Mariners fans struggling to cope with loss of a legend
They came in small groups throughout the day Thursday, a steady stream of Mariners fans wanting to pay tribute in some way to Dave Niehaus.One by one they pushed forward to view the growing pile of mementos at the front gate of Safeco Field, where loaves of rye bread, bottles of mustard, baseballs with personal messages and one very poignant picture of Niehaus’ grandkids with a note telling Grandpa how much they were going to miss him didn’t leave a lot of dry eyes.
The passing of the venerable broadcaster hit Seattle hard over the past two days. His 34-year run as the Mariners’ voice had powerfully cemented his place as the club’s most-enduring and endearing figure and, at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be a close second.
What is it about baseball broadcasters that capture a region’s hearts? And how did Niehaus take that love affair to the next level, to the point where his sudden death by a heart attack Wednesday led to both of Seattle’s all-sports radio stations providing non-stop commentary on the topic Thursday while fans searched for ways to connect, some way, somehow, to the man whose voice has been synonymous with Mariners baseball since its beginning in 1977?
Long-time Seahawks play-by-play man Pete Gross was elected into that team’s Ring of Honor just before dying of cancer in 1992 and Bob Blackburn, the original voice of the Sonics who died earlier this year at 85, had his banner hanging in the rafters at KeyArena before the team moved to Oklahoma City.
But Niehaus’ death seems to have caused the biggest reaction yet in Seattle sports history, which is a testament both to his popularity and the nature of baseball and its nightly story-telling over a six-month stretch each season.
Rick Rizzs, who worked alongside Niehaus for 25 of those years, saw up close how fans loved and reacted to his partner everywhere they went. So, no, he’s not surprised by the outpouring of support for Niehaus now in his passing.
“I’m not shocked at all by the emotion and way people feel about this guy because after 34 years you become part of their family,” Rizzs said. “When you lose a Dave Niehaus or Pete Gross or Bob Blackburn, you lose somebody who is part of your family. And that hurts. It hurts deeply.
“To have Dave’s voice come through that radio for 34 years and next spring it’s not going to be there? That’s going to be a shock for a lot of people. So I’m not surprised by the outpouring. Fans loved this guy and rightly so. And he loved them back.”
Which is why a lot of tears were shed across the Northwest the past two days by grown men and women, people who’d connected to Niehaus and considered him a friend.
Everyone knew he was getting older. Everyone knew it would end some day. But when a man does his job for 34 years and does it so well that an entire region connects emotionally to the mere sound of his voice, that’s not something that is easily lost.
Nor will it be easily replaced.