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Baseball’s greatest voice

Xavier Greenwood tells of Dave Niehaus' extraordinary role as the Seattle Mariners' inspirational voice

The American Forces Network has transmitted radio and television entertainment to American servicemen and women since its inception in May 1942. A little over fifteen years after its foundation, the young graduate Dave Niehaus abandoned his inclination towards dentistry and joined the network to cover the Los Angeles Dodgers. For a time, he broadcast success, calling for the MLB’s New York Yankees and the NHL’s New York Rangers before handling the LA Rams of the NFL along with UCLA basketball. This was all to change in 1976 when he was approached by the Seattle Mariners, the MLB’s newest team, to become their play-by-play announcer.  He accepted the offer and said of his and the Mariners’ first game, “There was just incredible excitement. Anticipation. A new baby. Hopes. I was nervous. The fans were so happy. I’ll never forget that night as long as I live.”

The Mariners lost this game, 7-0 to the California Angels, and lost many more in what came to resemble a two decade off-season. They didn’t record their first winning season until 1991, when they held a record of 83-79, still only good enough to finish fifth in the seven-team American League West. Throughout this aeon of underachievement, Dave Niehaus’ announcing was indefatigable. He was the kind of storyteller who saw windmills as giants. When Ken Levine joined Niehaus’ broadcasting team in 1992, the latter was quick with wry assurances, “I figured it out, Kenny. For me to get to a .500 record [50% Seattle Mariner victories], the team would have to go 2042-0.”

Although Niehaus had helped cultivate a fanbase for the Seattle Mariners which packed out stadiums regardless of the result, this came under threat in the mid-90s: falling attendance, falling revenue, and a tendency to lose led to the possibility that the team would be sold and relocated to a different city. In September 1995, the residents of the county voted against a tax increase to fund the building of a replacement stadium, as a result of which the ownership group of the Mariners set a deadline of the end of October for local leadership to come up with a plan to finance a new stadium, or else the team would be sold and possibly transferred to another city. Teams lose and lose and lose, but are rarely ever lost.

Amid this period of financial and existential despair, however, something special began to happen on the field. After being as many as 13 games behind the first-place California Angels in mid-August, the Mariners embarked on a September winning streak marked by late-inning comebacks, which led to them being tied with the Angels for first place at the end of the regular season. Winning the tiebreaker game 9-1, they advanced for the very first time to the American League Division Series. Two games down in a best of five series, the Mariners won the next two at home and forced a decisive Game 5. This was the game which would save baseball in Seattle.

October 8th 1995: the Mariners are down 5-4 in the bottom of the 11th inning. They need one to tie and two to win. Joey Cora is at second, Ken Griffey Jr. at first. Edgar Martinez comes in to bat. He spends his off days listening to Latin American music. If he can score Cora and Griffey, he will take the Mariners to the American League Championship. McDowell pitches. No ball. Strike. A gravelly voice laden with cigarette smoke and whiskey cracks over King County transistors:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F8SBJzOEcyU&w=560&h=315]

The cadence, accent and timbre, the excitement and the incredulity of Niehaus’ call cannot possibly be transcribed. Following the match and a drastic upswing in public support, the Washington State Legislature approved funding for what would eventually become Safeco Field, securing the Mariners’ future in Seattle.

Dave Niehaus was the one figure whose belief in the cause was interminable. And even now after his death, his voice seems to bounce off Mount Rainier, sweep across Elliott Bay, and slide down 1st Avenue South, in an unbroken basso echo which hits all four corners of the diamond and rises up towards the overcast sky: “‘If’ is the biggest small word in the English language”.

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