BY Art Thiel 08:27PM 12/11/2010

Niehaus: A salute to imagination

Safeco memorial at Safeco draws tears, laughs from thousands of fans

Edgar Martinez (L), Jay Buhner (C), Dan Wilson (R) and Ron Fairly (back to camera), console Mariner broadcaster Rick Rizzs after Rizzs choked up during a memorial service for former play-by-play voice Dave Niehaus (Rick's long-time partner) at Safeco Field on Saturday / Photo by Noel Zanchelli, Sportspress Northwest

Wrapped only in the franchise’s 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 park’s scoreboard screen. “He was such a big part of things.

A Mariner fan sports a Dave Niehaus jersey Saturday at Safeco Field / Photo by Noel Zanchelli, Sports Press Northwest

“It’s never going to be better than him.”

The team’s 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, Niehaus’s 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 Niehaus’s 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.

Dave Niehaus, Mariners announcer, 3-25-1986

Dave Niehaus in 1986 / DR Collection

“We’ll 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 I’ve had since March,” Armstrong said with a rueful smile. “Thanks, Dave.”

But it was the little guy, Rick Rizzs, Niehaus’s 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 Niehaus’s 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.

Doesn’t 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.

Don’t know why he took the task. Don’t 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 Niehaus’s deep connection with friends and strangers was never better expressed.

For anyone who doesn’t 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 wife’s description of their family life. Besides being on the road for half the season, when Dad is home, he isn’t 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 community’s embrace of sports heroes, and that’s fine.

As with the sensory experience of any great broadcaster, Niehaus’s real place is in the imagination.

As Lieberg, the blind woman, said of Niehaus’s capacity for description, “You could feel the breezes.”

For a man of the spoken word, no tribute is greater.

Mariners Broadcasters Year-By-Year