PEORIA, Ariz. — Each of the past five years in mid-February, I’ve prepared myself to write the feel-good story of spring training, and it never happened.
Every time, someone else was voted into the broadcasters’ wing of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, and Seattle Mariners play-by-play announcer Dave Niehaus was always left to wait for another chance.
As the years passed by, so was Niehaus by the 20-person committee that votes for the Ford C. Frick Award for major contributions in baseball broadcasting.
Reporters covering the Mariners had become accustomed to the anticipation that this might be Niehaus’ year, only to write about something else when another name was announced as the Frick winner.
Who could have blamed Niehaus for thinking that the phone call he got Tuesday, the day the 2008 award was announced, was nothing more than someone wishing him a happy 73rd birthday?
It was more than that. The Hall of Fame was calling with news that made it the greatest day of Niehaus’ career.
He finally had won, and to Northwest baseball fans whose direct connection with the Mariners for 31 seasons was Niehaus, there was justice.
“It’s the most humbling experience, without a doubt, I’ve had in my life,” Niehaus said. “It’s the biggest thrill in my life. For us in the broadcasting business, it’s our Oscar.”
Niehaus has called nearly every Mariners game since Diego Segui threw the first pitch in 1977. Since then, he has worked 4,817 of the 4,899 games in franchise history.
“I look at every game as 1/162nd of season,” he said. “Each game has a different story. It’s the reason people fall in love with baseball. I look forward coming to the ballpark telling a different story every day. It’s never been a downer because I always think maybe this is the beginning of a winning streak.”
His favorite call was perhaps the greatest moment in Seattle sports history, when Edgar Martinez’s double in the 11th inning against the Yankees scored Ken Griffey Jr. with the winning run in the deciding Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series.
Until Tuesday, the best moment of his career occurred before the first game at Safeco Field in 1999. Niehaus had participated in pregame festivities for the new ballpark and was standing near the backstop waiting to see who’d been chosen to throw out the ceremonial first pitch.
There had been considerable speculation — a political figure or a former Mariners player were the common guesses.
Team president Chuck Armstrong stood next to Niehaus and handed him a baseball, telling him to walk to the mound to make that pitch.
Niehaus threw it with tears in his eyes.
He has called terrible seasons by the Mariners and division championships, and he’s described one-year-and-done players such as Joe Lis, and stars including Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner and Alex Rodriguez.
Along the way, Niehaus developed his signature calls:
“It will fly away!” for a home run.
“My, oh, my!” for a spectacular play.
“Get out the rye bread and mustard, Grandma, it’s grand salami time!” for a Mariners grand-slam.
Niehaus tries to create an image of the sights, sounds and smells of the ballpark in a listener’s mind, much the way his play-by-play heroes did when he was a kid.
Niehaus grew up in Princeton, Ind., and sat on his front porch on summer nights listening to Cardinals broadcaster Harry Caray describe games at Sportsman’s Park in St. Louis.
Years later when Niehaus saw his first major league game in St. Louis, he was disappointed because the players seemed like ordinary people. Harry Caray created such an image with his words on the radio that the Cardinals seemed larger than life.
That is Niehaus’ goal every time he describes a game, and it’s the reason the Washington Council of the Blind honored him in 2004.
“They said they could see the game through my eyes,” he said. “When you can accomplish that, paint a picture with your words, that’s something to be proud of.”
Early in his career, Niehaus called Dodgers and Angels games in Los Angeles with such broadcast greats as Vin Scully and Dick Enberg.
Now, he’ll be in the Hall of Fame alongside Scully, Caray, Jack Buck, Ernie Harwell and Curt Gowdy. Niehaus is the 32nd winner of the Frick Award, which was first presented in 1978.
“My first emotion was, ‘Do I really belong with all these people?’” he said. “You see the names and it’s really intimidating.”
For years, it seemed like Niehaus might never join them as the vote swung someone else’s way. This time, he won over a field of nine other finalists — Joe Nuxhall, Bill King, Joe Morgan, Dizzy Dean, Tony Kubek, Graham McNamee, Tom Cheek, Ken Coleman and Dave Van Horne.
He’ll be inducted July 27 in a Hall of Fame class that also includes Dick Williams, who managed the Mariners from 1986 to 1988.
Williams left a message on Niehaus’ phone Tuesday, saying, “We’re going to take Cooperstown by storm, and it’ll never be the same.”
Ken Griffey Jr., preparing for spring training with the Cincinnati Reds, called Tuesday to congratulate Niehaus.
“Glad I beat you there,” he told Griffey.
Others also called — players, team officials, friends — and he thanked them for their part in his career.
Most of all, Niehaus thanked Mariners fans during a news conference Tuesday at Safeco Field.
“These are the people who put me in the Hall of Fame,” he said. “There are three generations of people who have listened to me. That’s who I owe this award to.”
Read Kirby Arnold’s blog on the Mariners at www.heraldnet.com.