Safeco memorial at Safeco draws tears, laughs from thousands of fans
Wrapped only in the franchises thin layer of great moments, several thousand fans at Safeco Field shivered through a classically bleak December day to say farewell to a gentleman who was one of them, yet Seattle sports royalty.
The neat trick of two worlds was performed for more than three decades by Dave Niehaus, who, at one time or another, seemed to have talked with most every person in the Northwest.
In turn, they all would swear they talked with him.
Now that there will be no more conversations, Saturday was the day for the beleaguered blue tribe to gather more formally to talk, weep and chuckle about him.
Astute as he was in the clutch, Ken Griffey Jr. struck the moment well.
He meant more to the city than the players did, he said in a video message on the parks scoreboard screen. He was such a big part of things.
Its never going to be better than him.
The teams high point was its radio play-by-play guy. Even in his dotage, he was better than the team.
With the Mariners in competitive tatters, Niehauss death 33 days earlier merely added to the urge, as one Mariners employee said, to put a giant X through 2010.
The memorial service Saturday did a more practical thing. It put a period on a grim, grief-filled sentence.
With dignity and poignance, free of smarminess, the Mariners said farewell. Dan Wilson, Jay Buhner, and Edgar Martinez, the former field heroes turned community hug stations, spoke well. Former broadcaster Ron Fairly told great stories. Two of Niehauss children, Greta and Andy, did their daddy proud in the public arena.
Speaking for herself as well as the Washington Council for the Blind, which gave Niehaus an award he cherished deeply for making the game vivid for the sightless, Marlaina Lieberg was most eloquent: It will be a sad and nostalgic day when we hear our first Mariners game without Dave.
“Well feel him and hear him . . . he will forever be a part of this town, this team and our hearts.
Even Chuck Armstrong, the much-pilloried club president, was there and greeted warmly.
First applause Ive had since March, Armstrong said with a rueful smile. Thanks, Dave.
But it was the little guy, Rick Rizzs, Niehauss longtime broadcast sidekick, who got everyone.
Taking on the impossible job of being master of ceremonies for the memorial of his friend, mentor, road pal and the man in whose shadow he perpetually walked, Rizzs lost it.
Holding up well for awhile in his opening remarks, Rizzs began to say, I was lucky . . . when he stopped. He started. Stopped again. The crowd applauded him. Then again. A third time. Rizzs turned his back, only to gaze into the outfield and see Niehauss smiling visage on the scoreboard.
Finally, Buhner, Wilson, Martinez and Fairly, sitting in the first row of about 100 chairs assembled in front of the raised podium on the infield, spontaneously walked up to help Rizzs pull it together.
Buhner wrapped his arms around Rizzs until the gusher dissipated.
Doesnt happen often, men helping men cope while the world watches. It was the most powerful moment of the 2010 season.
As is usually the case with quality teamwork, Rizzs rallied. The sentence continued, I was lucky . . . to have spent 25 years . . .
He went on to finish flawlessly his chores in his usual most-beautiful-ballpark-in-America cheeriness.
Dont know why he took the task. Dont know how he did it. Glad he did, because, much like the sport he describes, the moment was unscripted, untidy and compelling as hell.
Words are wonderful tools, but Niehauss deep connection with friends and strangers was never better expressed.
For anyone who doesnt understand sports, especially baseball, this degree of affection for a broadcaster must seem strange. Perhaps the best way to explain it is to say that to be understood, the daily game experience of baseball needs to be lived.
Wilson pointed it out well, sharing his wifes description of their family life. Besides being on the road for half the season, when Dad is home, he isnt really, at least not for the kids. He gets home after midnight. When he gets up, the kids are gone to school. When they return, Dad is already at the ballpark.
Dave and Rick, Wilson said, were (my kids) connection to their dad. They were invited into our home to share the Mariners.
That is a large deal.
Armstrong announced that the first statue in franchise history will be of Niehaus. Andy Niehaus made a wistful reference to standing someday at the intersection of Edgar Martinez Way (real) and Dave Niehaus Way (fanciful). These are traditional ways to substantiate a communitys embrace of sports heroes, and thats fine.
As with the sensory experience of any great broadcaster, Niehauss real place is in the imagination.
As Lieberg, the blind woman, said of Niehauss capacity for description, You could feel the breezes.
For a man of the spoken word, no tribute is greater.