Updated: November 11, 2010, 1:01 PM ET
By Jim Caple | ESPN.com

My brother called first to break the horrible, stunning news about Dave Niehaus' sudden death. The Mariners called right after that. Then my father called a minute after that. Then my nephew contacted me. And somewhere amid all that, two editors, who grew up in Washington, sent e-mails as well.

That seemed about the proper order -- family first, Mariners and work second. Niehaus was the voice of the Mariners from their very first pitch in 1977, but he was like a member of every family within radio range.

And why not? Like all the best announcers, we invited him into our living rooms and cars every night for 34 summers. Add up all the broadcasts and many of us heard his voice more often than we heard our own family. So it's no wonder family is the term I kept seeing in the quotes the Mariners sent out and in the e-mails friends and family sent. Kevin Cremin, the producer/engineer who worked alongside Niehaus for three decades, said Dave was like a brother and an uncle. Former outfielder Jay Buhner said it's like losing a father. Ken Griffey Jr. said he was like a grandfather.

The news stunned the Mariners and left many in tears and in absolute shock. Public relations manager Jeff Evans, who was born the year after the Mariners arrived in Seattle, said Niehaus "was my childhood. … My Dad and Dave Niehaus taught me baseball.''

[+] EnlargeDave Niehaus
AP Photo/Mike GrollDave Niehaus, the voice of the Mariners from April 6, 1977, through the 2010 season, was honored by the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2008.

Dave often talked about how lucky he was to have the job he did, but we were the lucky ones because we got to hear him. He was among the best there ever was. For years the Mariners were a joke, baseball's official punchline. Even this summer, they lost 101 games and hired their eighth manager in nine years. Yet Dave always made the games exciting, always brought the players alive. It didn't matter whether he was talking about the greatest players of their era (Junior, Alex Rodriguez, Randy Johnson or Ichiro Suzuki) or the worst in club history (Bob Kearney, Ben Davis or Eric Byrnes), Niehaus made everything they did seem like grand theater. Sometimes it was drama (the 1995 division series against the Yankees), occasionally it was tragedy (the end of the 2001 season) and too often it was comedy (all those losing seasons). But it was always exciting.

They replayed Dave's classic calls Wednesday, including Edgar Martinez's famous double that scored Junior and won the '95 division series. As my editor noticed, he said, "Lined down the left-field line for a base hit. Here comes JOY." I'm not sure whether he meant to say, "Here comes Joey (Cora, the lead runner and tying run)" or indeed, "Here comes Joy,'' but either way, he was right. Here comes joy.

I could go on and on about what made Niehaus great, but Mariners fans already know that. Simply put, Dave Niehaus was why Marconi invented radio.

Radio has become more and more unlistenable in the past two decades, increasingly filled with phony, needlessly angry people shouting and pretending to be outraged about trivial matters they really don't care about. But Niehaus was a wonderful oasis among all that. Tune the dial to the Mariners broadcast and it was like listening to a kindly father or grandfather tell us a story (in fact, the Mariners once had him record a CD of bedtime stories). He could be soothing, funny, suspenseful, dramatic, joyous and outrageously over the top -- often in the same inning. BREAK OUT THE RYE BREAD, GRANDMA, IT'S GRAND SALAMI TIME!!! But he was always compelling to listen to.

Junior, often credited with saving the franchise when they were threatening to move (as they so often did), said it well during an interview Wednesday with Shannon Drayer and Matt Pittman on 710 ESPN in Seattle. "He meant everything,'' Junior said. "Everybody talks about the players who went there and the players who left, but he made the Mariners who they are. Without him, the guys out there are nothing. Day in and day out, he brought the excitement and drove thousands and millions of people to the ballpark to come watch us. … This is a day that I was hoping would never come.''

He's right about that. Players come and players go. Even the ones who last the longest are only with a team for 20 or so years. And by the time they die years later, our memories of them will have faded. Not the broadcasters. They stay with a team for decades, connecting generations. Because we hear them in our homes, they become part of our families and they wind up meaning more to us than the players they describe.

As my nephew, Christian, e-mailed me, "What's most striking about Dave dying is that I didn't know him, but it feels like I did." And I think that's how most everyone felt. Which is why we're all so sad today. I don't know what the Mariners' season will be like next year or the years after, but I know those seasons will be a little sadder and a lot less enjoyable without Dave.

Good-bye, Dave. We will miss you. There goes joy.

Jim Caple is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

Jim Caple | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com