The outfield grass has been trimmed perfectly and the infield dirt raked smooth. The batting cage sits at home plate waiting the arrival of players for their pregame workout that won't begin for another two hours. The only noise comes from the traffic outside the stadium and an occasional seagull gliding through for scraps.
High above home plate, in the ESPN 710 radio booth, there's a beehive of silent study.
Play-by-play announcers Dave Niehaus and Rick Rizzs sit in the front row with their heads buried in pregame notes as they do their homework for the Mariners' game against the Chicago White Sox, Game No. 113 of 162. Next to them is Kevin Cremin, the producer-engineer who keeps the four-plus-hour broadcast running. Behind them in the second row, play-by-play announcer Dave Sims studies his pregame notes.
The booth is neither a shrine to Niehaus — who went into the baseball Hall of Fame last year as the Ford C. Frick Award winner — nor a sterile studio. It's a workplace for 81 home games each season, with most of the wall space decorated by schedules and reminders, along with some framed photos of Niehaus and the crew. Along the rail next to the second row of seats is a lineup of bobbleheads, including Niehaus, Ken Griffey Jr., Ichiro Suzuki, J.J. Putz, Richie Sexson (interestingly, missing the bat) and even the Cleveland Indians' give-away from this year honoring one of Everett's best, “Surfin” Grady Sizemore.
On the back wall is a large dry erase board with messages and memories. The centerpiece is a team photo of the 116-victory 2001 Mariners, and around it are such words as “I (heart) Granpa Niehaus” and “What happens in Chicago, stays in Vegas!” plus one of the necessities of baseball broadcasting, “Give the score.”
Their view out the front of the booth allows the broadcasters to see nearly every cranny of Safeco Field except deep in the left-field corner. Situated just to the third-base side of home plate, the broadcasters can look into the Mariners' dugout.
For most of the past half-hour, however, they have burrowed themselves into pregame notes, statistics and newspaper clippings on the Mariners and their opponent that night, the Chicago White Sox.
Then Rizzs looks up and breaks the silence.
“Guess when we got our 59th win last year?” he asks. “September 26th. Fifty-nine and 101 in Game No. 160. That started a three-game win streak to end the year.”
A few hours later, Rizzs will slide that statistic into his play-by-play.
“Guys,” Niehaus says, “Fifteen years ago today was a dark day in baseball history, and we were part of it.”
On Aug. 11, 1994, the Mariners and Oakland A's played the final game before players went on strike, wiping out the rest of that season along with the World Series. That, too, will make the broadcast in the bottom of the sixth inning.
A few minutes later, a Mariners employee walks in with a young man and introduces him to Niehaus and Rizzs. The youngster shakes their hands and tells how he listened to them since he was little, and because of them he majored in communication in college.
“You've inspired me to get into this kind of work,” he tells the broadcasters.
Niehaus smiles and shakes his head.
“This isn't work,” Niehaus says.
Spend a day in the Mariners' radio booth and you'll learn there's much more than Niehaus, Rizzs, Sims and Cremin bringing a three-hour baseball game to fans listening on their back porch, driving down the freeway or scoring at home.
They're at the ballpark five hours before the first pitch studying news, notes and statistics. They spend time on the field and in the clubhouses talking to the managers, coaches and players.
And they meet and greet a fairly constant flow of guests in the booth, even during game-time when auction winners, dignitaries and family members show up and sit behind them in the second row of the booth, experiencing live what they've heard for years on the radio.
They talk with fans and sign autographs, especially Niehaus. On this night, Niehaus has signed balls, programs and even a Dave Niehaus bobblehead.
“Dave has raised two generations now,” Sims said. “It's a rush for them to meet him.”
In the hour before the game begins, activity in the booth picks up.
At 6:40 p.m., a half-hour before the first pitch, Niehaus closes the huge folder that contains a full season of score sheets, gathers his notes and walks next door to the FSN booth where he will spend the first three innings calling play-by-play on the TV side.
Sims moves down to the front row, carrying an armful of notes and reference material, along with a wide-brimmed hat that's a new arrival in the Mariners' Team Store. Sims has become known for the stylish hats he has worn this season.
“You look like Tom Kite with that one,” Rizzs said to Sims.
“I wish I played like Tom Kite,” Sims replied.
A few minutes before 7, with the beginning of the game getting closer, an operator back at the station counts down the seconds before the broadcast begins. Niehaus, Rizzs and Sims have done this for decades, but there's still an adrenaline rush even in the 113th game of the season.
“I still get the same feeling,” said Rizzs, in his 24th year calling Mariners games. “It's not necessarily nerves, but there's this wonderful feeling of anticipation and anxiousness, being in the spot that I wanted to be in when I was 12 years old.”
Sims says the pregame buildup for 162 baseball games feels just as intense as the high-energy NFL and college basketball he calls the rest of the year on national radio and TV.
“You could be having a long day, but all of a sudden when that music kicks in before we go on the air, boom, it's time to go to work,” Sims said. “I can relate to what Broadway performers go through.”
Rookie right-hander Doug Fister is pitching for the Mariners and, despite walking two batters and hitting another, he keeps the White Sox scoreless through three innings. Later in the game, when the Mariners take a 1-0 lead on Russell Branyan's RBI single, Niehaus offers a solid-gold observation.
“If one of the veterans really had salt in his veins, he'd go up to Fister and say, ‘There's your run son, take it home.'”
Working together more than two decades, Niehaus and Rizzs have acquired such a sense of timing that rarely does one man speak over the other.
“There's this word ballet that goes on,” Rizzs said. “I look at Dave and I can sense when he's finished. I can look at him and hear his cadence and know when he's through. It's just a feeling after working with a guy for so long that you know to jump in. And you make sure to jump in with something that makes sense and is pertinent to what just happened.”
Even their two sets of eyes work as one as Rizzs looks for other things on the field while Niehaus describes a play as it happens.
“I try to fill in the gaps,” Rizzs said. “I listen to Dave and I watch for other things. Why did the guy score or why didn't he score? Did he make a good turn at third? Was the ball bobbled out in left field? Did it stick under the wall? Did it take a funny hop? Then I try to slip in when I know that Dave's done.”
There's a TV monitor in front of each broadcaster, plus one for producer-engineer Cremin. They use the TV to check such elements of the game as pitch location and replays on close calls, but they must depend on their own eyes to call the action as it happens.
“The only time I watch the monitor is when I'll see the signal from the catcher and the location of the pitch,” Rizzs said. “Was it a two-seam fastball that had good sink down and away? How did the hitter react to it? Then I look up right away.”
After Scott Podsednik hits a fly to center for the third out of the seventh inning, Rizzs shifts smoothly to a live ad for a Tacoma car dealership. He ends it with, “Tell them Rick sent you,” and slides a piece of paper back to Cremin.
Along with the constant chatter by Niehaus, Rizzs and Sims, there's also a flow of paperwork that goes from Cremin to the announcers and back. Most of it is copy for ads, promotional announcements and drop-ins they read during short breaks in the action.
“You've got to pay the bills,” Rizzs said.
Cremin, in his 27th year as producer-engineer of the Mariners' radio broadcasts, is responsible for the technical side of the operation, meaning he's the guy who sets up and tears down the equipment when the team travels from city to city.
But he also is the silent source of knowledge for the announcers. He scans the Internet for results, statistics and stories of interest, and often writes information yellow sticky notes and hands them to the announcers. Yes, he also uses those notes to correct mistakes.
“He sets up the equipment but that's way down on the list of the things he does,” Rizzs said. “He loves the game, he understands the history and he has a good sense of what's going on or what we need to know while the game is going on.”
It's the top of the fifth inning and, while Niehaus describes the action on the field, he weaves in a story about what it was like broadcasting Angels games in Los Angeles, where there were stars on the field and all around town.
“I worked with Don Drysdale in L.A., and the Dodgers had a pitcher named Bill Singer,” he tells listeners with nobody out. “It was New Year's Eve and I asked Don Drysdale, ‘What are you going to do tonight? It's New Year's Eve?'
“Swung on and popped up,” Niehaus says as Alexei Ramirez of the White Sox makes the first out.
Back to the story, he adds, “Don told me, ‘We're going to the Singers for dinner.' So I said, ‘Well, tell him hello for me.' Then Don said, ‘No, not that Singer. I'm going to Sinatra's for dinner.”
Rookie Fister is pitching a gem in his first career start, and he's clearly growing on Niehaus. When the kid strikes out slugger Jim Thome, and then Paul Konerko, Niehaus is sold.
“Oh my gosh! What hath Jack Zduriencik wrought?”
Later in the game, Rizzs calls the action and it's not pretty because reliever Miguel Batista is struggling. He walks three hitters but gets a double-play grounder before reliever Mark Lowe takes over and gets the final out. During the commercial break, TV analyst Mike Blowers drops into the radio booth for a few seconds of off-air banter.
“How do you like Batista, Mr. Blowers? Niehaus asks.
“Nineteen pitches, six strikes,” Blowers says. “At least they hit one of them at the shortstop.”
Held scoreless in the eighth, the Mariners need three outs from closer David Aardsma in the ninth to win a 1-0 classic, and Niehaus not only sets the scene, he describes the tension in the stadium after Aardsma gives up a long fly out and then a walk as he faces dangerous Carlos Quentin.
“Aardsma has 27 saves, but he's also given you a pretty good look at what's down below the cliff plenty of times. He'll take you right to the edge. So Aardsma is fiddling with fate a little bit, putting the tying run on with one out. He's got to prove his mettle to save this ballgame, and what a ballgame we've seen.
“Here's the 2-2 on the way ... lined into left for a base hit. The kettle begins to bubble just a little bit here in the ninth. Aardsma needs the pitcher's best friend here. The Mariners have turned double plays in three of the last four innings, and they're asking for divine help again here in the ninth. Kind of a messy situation here, but still the Mariners cling to that 1-0 lead.”
Alexei Ramirez steps to the plate and works a 2-2 count against Aardsma.
“His next pitch will be his 20th tonight, but only one man down with two on. Aardsma with the 2-2 pitch to Ramirez. ... Swung on and belted! Deep to left field! And just like that, the White Sox have taken a 3-1 lead! Ramirez with his 13th home run of the year and there was little doubt about that. Aardsma has been fabulous, but not tonight.”
The Mariners need two runs in the bottom of the ninth to tie, and before the inning Rizzs stands up and makes an off-air prediction.
“Branyan, three-run home run,” he says. “It's going to land on the railroad tracks.”
Cremin looks up and adds, “Never hurts to call one.”
The Mariners do threaten, but closer Bobby Jenks stops them in the ninth. Game over.
Niehaus and Rizzs return from a commercial break for a brief postgame wrapup, joined on the air by Blowers. They say good-night to their listeners and immediately begin gathering their belongings.
Off the air, the painful loss is forgotten almost immediately in the broadcast booth, and Blowers starts a discussion about newly acquired shortstop Jack Wilson.
“I called it three years ago,” Blowers says. “I said go out and get that guy. Pain in the ass at the plate, hustles after everything. He's like a little Rizzs out there.”
As Rizzs laughs, Blowers turns and walks out the door, followed a short time later by Niehaus.
On the field, the grounds crew has raked the dirt and sprinklers are watering the outfield grass. The only sounds are the traffic outside and a few seagulls looking for scraps inside.
At 2 o'clock tomorrow, the radio crew will return for Game No. 114.
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