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Sunday, June 19, 1994 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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My, Oh My! -- Mariners' Announcer Dave Niehaus Pitches His Spiel Of Dreams -- It's The Voice -- Dave Niehaus Helps Fans Imagine A More Perfect Game

"Loooow, ball."

There it is again. I'm on my knees in the garden, elbow deep in weeds and mulch. I should be hearing birds tweeting, the sounds of nature.

Instead, there's that voice. Gravel scraping on aluminum. Ewes bleating for dinner. Gears grinding.

"Back, back, back to the track, to the wall . . ."

Yakety, yakety, yakety. Machine-gun fire delivered by a bazooka.

I sigh. I'm captive. My husband and son hang on every hyped word emitted from the radio - they hoot and shake their heads, mumbling about something called a "frozen rope" as the gravely voice fills the air above the roses and herbs, surrounds the peas and shakes the bean stalks.

This is the story of a conversion akin to that of Saul on the road to Damascus. It's the story of how one woman of a certain age, a woman who listens to opera and enjoys nothing more than tromping around on trails in the mountains, came to love baseball because of a disembodied voice.

In the days before that conversion, I heard the radio blaring and thought, what's the big deal here anyway? The wacko males in my family dragged me to a baseball game in the Kingdome once - cheap seats, 200 level. The players looked like ants, the ball like a speck of dust. The only way you could see what was happening was on little TV monitors that you had to squiggle your neck to see.

It didn't matter, no one bothered. Kids tripped over me, spilling cokes and waving toy bats dangerously close to my nose. Big-bellied men shouted insults at the ants and spilled their beer. The umpire looked like an oversized hot pad with half-moon sweat stains. My shoes stuck to the floor, pulling away with a "thwaaack."

If they weren't catching peanuts from a guy who looked like somebody you'd warn your daughter about, the crowd around me was guessing which hat hid the ball in an inane game on the big screen. Grown men rooted on their color choice for winner in the videoed hydroplane races. Film clips from "Cheers," for some unknown reason, flashed over the diamond. Once in a while fireworks exposed the ragged secret shabbiness of the dome ceiling.

I felt like I needed a shower.

"Swiiiiiing andamiss."

I thought it was the lawn mower starting, but no, it's that voice again. All the subtlety of a blue jay's caw. I reach for a weed. Suddenly, the peaceful sky explodes with words: "It's BELTED to center field, an upper deck shot. Ken Griffey Jr. goes deep, DEEP, DEEP and upstairs." There's a flash in my head, right behind my eyes. I can see that ball going; no, I can see it "BELTED" much better than when I was there.

I take an aspirin. Maybe it's the sun.

"Mercy, what a double play. An unbelieeeevable double play, as great a double play as you will ever see and you will be seeing it for some time."

Mercy? It's another day, another weeding session, another fusillade of words from The Voice. When was the last time you ever heard anyone use the word "mercy"? I find myself listening.

"It's a chance for the Mariners to put some crooked numbers on the board," the growling voice says later. Crooked numbers? I have to think about that one, but the score, which I suddenly realize I know, is 1-0, M's. Those numbers above 1 are, well, crooked. I smile.

"LOU MOVES HIS CHESS pieces around . . . Mo is wavin' that black bat back and forth . . . it's right across the letters for a strike . . . the crowd is coming alive after that rocket." It's happening again. I see Lou heading for the mound, I feel the nervous energy of that bat, I know just where that pitch crossed the plate. I move a little closer to the radio.

The conversion is complete. Saul has fallen off the horse and I am blinded by the disease of summer, baseball fever.

Thanks to The Voice - which is actually the mouth of the Mariners, otherwise known as Dave Niehaus - my friends now give me baseball cards for Christmas. I know what a double play is. I have a poster of Randy Johnson leaning on the Space Needle. I go to the games, I yell at players. I know their nicknames. I spill beer. I favor the red hydroplane.

"Hello, everyba-awdy . . ."

Dave Niehaus goes into his windup and suddenly the summer afternoon is sunny, the next few hours are taken care of by him. The man himself is most often invisible. He's a baseball player, but his tools are not the ball and bat, but the headset, the microphone and - most of all - that Voice. It cracks. It swoops. It's full of cigarette smoke and whiskey. It is a little like, as pitcher Randy Johnson describes it, a trombone: It slides.

The man behind the voice is best described as a nice guy. He has a nice family, a nice wife who says she "spends a lot of time at the airport," a nice house overlooking the lake on the Eastside.

Niehaus, 59, is round-faced, rather gracious, with a penchant for wild ties and pastel pants. He's from the Midwest. ("The great announcers are from the Midwest and the South. They have that folksy feel. They grew up on the front porch. After all, baseball is a country game, not a city game," says Niehaus's sidekick Kevin Cremin, the engineer/producer of the Mariners' radio show.) And he likes to tell, despite the eye-rolling of his friends in the broadcast booth, of the days of his childhood when he sat on the front porch eating watermelon, catching fireflies in the twilight and listening to Harry Caray broadcast the St. Louis Cardinals.

Like many nice people, he's addicted to the lifestyle in the Northwest, so attached that he's stuck with a losing ball team longer than anyone else there: 18 years. He doesn't love the Kingdome, in fact hates going inside at 3:30 p.m. on a summer afternoon, though he always loves going to the ballpark, the consummate fan.

Niehaus never wanted to be a baseball player, nor really even a sports broadcaster. In college, he set out to be a dentist. What he came to be, after a stint in the Army, is a storyteller. You can hear echoes of his famous tones when he's just talking, but this gentlemanly guy has a switch inside that he turns on when he turns on the microphone; it's then that the stories pour out, one chapter per inning, one plot-filled game after another.

His workday begins at about 3:30 p.m. when he's in town. Up in the booth high over home plate, he and fellow announcer Ron Fairly (or Chip Caray or Ken Levine, depending on the game) read that day's papers, glance at the media guide for the visiting team and chat about the last game, the pre-game show, what manager Lou Piniella should have done, who's on the disabled list. Niehaus looks a little like a licorice allsort: He sports pink pants, black shoes, a white shirt with pink and red tie.

A rather formal-looking guy, he buttons a black sports coat over his midriff to head down to the dugout to interview Piniella or a player for the pre-game show. He gets along down there ("He's a super guy, I like him a lot," says player Mike Blowers; "I listen to him if I get kicked out of a game. He's a pro, he does his job," says Piniella), but it's behind the mike that he seems more at home, ready to spin his nightly Scheherazade. There is no script; the words, he says, come tumbling out impromptu.

"It was a Sunday, we lost a tough Saturday afternoon game with Baltimore and I've got to go on television," Niehaus recalls a recent game at Camden Yards in Baltimore. "Some of the guys ask what I'm going to say. I tell them I always open my mouth and something has come out. And just before I went on the air the sun came out, it was 80 degrees, and it just popped out: `The late Sherm Feller was not only a colorful PA announcer, he was a composer. And his biggest hit was `Summertime, Summertime.' Today he must be looking down on Camden Yards in Baltimore and smiling because, indeed, it is summertime. Hello, everybawdy . . .' " The trombone slides, The Voice deepens.

To Niehaus, each game is its own complete story: "No two are alike." In the booth before the game, he prepares for the day's plot to unfold below him on the diamond in the Kingdome-filtered light. His scorebook is neatly printed with notes about players, positions and trivia.

"I am a big fan of Mike Mailway's, I go through his stuff and will throughout the winter save a little incidental minutiae or something, funny little things that I think are great." For example, Niehaus throws in a fact: One cowhide produces 90 baseballs and 20 footballs.

"All of a sudden, somebody who's not really listening will say, `What did he say?' and then get back on track," says Niehaus, who envisions his audience as three or four people sitting in their living room, or a guy in a tractor cab in an Eastern Washington wheat field. "If I thought about 50,000 listening, I'd get scared."

In the booth, one minute Niehaus is chatting with Cremin, who reigns over two shelves of baseball books and stats in addition to making sure The Voice actually reaches the listeners. The next, he's riveted to the chair in front of the big German microphone, headset on, back tense, feet twitching, calling the plays with split-second timing. His mouth works, stretching around the vowels and words, his lips poof in and out fishlike as he talks, his eyes pop, his forehead furrows. Verbs fly around the booth: "It was one year ago that Bosio electrified the crowd"; "Buhner blisters one to left field." Adjectives dot the air: "Bosio has been a tough-luck pitcher this year." Nouns take on new sounds: "Junior had a screaming meemie of a home run yesterday"; "There are three players out there in a kind of Bermuda triangle."

Niehaus gestures, though he's on the radio, fingers pointing at players, shoulders shrugging. (It could be he's just wishing for a cigarette; as you can tell from The Voice, he does smoke, though he prefers vodka to whiskey, according to Cremin.)

A commercial comes on, the headset comes off. "That guy is like a gnat, swat him and he keeps coming back," Niehaus says of a player. Headset goes back on, the switch is turned on and the Voice begins again.

Another break and it's time for the Gene Autry impression. Previous to coming to the M's, Niehaus was with Autry's California Angels. His eyes slit a little. "Autry came up to me and said, "You call a hell of a game. It's not the game I'm watching, but it's a hell of a game," Niehaus says with a drawl.

Impressions and a repertory of jokes aside, Niehaus is serious about language, and it's that musician's feeling for phrasing that reels in the hovering gardener, the could-be fan.

Fellow announcer Ken Levine, who's also a writer for sitcoms such as "Wings," "Cheers," and "The Simpsons," says part of Niehaus' charm is that love of the language. "He delights in verbiage, different expressions, has a great ear for Americana, and loves different analogies," Levine says.

"And that will ---- flyyyyyyy away."

Niehaus' signature home-run call is, he says, his only contrived call. Even the by-now-trademark "My, oh my" is extemporaneous, and "just evolved" along with the other Niehaus-isms. Of course, the home-run call has a story too: "In 1977, I had a common home-run call - it's gone or something. J Michael Kenyon from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and I were in Arizona, the radio was on and some group was singing, `It will fly away.' I said that is exactly what a baseball does. I used it and it took off like wildfire."

"And just like that, the sacks are full of Mariners."

AND JUST LIKE THAT, it was in 1976 that Seattle called Niehaus. Actor Danny Kaye, one of the six founders of the Mariners, had heard Niehaus on KMPC in L.A. and crooked his finger at him. Niehaus wasn't interested in coming to Seattle and named a salary figure higher than what the organizers of the team were making. They agreed.

Niehaus has been here ever since, despite courting by teams in bigger markets. Why? It's that Northwest addiction. "People ask me why I'm still here and I say, `Have you ever lived in the Pacific Northwest?' I mean, it's the lifestyle."

Niehaus's job has an inherent conflict: he is paid by the Mariners (who won't disclose how much, only to say he's at the top of his market), travels with the players and gets to know them, but his job calls for objectivity. He says he owes it to the fans to call an accurate game, even when the team isn't doing so well.

"I think I am basically an entertainer, but also a reporter," Niehaus says. "I think the ultimate compliment is when people tell me they tune into a ballgame and can't tell who's ahead. It's a compliment because if I were really a rooter or down in the doldrums, it would immediately come through."

"It's loony toons time . . ."

There are times when Niehaus comes right out and says what every listener is thinking. In Baltimore at the beginning of the season when the M's kept tripping over their own feet the exasperated announcer said, "Somebody has to tell these boys it's not spring training any longer." When the M's pitchers walked 11 in a later game, we radio-bound listeners wondered what the silver-toned Voice was really thinking - and then he told us: He compared the team to Little League.

"He tells it like it is," says player Mike Blowers, who grew up in Tacoma listening to Niehaus on the radio. "Some guys take it better than others. Dave has watched a lot of baseball and I respect him. He just tells the fans what we are doing."

But Blowers says the day after Niehaus says something bad about a player, he'll say something good. After Blowers hit his second grand slam last year he listened to the call. "It was more exciting listening to him than when I did it," he says.

That comment makes me, at least, wonder about whether it's quite right that the game on radio is bigger than life.

Pitcher Randy Johnson tells about a time he watched a game called by Harry Caray with the Chicago Cubs. Johnson said his ears heard Caray enthusiastically giving the famous home-run call - "It might be, it could be . . ." - but his eyes watched a routine pop-up. "Sometimes the drama goes too far," Johnson says, adding: "Sometimes I wonder if Dave is watching the same game we are playing. It's easier to get away with mistakes on the radio since no one sees it. Dave has his bad games, too."

But Johnson also tells a story about his wife listening to Niehaus when the team was on the road. "When I played in Toronto, one of my cruddier games, Lisa was listening to him and said later that he was feeling for me. Dave said, `We can feel for Randy Johnson because the last thing he wants to do is pitch like this.' "

Niehaus, of course, is confident that he can say what he wants. "I feel it. I show my emotions. I'm not one of those strike one, ball one guys. They just bore you to death."

A strike one, ball one guy would have left me picking weeds in my garden. But I don't want to be fooled, either.

"You get the play-by-play, too," Levine says in defense of Niehaus' delivery. "If you're looking for a car, you can get one that just has four wheels. But if you can have a Mercedes, well, it still gets you around."

"And it is graaaand salaaaami time."

OK, I want a Mercedes - I want a Ken Griffey Jr. home run ushered in by a Niehaus "fly away." And if that does it for me, what gets a broadcaster, as Niehaus says, "chunkin' along"?

"It's almost an out-of-body experience, because your olfactory senses, all your senses are so keen about when you get to the eighth inning of a no-hitter," The Voice says. "Beads of perspiration break out, your pores dilate, sweat pours out, just like you're playing the ballgame yourself."

A no-hitter is sacred; it's supposed to be bad luck to even mention the possibility. But Niehaus remembers me sitting in the garden - he grabs it and wrings the suspense out of it, word by word. "I have mentioned a no-hitter from the seventh inning on," he says. "I want the fans to know, and I will mention it. So hey, call up your next-door neighbor and tell them Randy Johnson is pitching a no-hitter. Tune in the radio to see what happens."

"Would you belieeeve it?"

OUT IN THE GARDEN, the bird sounds have long since given way to what Levine calls "the gravely voice of God." Even the blue jays wait to hear via Niehaus if there will be what he calls "the maraschino cherry on top of the sundae" - a win.

And I wonder: How did he hook me? In the beginning, at least, it was less the game than the trappings - the lore passed along only on the radio, the almost-foreign language, the ease with which this basso performer relishes using metaphors like the maraschino cherry one - and gets away with it. Sure, I like the intricacies of the game, but in the garden, the story unfolds like a somewhat old-timey novel complete with intrigue and suspense, unabashed corn and hype.

In the words of The Voice: "Baseball is like life. It buds in the spring. It flowers in the summer. In the fall, you've got the World Series and when winter is here, it's at rest. It's just such a wonderful game."

Mercy.

Theresa Morrow is a freelance writer and author of "The Survival Guide II," in which Mariner statistician Kevin Cremin estimates that Dave Niehaus uses the phrase "My, oh my" an average of 200 times per season. Harley Soltes is Pacific's staff photographer.

---------------- NIEHAUS ON . . . ----------------

-- What makes a great player: "Consistency over a career. Production over 10 years."

-- What makes a great announcer: "Knowledge of the game. Enthusiasm. Number one, perhaps more than anything else, is being a fan.

-- Ken Griffey, Jr.: "Junior has been very consistent and has progressed every year. The question is: Just what will he be when he's 30 and has to work at it? He's making so much money, you've really got to want to play the game."

-- Seattle as a non-baseball town: "This is a baseball town. The fans don't owe the Mariners anything. The Mariners owe the fans a winning season."

-- His ambition: "To do a World Series and have the Seattle Mariners win it. Not only one, but two or three or four. I would like to get the chance to really turn on this town in September. I've never had that opportunity."

-- Advice to would-be baseball announcers: "The worst thing you can do is emulate somebody else. You have to develop your own style. I'm not a fan of radio and TV broadcast schools. I say get a liberal education and know something about the world around you."

-- Lou Piniella: "He doesn't have them playing scared, but if you don't produce, you're out of the game. I like that."

-- The Kingdome: "The Kingdome is not a ballpark. There are no elements, no effect on the baseball. At Fenway, you can see the grass grow on some days. Fenway smells, you can see Ted Williams, Babe Ruth playing there. I darn near genuflect when I walk through the gates at Fenway Park."

-- Radio vs. TV: "Baseball is a radio game. On TV you're just a director - and half the time the camera doesn't show what you want."

-- The Kingdome entertainment package: "The game itself is enough for me. If you are a real baseball fan, the film clips and the sonic boom or whatever it is, I think it gets on your nerves. It does on my nerves. But I also understand that this is 1994 and not 1974. But to the real fan, it is a pain in the neck, too much noise."

-- Nolan Ryan: "Maybe the nicest human being I have ever met in the game." The most unusual no-hitter was his second no-hitter in Detroit on a Sunday afternoon. "That day Ryan was throwing, I don't know, 100 miles an hour. And you could almost sense a no-hitter . . . he was overpowering then. It was the eighth inning and he was blowing everybody away, I think he struck out 16 or 17 that day. Norm Cash, the first baseman, had gone back to the Detroit Tiger clubhouse and at the table where they put the spread, he ripped off the table leg and came up to home plate with it. And Ron Luciano, home plate umpire, said, `What are you doing?' He said, `I can't hit it with a bat, let me try with this table leg.' Luciano says, "Get that thing out of here."

-- The new divisions: "I was not necessarily for the reorganization, but I like it because it makes it more interesting by keeping the public's attention to the end."

-- Salaries: "I'm not against the players getting what they can. Owners have only themselves to blame for caving in to the players."

Copyright (c) 1994 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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