Mariners fans come calling for Niehaus
Safeco memorial honors club's Hall of Fame broadcaster
SEATTLE -- For three straight hours they trooped into Safeco Field on Saturday, thousands of Mariners fans paying tribute to broadcaster Dave Niehaus -- searching for a way to reach out and remember the man who'd been their voice for 34 years.
On a cool, overcast afternoon, Safeco became a shrine to the Hall of Fame announcer, who died of a heart attack on Wednesday at 75.
As highlights of Niehaus' most famous calls played out on the stadium speakers, the 3,643 fans who came through the doors had a chance to sign memory books for Niehaus, view photo displays and mementos from his career, and even grab one of the small salami sandwiches being given away in honor of his cherished grand-slam call.
It was a day of quiet reflection, many fans just sitting in stadium seats, absorbing the moment and memories of a man who touched millions during his tenure in the Pacific Northwest.
Niehaus' wife, Marilyn, and three children -- Greta, Andy and Matt -- were first through the stadium, stopping initially at the impromptu memorial outside the main gate where heart-felt notes and loaves of rye bread and bottles of mustard were intermingled with candles and balloons.
After the family gathered at the home-plate display where a large portrait of Niehaus overlooked some of his prized collections -- his original 1977 scorebook, the Ford Frick Hall of Fame award, a copy of the now-defunct Seattle Post-Intelligencer sports page trumpeting his Hall of Fame enshrinement in 2008 -- fans followed in a long line that kept growing throughout the afternoon.
Those who turned from home plate and looked back at the darkened broadcast booth above were treated to the sight of a Niehaus jersey lit up in the spot where he sat, the No. 77 a testament to the year he began his Mariners journey.
"I've listened to him since he started in '77," said Seattle resident Jack Austin, 55, as he quietly took in the scene. "This just shows you how loved he was."
Tears poured down the cheeks of Ashley Donaldson as she held her 2-year-old son, Madden, and talked about Niehaus' impact on her life growing up in Poulsbo on the Olympic Peninsula.
"I was raised by my dad and we always went to the games in the Kingdome and listened on the radio," she said. "This just really hurts. He's been such a huge part of my life, it just doesn't seem like it's ever going to be the same.
"It's amazing how everyone has come out. He touched so many people and really made you connect. His enthusiasm, everything. When you can hear somebody's voice and it just gives you goose bumps, that's pretty amazing."
Spokane native Bill Lawson, 59, found himself sitting behind home plate thinking about his mom and aunt, both huge Mariners fans who died in the last few years. For them, Niehaus was a daily staple of life.
"Both of them just absolutely lived to listen to the games," Lawson said. "I mean, Mariners socks, Mariners slippers, the whole enchilada, lying in their beds virtually getting ready to die at 87, 88 years old.
"It was his voice. I was just thinking about that. I'll bet a lot of these people, their moms and dads listened. It was one thing they looked forward to the whole day, to listen to him. It was pretty cool."
Saturday's event was an informal way to let fans remember Niehaus. There will be a private ceremony by the family on Monday and the Mariners are planning a large public celebration of Niehaus' life at Safeco Field at a yet-to-be-determined date in December.
The outpouring of fan support on Saturday reinforced what Mariners officials already knew about Niehaus, the last team employee who had been with the club since its opening game.
"You know it's out there," said Randy Adamack, the team's long-time vice president of communications. "But when something like this happens, it removes all doubt."
Every fan trooping through the stadium brought their own recollections and connections. Jason Simon, 29, wore his on his back, his "My Oh My" jersey bearing a Niehaus autograph he collected from the man last year.
|"It's amazing how everyone has come out. He touched so many people and really made you connect. When you can hear somebody's voice and it just gives you goose bumps, that's pretty amazing."|
|-- Mariners fan Ashley Donaldson|
Simon grew up a huge Ken Griffey Jr. fan in Oak Park, Calif., falling in love with the Mariners during summer visits to his uncle in Seattle. But only when he moved to the Puget Sound area four years ago did he realize how Niehaus pulled all that together.
"Griffey has always been my idol. But what I realized is that it's his voice attached to Griffey and his performance that really was what it was," Simon said. "I remember going to games and I'd have a transistor radio. And when I was there in the bleachers alone, he was right there with me, Dave Niehaus. And when you go home and watch the game, you turn the TV down and listen to the voice.
"The big thing about him is he made everybody feel like a friend. There was something about his way that made you feel OK, like nobody was a stranger."
Which is why Simon had tears in his eyes on Wednesday when he heard of Niehaus' passing and again Thursday, when he came to visit the memorial outside the front gate. He vows to return for the formal ceremony in the coming weeks as well.
"Look at the people lining up," Simon said. "He deserved this. It's because he treated everyone right. The last few years have been difficult for the Mariners, obviously. But people here are talking to each other today and that's great.
"It's going to be different. You're not going to replace Dave Niehaus. But there's got to be a different voice and if the fans kind of come together and treat each other like friends at the game again, I think that's what Dave would want. That's exactly what he would want, for us to keep going with that same passion he brought."