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September 10, 2010

Prospectus Q&A

Dave Niehaus and Rick Rizzs

by David Laurila

Dave Niehaus and Rick Rizzs are more than just the radio voices of the Seattle Mariners, they are baseball icons in the Pacific Northwest. Niehaus, who received the Ford C. Frick award in 2008, has been in the booth since the franchise’s inaugural season, in 1977. Rizzs’ tenure is nearly as long, as he has been Niehaus’ broadcast partner since 1983, save for three tumultuous seasons spent with the Detroit Tigers. Niehaus and Rizzs talked about their storied careers, the art of broadcasting, and Mariners baseball during an August visit to Fenway Park.

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David Laurila: Rick, tell me about your broadcast partner.

Rick Rizzs: Obviously, he’s one of the best in the game. Two years ago he was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York, and I think that says it all. But, what Dave brings is the great storytelling and passion for the game of baseball.

He’s become so much a part of the organization, and a fabric of the community. All of the great announcers—when you think of a certain ballclub, if you think of their lead announcer as “that guy,” that’s what he means to the fans. With the Dodgers you think of Vin Scully. Growing up where I grew up, in Chicago, you’d think of Jack Brickhouse. Everybody—generations of baseball fans—growing up in the Pacific Northwest think of Dave Niehaus.

He knows and understands the game. Nobody sets up the drama better than what this guy has done for 34 years with the organization, and 44 years of broadcasting baseball. It’s not only a talent, but a true art, to make you feel like you’re at the ballpark. For the broadcaster to put you in the front row, to see the game on the radio, that’s a real art and nobody does it better than this guy right here.

DL: Dave, tell me about your broadcaster partner.

Dave Niehaus: Well, I’ve been very lucky to have tremendous partners ever since I started my broadcasting career out of the service. I got a lot of my experience with the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service back in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s. Then, when I joined the Angels, I was lucky enough to join Buddy Blattner and Don Wells, and after that, Don Drysdale and Dick Enberg. After that it was Ken Wilson in Seattle, when I moved up there in 1977, and then Rick when he came along in 1983. They’ve all been unbelievable and all great partners.

I lost Rick for a while. I was one of the guys that recommended him for the Detroit job, because I thought he was a No. 1 type of announcer, and he was. He just got into a hornet’s nest, and he can tell you about that more than anybody else. It was like somebody trying to follow Scully. I feel sorry for whoever follows Scully, and Scully’s going to be back again at age 82. But Rick is No. 1 announcer quality and has been a very faithful companion for these many years—all but three years since 1983—so I’ve been very lucky to have a guy like him to lean on and be my partner.

DL: Rick, can you talk a little about your Detroit experience?

RR: How much time do we have? I knew it was going to be difficult, because you’re following a legend in Ernie Harwell, and Ernie didn’t go out in the best of circumstances; he shouldn’t have left in the first place. It was very difficult replacing a legend. You want to be the guy who replaces the guy who replaces the legend.

I thought it would be a great opportunity, but the ballclub was sold halfway through my first year there and they wanted Ernie back, and after my first year they did (get him back). I had a chance to work with Ernie for an entire season, in 1993, my second year there. It was difficult because, you know, fans get so engrained like they have in the Northwest with Dave Niehaus, to that voice, to that announcer. It’s very difficult to make that change. All of a sudden, here comes this new guy in town and they don’t know this guy. But I felt like the fans were starting to give me a chance after three years.

Ernie retired after the 1993 season and then it was Bob Rathbun and myself again, for a third season together. It was tough—it was very, very difficult—but it was a great learning experience and I was fortunate that after the Tigers let me go that Dave and the Mariners got me right back for the 1995 season. Thank goodness I didn’t miss that year, because it was the season that saved baseball.

My three years in Detroit were a great learning experience. I learned a lot about myself and a lot about the history of the game of baseball, because in Detroit there’s so much of it there. I had the pleasure of working with Sparky Anderson for three years and that was a real treat. There were some great players there, like Alan Trammell, Cecil Fielder, and Frank Tanana. It was a great learning experience, but I’m so glad to be back in Seattle. This is where I want to stay.

DL: How do the two markets compare?

DN: I haven’t worked in the Detroit area, like Rick did, but Detroit is an original American League franchise, just like Boston, and has so much more history than Seattle does. Seattle is only 34 years old and you go back to 1901 with the Detroit Tigers and even [longer] with the Boston ballclub. It’s like apples and oranges; it’s pretty hard to compare. Seattle has never been in the World Series, while Boston took 86 years between World Series. We came close in 1995, but close is just close; we’re still hunting for the golden ring. It hasn’t happened.

The Tigers have been there, but Rick was in Detroit during struggling years when they had bad ballclubs. He was used to bad ballclubs—he came from Seattle!—so he certainly had experience in describing… but just because you have a bad ballclub, and bad years, I don’t think you ever have to have a bad broadcast. Describe what you have and tell your stories. I treat every game for exactly what it is: 1/162ndof a season. I’ve done thousands and thousands of baseball games and I’ve never seen two alike. I’ve done 13, 14, 15 no-hitters, although I’ve never done a perfect game. I came within one out of a perfect game, but I’ve never done a perfect game. All those years with Nolan Ryan and his no-hitters with the Angels. But comparing the two cities is hard to do, because one has all the history and the other has hardly any.

DL: Rick, what was your background as a broadcaster prior to coming to Seattle?

RR: I started when I was 12 years old in my basement, turning down the sound on Chicago Cub games. I did Cub games in the basement of our house, growing up in the South Side of Chicago as a White Sox fan, because Jack Brickhouse was my hero, just like Dave Niehaus is a hero to many kids now.

I went to Southern Illinois University and got my degree in radio and television, and did some broadcasting for the school station. Then I got a job as the sports director at the local ABC affiliate, WCIL. My last two years in college, I did play-by-play for football, basketball, and baseball games. Then, right out of college, I was fortunate. A friend of mine was the general manager of the Alexandria Aces in the Texas League, the Double-A team for the San Diego Padres. He hired me during the season to do three innings of play-by-play, and I was also the clubhouse guy. I shined the shoes of the visiting players and washed the uniforms. That was my main job; I was the clubhouse guy back in 1975.

So I got my foot in the door in the minor leagues and that’s where a lot of us come up. Everybody has a different path and mine was through the minor leagues as a broadcaster. Then we moved the franchise from Alexandria, Louisiana to Amarillo, Texas. I was there for two years again with the Padres' Double-A farm club, then I went to Memphis, Tennessee with the Memphis Chicks, the Expos' Double-A team. From there I went to Columbus, Ohio for two years with the Yankees' Triple-A affiliate.

I spent eight years in the minor leagues. Every year you send out a resume, and a tape, and hope that somebody likes it and gives you an opportunity. In 1983 I applied for the job with the Mariners and I got it. That was my path to the major leagues, spending eight years in the minor leagues, riding those buses and really learning a lot about the game of baseball from different minor-league managers who spent time in the major leagues as players, for years, like Felipe Alou, Larry Bearnarth, Bob Miller, Billy Gardner, and guys like that. I learned a lot of baseball from those guys.

DL: Dave, Rick mentioned at the outset what a good storyteller you are. How important is that quality for a broadcaster?

DN: Baseball is obviously a game of statistics, but I’m not a big statistics guy, to tell you the truth. What I like more are the personal stories of the ballplayers and the funny things that happen along the line. Sure, statistics are a big part—home runs, RBI, on-base percentage—all that stuff is a very big part of baseball and there are the fanatics that love that type of thing. The new young breed of general managers that are coming up are a combination of old school and new school as far as statistics are concerned. You’ve got Bill James on the staff of the Boston Red Sox, and I guess he was basically the father of sabermetrics. I go along with a lot of that, but a lot more of it, I think, is telling the story about a ballplayer at a particular time and what may have happened to him.

Some time, way back in the past, baseball was a game and not a business. It’s more of a business now than it is a game. It’s a game, but it’s run by money more than anything else. With the free agency now, you hardly get the Stan Musials and people like that who are with ballclubs all their career and you can identify with them. You don’t get the Ted Williamses that are with the Boston Red Sox their entire career, or the Johnny Peskys, or anybody like that anymore. You hopscotch to where the money is and it’s hard for youngsters to identify with ballplayers like you and I did as kids, where you had these guys every year, and you knew they were going to be there, and that’s my guy. Well your guy is now somebody else’s guy.

Johnny Damon is the perfect example. Johnny Damon was part of the big thing in 2004 here, and he doesn’t even want to come back. Roger Clemens jumped all over the place. Roger Clemens, sure Hall of Famer, and now he’s a terrible face of baseball because of what has happened. You know, you go through all the steroid era and everything like that, and it’s an ugly time in baseball. You’ve got a guy that hit more home runs than anybody in the game and nobody really recognizes him as the home-run champion. Nobody looks at Barry Bonds as the home-run champion. The sacred number in baseball is still 714, I think.

DL: Rick, piggybacking on what Dave just said, is part of your job as a broadcaster to be an ambassador to the game and maybe downplay issues like the PED controversy?

RR: You can’t ignore it. You want to be an ambassador, but you also want to be a reporter, because that’s your job. People are counting on you, through your eyes and your experience, to tell them what’s going on at the ballpark.

Yes, you do want to be an ambassador to the game. You want to represent your organization, your fan base, your city—heck, yourself—and the people that you work with. You want to take pride in what you do and you want to do it to the best of your ability. So the answer, I think, is that you want to do all of that.

You can’t ignore the controversial issues of the day. You have to report on them, but the most important thing, when you walk into that booth, is to be prepared and to do the game that day. That’s what the fans want to hear about. No matter what is happening in their lives, for three hours they want to find out how the Mariners are doing tonight. You have to be informative; you have to tell them that story. You have to be their eyes and ears—all their senses—and you have to make them feel like they’re at the ballpark.

It’s a great responsibility to try to do all of that, and also try and be a good member of the community, because you take ownership. When you become a part of this, you know that so many people are relying on you. You need to take ownership of the responsibility you have to represent the fans, and the organization, to the best of your ability.

DN: I think, to a certain extent, that you’re an entertainer. I really do. But the one thing that you have that you can never lose is your credibility. I think you have to be very credible; you have to tell the truth, you can’t stretch the truth. An error’s an error, whether the guy is wearing a white uniform, a gray uniform, or whatever. You’ve got to explain the play exactly the way it happens, to the best of your ability, and let the cards fall where they may. Whether it is a Mariner that screws up, or anybody else, you’ve got to tell the truth.

DL: Have your relationships with players changed over the years?

DN: I think they’ve changed rather dramatically over the decades. I don’t run around with players; I don’t have that much of an interplay with players as I used to have. I mean, they’re here one day and gone the next. My responsibility every day is to do the manager’s show, so I don’t have that much interaction with the players. I’ll go down and talk to the players, things like that, but my responsibility is to the fans.

DL: Fans today have a lot more access to stats than they did pre-Internet, including advanced stats. How does that impact the information you give them?

RR: We do have so much information that is available to us. We have all of this information sitting right out here on the table, or on the Internet, but you don’t want to inundate the fans with too many numbers. You want to be a storyteller. You want to tell a story of the game; that’s the most important thing. You want to use numbers that enhance the storytelling of the broadcast.

You don’t want to tell them this guy is hitting .271 on Tuesday when there’s a cloudy sky, or whatever. If you use a number, you want a number that makes sense, that helps tell the story. The benefit now is that, with the Internet, we have the best producer/engineer in the game of baseball, Kevin Cremin. Kevin is on that computer, and if something is happening in the game of baseball, if there’s a big story, boom, we have it. We can talk about it right now and discuss it on the air. Or, if it’s breaking news, we can let the fans know exactly what’s going on. That part of it has really changed the game of baseball.

DL: Who listens to Mariners games?

DN: To tell you the truth, I don’t know our exact demographics, but I do know that, as much as we have struggled over the years—and you’d have to talk to the stations—that we have always been one of the top four or five radio broadcasts in baseball. Why? I don’t know. It’s not because of me, it’s not because of Rick. I think it is because of the interest in baseball in the Pacific Northwest. We always have high, high ratings in baseball. I’m very happy for that. In 1995, the one year where we caught fire, was an unbelievable year where probably 80 percent of the radios were tuned to the Mariners every time they were on in August or September when we made that run to the pennant. Along with the Red Sox, the Cardinals—the Yankees, of course—we’re one of the top-rated broadcasts, win or lose, over the years in baseball. You can check it out.

RR: I think the beauty of that is—people listening on the radio—is that the game of baseball itself spans from one generation to another, so it’s really from 8 to 80. We can focus in on the radio station and say “Oh, the demographics are 18 to 35 males,” or whatever, but we found out that 50 percent of the people that come out to Safeco Field are women; it’s 50/50 from a survey we took a few years ago. But it’s really from 8 to 80.

I fell in love with this game, as did Dave, as a kid. My love for the game, and Dave’s love for the game, has been cultivated since we were 7, 8, 9 years of age, and I think it’s still happening in the Northwest, and it’s happening in every major-league city and every minor-league city, too. But the demographics, man, 8 to 80. We get letters from everybody, from kids to two elderly ladies sitting on top of a mountain in Montana, in their pickup truck, so they can listen to the game. That’s the beauty of the game of baseball: it’s for everybody.

DN: As you probably know, I’ve received several awards during my broadcasting career, but none of them am I more proud than one I received a couple of years ago from the Washington State Association of the Blind. They said their people could literally see the baseball game though my eyes. I think that probably meant as much to me as the Ford Frick Award, letting me know that they can see the game through my eyes, and understand through my voice. I’m very proud of that award, and they’re a big part of our demographic.

The people we forget about are the shut-ins, the people in hospitals, and the old people, that can’t come to the ballpark. We’re their eyes, we’re their ears. They appreciate our broadcast. They don’t put any money in the coffers of the Seattle Mariners; all they do is listen. All they do is enjoy the game. That’s what I’m here to try to do, make them enjoy the game, win or lose.

DL: What is the most memorable call each of you has made?

RR: I think the biggest one I’ve had the chance to make is Luis Sojo’s base hit. We finally came back in 1995—13 ½ games out of first place in early August. We came back to tie the California Angels at the end of the regular season. We had to have a one-game playoff against the California Angels. It was Randy Johnson against Mark Langston, two pitchers that were traded for one another back in 1989. We acquired Randy Johnson from the Montreal Expos for Mark Langston, along with a couple of other pitchers.

It came down to one game, and it was 1-0 in the bottom of the seventh inning, and the bases were loaded. Luis Sojo got a base hit that got by J.T. Snow down the right-field line, into the bullpen, and the bases were cleared. Then, the relay home from Langston got away from the catcher, Andy Allanson, and Sojo was able to score, and I just screamed “Everybody scored!” and we were on the way to playoffs for the very first time in our history. It took us from 1977 to 1995 to finally get to the playoffs for the first time. For me, personally, that was my favorite moment.

DN: That was my favorite year, too. It took us 15 years to get to .500, for crying out loud—1977 to 1991—and Jim Lefebvre finally got us to .500 by knocking off the Texas Rangers. And Lefebvre got fired after the year was over. I don’t understand why.

I will always be associated with “The Double,” Edgar Martinez’s double in Game Five of the American League Division Series, against the Yankees, in 1995. Joey Cora was at third base and Junior [Griffey] was at first, and Edgar Martinez doubled down the left-field line. Both guys scored and we were on our way to play for the American League championship. That’s the call I’m sure I will always be identified with—until the next big one comes along, and I hope I’m here to deliver the next big one. Without a doubt, everybody in Seattle identifies me with that one.

DL: Going back to the beginning, what do you most remember about the first game you called for the Mariners?

DN: Diego Segui was pitching. He had also pitched for the Seattle Pilots in 1969, and I remember Jerry Remy stepped to the plate. The first pitch was a strike, and he ended up walking. I’ll never forget that. I remember Frank Tanana shutting us out in the first game and Nolan Ryan shutting us out in the second game. I had come from the Angels and I was wondering “My god, what kind of decision did I make?” Finally, the third game we won.

I’ll never forget opening night, because it was a happening in Seattle. Major League Baseball was back after eight years. One year, in 1969, and they left and went to Milwaukee. The Kingdome, to me, was the most beautiful arena I’d been in my life at that particular time. It was vibrant, it was alive, and it was breathing. Humanity was there. We never scored a run for two games, but I’ll never forget it. I was the happiest man alive.

RR: We played the Yankees on Opening Day, my first year, in 1983. Richie Zisk hit a home run and I had a chance to use “Goodbye baseball” for the very first time in the big leagues after using it for eight years in the minor leagues. I remember Dave saying, “Oh, you got the first home run of the year.” It just felt like, after all those hard years of trying to get through the minor leagues, that I had arrived. It was such a great feeling to be in the big leagues with Dave and to watch a big-league game, in a big-league ballpark, with big-league players and I was a big-league announcer. It meant a whole lot, that first game. I could smile.

DL: Any final thoughts?

DN: First of all, when I die, I think I’m going to have on my tombstone: “Game 162, season over.” That’s what I want it to say, because I never had to work a day in my adult life. That is the way I look at it, because of the business I’m in. I love it so much and I think Rick feels the same way.

Today, for example; it’s going to be one of the longest days in our history, because after [the day-night doubleheader] we’ve got the 5 ½ hour flight home. With the rain, we don’t know if we’re going to play one game or if we’re going to play two games. We don’t know if we’re going to play at all, but we do know it’s going to be the sun coming up in the morning when we get home. But, it beats working, baby. It beats working.

RR: I remember when I was a kid, my dad told me, “Rick, I don’t care what you do when you grow up, as long as when you get up in the morning, you don’t mind going to work.” He says, “You’ve got it made.” Well, for 36 years, I’ve had it made. I’ve been living my dream. How many people can wake up in the morning, like Dave and I do, and say that we’re living our dream? This is what I’ve wanted to do since I was 12 years old; I get to come to a ballpark and broadcast a major-league game. So, I’ve been very blessed, very fortunate to be doing something I’ve wanted to do ever since I was a kid. I’m one of the most fortunate guys in the world, to be doing something I’ve wanted to do for such a long time.

 DN: I was going to be a dentist, and believe me, this beats staring down somebody’s throat at seven o’clock in the morning, every morning, for the rest of your life. It beats it. I’ll take it.  

4 comments have been left for this article.

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