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Originally published November 10, 2010 at 8:54 PM | Page modified November 11, 2010 at 10:51 AM

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Steve Kelley

Words can't describe impact of this loss

Words, which always seemed to come so easily to Dave Niehaus, don't seem sufficient today to explain the enormity of his death. He was a Seattle icon, bigger than Junior or Edgar or Randy or Felix, because he was enduring.

Seattle Times staff columnist

Dave Niehaus died Wednesday, and words that always seemed to come so easily to him don't seem sufficient today to explain the impact of our loss.

He was a Seattle icon, bigger than Junior or Edgar or Randy or Felix, because he was enduring.

The pleasure of listening to him on a stormy day in April or one of those long, lush nights in July always has felt like an inalienable right of being a sports fan in Seattle.

For 34 years Niehaus was the Mariners' one consistent element of excellence.

Before the franchise had a starting nine, it had Dave Niehaus. Before it had a win, it had a voice.

What a voice!

He was one of the last of the greatest generation of baseball broadcasters. He came from the radio age, when the play-by-play announcers were storytellers.

Sportswriters like to think of themselves, as Willie Morris once called us, "the poets of the night."

But the real poets were those play-by-play guys who, under the tyranny of the moment, had to find the right words to describe a bang-bang play at first, or explain the majesty of a tape-measure home run, or the perfect pas de deux of a 6-4-3 double play.

Dave was one of the all-time best at using his words to breathe life into ballgames. He didn't need a keyboard. He wrote on the fly, making us feel the game.

He not only told us the score. He described to us the menacing stare of Randy Johnson, as Johnson looked into catcher Dan Wilson for the sign. When Dave called a game we could see Ken Griffey Jr. wiggling his bat and his rump before the next pitch.

He told us how blue the sky was. How dark and ominous the approaching storm was. He could make us sweat as he described the swelter in Kansas City on a Sunday afternoon, or make us shiver as he told us about the cold at Cleveland's Jacobs Field in April.

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He didn't put his words on paper, but he was a remarkable writer. Catchphrases and metaphors, vividly descriptive sentences and pointed commentaries found their way through Dave's microphone to our ears.

His voice was the soundtrack of Seattle's summers.

Dave will be remembered for his home-run call, "Fly away," which we didn't hear often enough this season. He will be remembered for the rye bread and salami and sometimes a little mustard he demanded that grandma get out, whenever a Mariner hit a grand slam.

But as a baseball fan, what I appreciated most was that when I turned on a game and heard Dave's voice, I knew, almost immediately, how the Mariners were doing.

If the game was tied in the late innings it seemed his voice would drop deep. A pitch wasn't just low, it was "loooooow." In a close game, Dave was almost reverential. He could have been a preacher giving a sermon when he called the late innings of a tight game.

Unlike many of the newer generation of broadcasters, Dave never hid his disappointment, or even his disgust, with the hometown team. If he didn't like what he was seeing, he told us.

If a game was meandering and a Mariners pitcher couldn't throw a strike, his voice would get sharp and gravelly, and he would say something like, "You gotta throw strikes."

I've always believed that because of its slower pace, baseball is the hardest sport to call.

The great ones fill in the spaces between the action with stories, and Dave was masterful, telling us about his days with everyone from Nolan Ryan to Casey Stengel, from Danny Kaye to Maury Wills.

He could be calling a baseball game, and it would seem as if literature broke out.

Dave could even make an exhibition game in Scottsdale, Ariz., memorable just by laughing at himself because he didn't know the name of the Mariners player wearing No. 78 who was pinch-running in the top of the eighth of a game that was long past relevant.

Some of those meaningless afternoons in March sounded as funny as an Abbott and Costello routine when Dave was calling the game.

I'm writing this column, just hours after I heard the news of his death. It's still hard to grasp that truth.

I imagine there will be about 150 times next season when I'll be listening to a game and expecting to hear his voice when they come back from a commercial break.

In the cynical world of big-city sports, Dave Niehaus truly was beloved. I bet he didn't have an enemy in the game, in the business, in Seattle.

He was the best of the best. A Hall of Famer. And — my, oh, my — there will be times next season when his absence will feel almost too heavy to bear.

Steve Kelley: 206-464-2176 or skelley@seattletimes.com

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About Steve Kelley

Steve Kelley covers all sports, putting his spin on matters involving both the home team and the nation.
skelley@seattletimes.com | 206-464-2176

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