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Wednesday, March 14, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Larry Stone

Niehaus The Voice of Summer in Seattle

Seattle Times baseball reporter

PEORIA, Ariz. — Players come and go, managers and general managers perch on the hot seat and fry, babies are born and grow into adulthood.

Through it all — the waves of change and march of time — Dave Niehaus is eternal.

He was, is and has no plans to stop being the figurehead of Mariners baseball. At age 72, Niehaus is settling into the sort of voice-for-life status that Harry Caray had in Chicago, Ernie Harwell in Detroit, Jack Buck in St. Louis.

"I'm going to do it until I don't enjoy it, and I don't foresee the day I don't enjoy it," Niehaus said, soaking in yet another spring day of sun and baseball in preparation for his 31st season behind the microphone in Seattle.

The Mariners have indicated that Niehaus can keep calling games as long as he wants. The day might come when he needs to take more days off as a concession to his age, but for now, he's rarin' for the grind of another full season.

Oh, Niehaus now takes a four-game vacation sandwiched around the All-Star break each year, but it's clear that he does so grudgingly.

He recalls a long-ago Angels manager of his acquaintance, Doug Rader, who used to call up to the Mariners radio booth every time the teams met in spring training, "Hey, Niehaus, are you baseball numb yet?"

That is the sensation — the loss of all symmetry in your life except that tomorrow's game will start at 7:05 p.m. — that has enveloped Niehaus in a warm glow through three decades and counting.

"I don't think I'd be a very good network guy, because I enjoy the constant beat of it, day after day," he said. "Even when I miss a couple of spring-training games, I kind of miss not being here, because you're going to miss something. Every baseball game we've ever seen is different."

But for generations of Mariners fans, all but 77 of their 4,675 games have had one thing in common — Niehaus' call of the action.

They are a time capsule of franchise history that can range from nearly apoplectic excitement when the Mariners perform well, to barely disguised disgust when they don't.

Niehaus missed 17 games after suffering a heart attack in 1996, a life-altering event that forced him to quit his two-pack-a-day cigarette habit, cold turkey.

"I just bit the bullet," he said. "To this day, I know for a fact, if I had one cigarette I'd be right back on it. But I don't have the desire to have one."

This winter, Niehaus had another health scare, becoming ill while visiting his daughter in England in December. He was hospitalized and eventually diagnosed with pneumonia.

"I didn't know what was happening to me," Niehaus said. "It wasn't much fun sitting in that English hospital."

But sitting in the Arizona sun remains a perennial delight. Niehaus still shows up at the clubhouse each morning to listen to manager Mike Hargrove's daily session and glean whatever tidbits he can about the team.

The ebb and flow of the baseball season, with its idiosyncrasies and time-worn rhythms, is what draws him back each year.

"I love the heartbeat of the game," Niehaus said. "Baseball is a narcotic if you're a fan. You want to keep doing it until you can't. I don't play golf. If I did, I could probably think of retirement and think of getting on the tee every day. I don't look forward to that. My golf clubs are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean."

Some fans — probably the new arrivals that didn't grow up with Niehaus — might complain that mistakes are creeping into his calls with more frequency, but they miss the point.

Niehaus' voice, modulated by age, is the essence of Mariners baseball, and his broadcasts are the soundtrack to the Puget Sound summer.

As with latter-day Harry Caray, occasional imperfection is part of the charm. Nothing heralds the re-birth of a new baseball season so much as Niehaus' voice booming out the first Cactus League game in early March.

As he does every spring, Niehaus wonders if this is THE year for the Mariners. He is encouraged by the new pitching acquisitions, eager for the season to start, the relentless travel to cities he has visited so often he feels almost like a resident.

The Mariners' second game of the year, on April 3 against Oakland, will be Niehaus' 4,600th with the Mariners. He has kept his scorecards for all of them, except for a handful that have been requested by the Hall of Fame to commemorate various Mariners milestones.

"I'm going to shoot for at least 5,000, which is another 2 ½ years or so," he said. "I want at least that."

But it's hard to imagine Dave Niehaus stopping then, or ever. Nothing is eternal, but he's getting there, baseball-numb until the end.

Larry Stone: 206-464-3146 or lstone@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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