Interview: Dave Niehaus

This interview originally appeared in the August 2008 issue of The Grand Salami.

By Frank Lee

Dave Niehaus has been calling Mariners games since the first game in franchise history, way back in 1977. Niehaus is the heart and soul of Mariners baseball, outlasting 13 managers, 7 general managers, and three ownership groups. As of the beginning of the 2008 season, his 32nd season behind the microphone in Seattle, Niehaus had missed just 82 Mariners games out of the 4,899 games played by the team during that time. Dave Niehaus is a Seattle institution and we’re excited that he’s finally getting the national recognition he so richly deserves. Niehaus was inducted into the broadcaster’s wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame on July 27, 2008 and The Grand Salami was honored to be in attendance in Cooperstown, New York, that day.

GRAND SALAMI: First of all, congratulations on being named the 2008 recipient of the Ford C. Frick Award. It’s been a long time coming. Can you tell us how you found out you were going into the Hall of Fame?

DAVE NIEHAUS: It happened on February 19th and I didn’t realize that was the day they were going to announce the winner of the Ford Frick Award. It was a Tuesday, and my wife bowls on Tuesdays. I was taking a shower and I barely heard the phone ring. I jumped out of the shower and ran and got the phone. The guy on the other end said, “This is Dale Petrovsky, President of the Baseball Hall of Fame & Museum, and we’d like to welcome you to the Baseball Hall of Fame family as the recipient of the 2008 Ford Frick Award.” I thought someone was pulling my leg, obviously. I said, “You realize it’s my birthday don’t you?” He said, “It’s your birthday? Well, happy birthday! It’s one of the best birthday presents you’re ever going to get!” I said, “Are you serious? Is this for real?” “Yeah, it’s for real.” I was taken aback by it. I had never even thought about it to tell you the truth. The other thing he told me was that I couldn’t tell anybody until after 11am—it was about two or three minutes after ten in the morning when he called. He told me that they wanted to make the announcement from Cooperstown. I said, “I can’t even call my wife?” “Yeah, you can call your wife.” So I called my wife at the bowling alley and told her. And then I called my daughter in England, and told her. But they were the only people. At 11:00 the official announcement was made and the phone started ringing and never stopped. One of the first people to call me was Junior, Ken Griffey, Jr., which I thought was awfully nice of him. I tried to get a hold of him to congratulate him on his 600th home run, but I couldn’t get through to him.

GS: I understand that until you went to Cooperstown this May you had never been to the Hall of Fame.

NIEHAUS: That’s correct. I had never been to Cooperstown. I went back on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend to do a radio show called “Voices of the Game.” Curt Smith, the author, who has written a couple of books on baseball broadcasters, invited me way before I had ever known about winning the award. It was last year, as a matter of fact, and they picked me up at my hotel and drove me up there—a four hour trip—and I got a private tour with the curator of the museum. I can sincerely say—with the exception of my marriage, the birth of my children and my grandchildren—it was the most exciting day of my life. It was an epiphany. I’m sure it’s incredible for any baseball fan to go to the Hall, but not everybody gets to go down into the catacombs of the Hall and put on special gloves and handle artifacts like Ted Williams’ bat, which he used his last time he was at the plate when he hit a home run and walked off the field at Fenway Park. It was a fascinating day, one of the most fascinating days of my life. I really just scratched the surface. I really didn’t get to see that much of the Hall. But I found out a lot of interesting things about it. One of the most attended exhibits, one of the most popular exhibits at the Hall of Fame, is the one on the women’s old professional baseball league.

You know, when you enter the actual Hall—where the plaques are located—it’s like entering a sanctuary; it reminds you of a church. And if you’re a baseball fan, it’s so hallowed that you almost speak in whispers. It’s almost like being at St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. To go around and look at all of these plaques—I think there are 263 plaques—if you had the time you would want to read every one of them. My area in the Hall is a little different in that I’m the 32nd recipient of the Frick Award. There’s a picture of last year’s winner, Denny Matthews, and it’s a little bigger than the rest. So my picture will be there, after the 27th of July, for a year and then it will go back with the other recipients until the 33rd recipient replaces my picture. It’s a very impressive display and I still have to pinch myself.

Dave was inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame in 2000.

NIEHAUS: Well, I think that they are synonymous. Being a broadcaster and a fan are almost the same thing to me. I just happen to be a fan who is a broadcaster. The first game here in Seattle is something that I’ll never forget because I made the transition from the Angels to come up here, and we opened against the Angels the first year, 1977, with a five game series. In the first game Frank Tanana shut us out. In the second game Nolan Ryan shut us out. I was beginning to wonder not only if we would win a game but whether we would even score a run (laughs). Then we won the third game; it happened to be a five game series and the Mariners won two of them. You know, it was opening day here, the reintroduction of major league baseball. The place was packed. Everyone was excited. I knew it was going to be a lean year from a won-loss standpoint. Expansion ballclubs just don’t do very well at first, but I must admit I thought we’d be a .500 ballclub within five years. It took 15 years—we didn’t finish .500 or better until 1991.

Through all that time, the arrival of Ken Griffey, Jr., in 1989 was probably the biggest moment in Mariner history. That’s really when things began to turn around. Some people say it was 1995, but I don’t agree. It was 1989 with the arrival of Junior. That was when Seattle really became, I think, a focal point of baseball. Even though we didn’t start to win until 1991, we had one of the great stars in baseball. I’ve done a lot of games—over 5,000 games—and Junior is still the greatest athlete that I’ve ever had the opportunity to describe, including Alex Rodriguez.

Other memories include the Randy Johnson no-hitter, the Chris Bosio no-hitter. It’s been all just great. The 1995 playoffs were terrific…the Edgar Martinez double. One game I’ll never forget was in 2001—the year we won 116 games—when we blew a 12-run lead against the Cleveland Indians in the 7th inning, for crying out loud! We lost that ballgame.

GS: Who were some of your favorite ballplayers over the years?

NIEHAUS: They were the favorites of everybody—the stars of the game. Guys like Carl Yastrzemski. I’m going way back, but my number one idol as a kid growing up was Gil Hodges. He grew up in my hometown of Princeton, Indiana. I still think to this day that he should be in the Hall of Fame, and maybe one of these days he will be in the Hall of Fame. The Brooklyn Dodgers were my team because of Gil Hodges. I grew up in Cardinal territory, but because of Hodges I was a Brooklyn Dodger fan. I listened to Harry Caray and all the guys at KMOX, and they probably had as big of an influence as anyone, as far as my broadcasting career. But I was in Cardinal territory and everybody was a Cardinal fan except me. I was one of the Boys of Summer guys. You know, Gil Hodges, Jim Gilliam, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Roy Campanella, and Billy Cox—that whole ballclub. They were some of my boys, too, because of Hodges more than anything else.

GS: From your perch you’ve had a chance to watch a lot of ballgames. Who were some of your favorite Mariners?

NIEHAUS: Ken Griffey was probably the best talent we’ve ever had here over an extended period of time—over a decade. Alex Rodriguez was another great talent and so was Randy Johnson. Among the nicest guys I’ve ever met was Alvin Davis, the rookie of the year in 1984. Mark Langston was a great talent. Harold Reynolds was an outstanding second baseman. Believe it or not, for one year Mario Mendoza played as good a shortstop as anyone I’ve ever seen play here and then he was traded to Texas and I don’t know what happened to him after that. They talk about the Mendoza line, but defensively, the kid could play shortstop. We had the Cruz brothers; Todd and Julio could turn it with anybody—with anybody! Then there’s Jay Buhner and Jimmy Presley…I don’t want to leave anybody out. We’ve had some great ballplayers come through here.

GS: You mentioned Junior’s 600th career home run. Would you like to see him come back and play for the Mariners again?

NIEHAUS: I would like to see him come back but I don’t want to see him back as a shell of his former self. I would hope that the fans would understand that he’s not going to be the same player that left 10 years ago. They’d have to realize that his skills are probably diminished and he can’t go get the ball like he used to and can’t throw like he used to and he doesn’t run like he once did. But he’s still got that great competitive spirit. I don’t see any reason why he couldn’t be a designated hitter. You have to realize the love that this area has for him after he returned last year with the Reds. That was one of the most incredible three days here at Safeco Field. Everything happened right during that series—he hit three home runs and the Mariners won the series. So, as far as a drawing card, he would be that…at least for a while. I would hope that they wouldn’t bring him back just for that though. I would hope they would bring him back to be a valuable piece in a pennant race. It looks like this year has melted away, but maybe next year. I would definitely love to see him back.

GS: Griffey, of course, would be the center fielder on your all-time Mariner team. Who would fill out the rest of Dave Niehaus’ all-time Seattle Mariner team?

NIEHAUS: Well, that’s an interesting question…let me see. Dan Wilson would be my catcher. Bret Boone would be my second baseman. A-Rod would be my shortstop, although he didn’t play here that long. Probably the guy playing today, Adrian Beltre, is the best defensive third baseman that I’ve seen. He hasn’t been, offensively, what I think they thought they were getting when they signed him after he played for the Dodgers, but he would be my third baseman. Ichiro would be the right fielder and probably Raúl—probably Raúl—in left field. Randy Johnson would be my starting pitcher. Alvin Davis was rookie of the year in 1984 and his star shone brightly for 3 or 4 years and then kind of faded away. He was not the greatest defensive first baseman, but… probably Alvin Davis. I nicknamed him “Mr. Mariner” and it stuck, so sure, it would probably be Alvin. Kaz would be my closer.

GS: And Lou Piniella would be your manager?

NIEHAUS: Absolutely. As far as strategy goes, looking two or three innings ahead, Lou Piniella and Dick Williams are far ahead of any other managers I’ve ever known. Lou is a great designator of authority and an imposing personality.

GS: Besides Lou, can you talk about some of the other Mariner skippers you’ve dealt with over the years?

NIEHAUS: I’m going into the Hall of Fame with Dick Williams. I was with him twice, once with the Angels and with the Mariners. Both places, Anaheim and here, didn’t work out for him but I love the man dearly. I thought Darrell Johnson, the first manager of the team, did a heckuva job without much to work with. Chuck Cottier did a good job and certainly Jim Lefebvre. You know, everyone forgets Lefebvre. He was the guy that ran this ballclub in 1991 when they finished over .500 for the first time—and he was fired at the end of that season! I’ll never forget “Frenchy” for doing that (taking the club over .500).

GS: What are your memories of the Maury Wills (manager for 83 games in 1980 and 1981) weeks?

NIEHAUS: The first full year Maury took over (1981), we were down in spring training, playing the San Francisco Giants, and he went through his entire bench. I remember sitting there at Scottsdale Stadium and he motioned for a pitcher and he didn’t realize he didn’t have anybody up in the bullpen! I remember him altering the batters’ box. Maury Wills was a guy who would tell you, “Look I can’t talk about this,” when we were doing the pre-game show with him every day. And I’d say to him, “But that’s what people want to know!” and he’d say he couldn’t talk about it. I’ll be darned—you’d lead him into the interview and he’d just spill his guts and talk about it anyway! I’ll never forget that. Little did we know at the time, but it came out later that he had a substance abuse problem when he was managing the ballclub. He was kind of a pathetic figure, certainly the worst manager I’ve ever been associated with.

GS: You’ve had quite a few broadcast partners over the years. Can you talk about some of them?

Dave with original broadcast partners Dick Enberg and Don Drysdale in Anaheim

NIEHAUS: Dick Enberg and Don Drysdale were my partners in Southern California on the Angels broadcasts and we formed a great team down there. Then I came to Seattle in 1977 and Ken Wilson was my partner. He was outstanding. Then I worked with Rick Rizzs twice—he came here in 1983, left in 1992 for Detroit and then returned to Seattle after three years calling Tigers games. We like to say that he rolled a “7” because he came back here in 1995 when everything happened. He’s been a very loyal partner. Ron Fairly was a great partner of mine, too. We worked together for 14 years and I had a real nice relationship with “Red.” I always enjoyed his old baseball war stories. Ironically, while I was at Cooperstown that one day (in May), I pulled into the parking lot at Doubleday Field and the phone rang. It was Ron Fairly calling from Palm Springs. I told him “you’re never going to guess where I am.” I told him that I was in the parking lot at Doubleday Field. He said, “Hell, I can still hit a home run out of that place.” I’ve had some marvelous partners. I don’t know how many television partners I’ve had over the years. Bill Mazeroski did a couple of games with me. As a matter of fact, “Maz” probably had the shortest speech in Hall of Fame history because he broke down—it was such an emotional thing for him and he may have received the biggest ovation because it showed everyone how much he loved the game. I’ll see him at Cooperstown. Don Sutton, who was here in June with the Washington Nationals, told me that it will be the greatest three days of my life. I spoke to Reggie Jackson in New York about it and he said the only advice he could give me was not to look around to see who is behind me because it will be intimidating to see all of those Hall of Famers. I’m really looking forward to the induction weekend.

GS: Is it difficult to call games for a bad team?

NIEHAUS: It’s a lot more fun to cover winners than losers—there’s no doubt about that—but no, it’s never been tough for me to announce a game. I’ve never looked at it as having gone to work a day in my life. Every time I come out here—win or lose—it’s just 1/162nd of a season. With the thousands of games that I’ve done, I’ve never seen two games alike. I’ve seen 13 or 14 no-hitters, and I’ve never seen two no-hitters that were exactly alike. Every game has a different story. Earlier this year I saw a 3-6-2 double play and I looked over at Rizzs and said, “Have you ever seen a 3-6-2 double play?” And Rick, along with everyone else I talked to, said they didn’t think so. That’s the romance and beauty of the game. Just when you think that you’ve seen it all, you will continue to be surprised.

GS: What does this Mariners team need to do to turn things around?

NIEHAUS: Well, they have to get some baseball cards that don’t lie. Obviously, the cards they got about these guys lie (chuckles). In other words, the players have to play up to what the team bought. I don’t know who you blame for this…because on paper it looked like this ballclub—if they didn’t win the division it certainly seemed like they would be in contention all year long. Things didn’t work out. Putz went down early and now he’s on the DL again. Ichiro hit under .300 most of the first half. The only guy that’s really carrying his weight out there right now is the second baseman, José Lopez. He’s having an All-Star type year.

GS: The M’s traded five players last winter to acquire Erik Bedard, who has to be considered a big disappointment. What are your thoughts on Bedard?

NIEHAUS: I thought that he was going to be the final piece. I really did—like everybody else. When you look at it, everyone talks about him as being this great ace, but he really hasn’t had that long a track record. And it seems to me that he’s always broken down in August and September. He’s always had some problems and he’s had some hip problems here. He gave up a lot of home runs in spring training, I think 9 or 10, and he continued to give up home runs once the season started. It looks to me like he’s a 100-pitch pitcher.

GS: Can you discuss the fine line an announcer has to walk as an employee of the ballclub reporting negatively on the team on the field?

NIEHAUS: I’ve got to report what I see. When you lose your credibility, you’ve lost everything. The one thing I’ve maintained in over 40 years of broadcasting is my credibility. If you see a guy dog it, you see a guy who doesn’t run out 90 feet, you gotta say that. And I’ve said that and I’ve gotten backlash from some ballplayers—and you can imagine who they are—for saying that. I’ve gotta point out a great play whether the player is in a grey uniform or a white uniform. I have got to call the game as I see it.

GS: You were inducted into the Mariners Hall of Fame in 2000. What did that mean to you?

NIEHAUS: That was fabulous. That was one of the most emotional days of my life—maybe the most emotional day of my life up until the day I found out I had made the Hall of Fame. That really meant a lot to me. It was such a special day at Safeco for me.