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Niehaus' passing hits Mariners family hard

Niehaus' passing hits Mariners family hard

SEATTLE -- The roof at Safeco Field was closed Thursday, casting its shadow over an infield where groundskeepers had spelled out a huge "My oh my" in the dirt behind second base, a tribute to one of Dave Niehaus' favorite calls.

On the big screen in the empty stadium, Niehaus' picture peered straight back toward the broadcast booth behind home plate, with 1935-2010 written in reflection of the 75-year life of the man Mariners fans were mourning across the region following his passing a day earlier.

And while it was a typical drizzly, cloudy Northwest afternoon, the stars were out inside Safeco Field as some of the Mariners' biggest names -- Edgar Martinez, Jay Buhner, Dan Wilson and Dave Henderson -- joined front-office leaders Howard Lincoln and Chuck Armstrong as well as long-time broadcasting sidekick Rick Rizzs in paying tribute to their departed friend.

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It's going to take time for Niehaus' departure to fully sink in, a realization just hitting home with those who'd worked and traveled and laughed and cried with him over the past three decades.

"It will be very different next year," said Martinez, whose run-scoring double to drive in Ken Griffey Jr. and beat the Yankees in Game 5 of the 1995 American League Division Series remains Niehaus' most-famous call. "One of the reasons we feel this way, we're losing a little bit of our past. You hear that voice and it brings memories. Losing that is going to be different. It's just hard."

Wilson, the Mariners' catcher from 1994-2005, worked some in recent years with Niehaus in the broadcast booth. He says that experience was an eye-opener.

"The way he could turn the shot of a ferry heading out to sea into something very Americana about baseball, he was just an artist with words and emotions," Wilson said. "He was able to strike a chord with so many people outside of baseball. That's why we all loved him."

Buhner and Henderson, who've also had broadcast experience with Niehaus, both said his passion for the game and the drive to keep working amazed them. Nobody understands the grind of a baseball season better than the players, which is why they're so impressed that Niehaus only missed 101 of the 5,385 games played during his 34 years in Seattle.

"One of his goals was 5,000 games, and he made it," Henderson said. "I equate that to a player getting 3,000 hits because when you start looking at those numbers for a broadcaster, 5,000 is a lot of years and a lot of ballgames."

Buhner equated his endurance to the feats of Brett Favre and Cal Ripken Jr. and said that constant fixture for the fans will not be replaced.

"It's going to be brutal next year without him," Buhner said. "I think we all knew he was fighting some health problems, but you never envision anything like this. He just wouldn't take time off. He was a workaholic. I think he felt more at home sitting up in that booth in his little black easy chair with his headset on than he did anywhere else."

Henderson recalls being interviewed by Niehaus in the Kingdome three days after he graduated from high school and was drafted by the Mariners in the first round in 1977. He managed just one-word answers throughout that initial interview, but soon developed a trusted relationship with Niehaus.

"Back in those days, we all went together," Henderson said. "There wasn't a separation between players and broadcasters. We were all just friends. And it hurts me that he's gone."

There was a lot of that going around Thursday. The mood in the Mariners' offices was subdued. Armstrong, Rizzs and long-time producer/engineer Kevin Cremin visited the Niehaus family and planned out how the team would honor it most-famous employee.

Safeco Field will be open this Saturday from noon to 3 p.m. PT for an informal fan gathering, with a more formal memorial to be held later after the family determines how to conduct a private service.

"We lost the most popular Mariner in our history," said Armstrong, team president and chief operating officer. "It's a really tough day. Over the years he became a very close, personal friend. But one of the beauties of David is that people who never met him personally felt he was a close personal friend because that's how he was. That's how he broadcast the games and painted the word pictures and came into their homes."

Niehaus cast a shadow far beyond Seattle. He was honored by the Baseball Hall of Fame as the 2008 Ford C. Frick Award winner and was known as a peer to all the broadcast giants.

"He had a great sense of humor and always had a joke in hand," said Dick Enberg, who worked with Don Drysdale and Niehaus on the Angels' broadcast crew before Niehaus took the job as the Mariners' lead announcer in 1977. "I think his passion came through the radio and the audience knew that. ... I'm so happy he was inducted into the Hall of Fame before it was too late."

Niehaus always said he loved his job, never felt like he had worked a day in his life and wanted to die in the broadcast booth. Instead, he passed away of a heart attack on the deck of his home in Bellevue, Wash., while preparing to barbecue some ribs Wednesday afternoon.

Rizzs, who has been Niehaus' partner for 25 years in the booth, said he can't even fathom what it's going to be like in the coming season.

"I don't want to think that far ahead yet, but I have a pretty good idea," Rizzs said. "Not to have him there is going to really, really hurt me and you and all the fans.

"I'll do my best to help the Mariners honor Dave today, tomorrow, next year, the year after. Whatever they want to do, I'm on board. But it'll be a rough spring not to have him there in that seat. I'm going to look over to my right and he's not going to be there and it's going to be very strange for a long time.

"We're going to miss that spontaneity, that excitement, that voice and passion," Rizzs said. "Nobody, nobody is going to replace this guy. He was the Mariners as far as I'm concerned."

Greg Johns is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregJohns1. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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