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It was August of 1995. Vince Coleman had just been traded to the Mariners, just weeks after the team acquired Andy Benes and signed veteran Norm Charlton off the scrap heap. It was also the time my family went to Black Butte Ranch every Summer to find solace from our mundane suburban existence. Black Butte was great because it was an escape from almost everything. The house we rented had no TV. Cars were a rarely used contraption that seemed almost pointless with so many bike trails and 20 MPH speed limits. People came here to swim, to fish, to golf. And so did I, but the Mariners just traded for Vince Coleman.
More important than any swimming pool, or flirting with bikini clad teenagers, the objective was to find a way to stay in touch with the Mariners. No TV station in central Oregon was going to carry Mariners games. Why would they? The Mariners had never even made the playoffs, and were a joke to most Oregonians. It would have been like Seattle carrying Oregon State football games during the 90s. Instead, I tried every radio I could find. The walkman was too weak. The stereo was, too. The car radio seemed like the only apparatus capable of acquiring a signal. Even then, it was hardly a signal. The sound pulsated in and out of audible range. Static riddled the transmission to where anyone that wasn’t fused with Mariners DNA at their core would have been lost trying to follow what was happening. Dave and I were close, though.
He had been telling me the Mariners story since I was a little boy. Like so many others, I often fell asleep to his dulcet tones, knowing that the morning paper would probably show a Mariners loss. Back then, when Niehaus said, “and it’s BELTED,” it was a near certainty the ball was leaving the yard. It was safe to celebrate. I missed that certainty as he got older and had a harder time judging the result at the crack of the bat. Niehaus got to break out that line more often and in more crucial at-bats during 1995 than in any other season. He also told us about Grand Salami time, and when pitches were “looooooooooooow” or “HIIIgh.” Even through the static. Even through the pulsating. Even though I needed to keep my hand on the radio knob to keep some semblance of consistency to the broadcast, Dave was able to tell me exactly what was happening. His intonation, his phrasing, his ability to fuse quintessential American storytelling with America’s greatest pastime was enough to overcome hundreds of miles and countless mountains attempting to block his path.
Even when I couldn’t hear Dave, I could still hear him. The season progressed, as did my life. By September, it was time to head back to college in Washington D.C. This was a land of so many wonderful things, but nobody within 1000 miles had any idea who Dave Niehaus was or how to get KIRO 710 on the radio. Most barely could tell you the name of the baseball franchise in Seattle. Ken Griffey Jr. was cool, but Don Mattingly and Cal Ripken Jr. were just around the corner. My roommates consisted of Will, an existential drug enthusiast who feigned some interest in sports for my benefit, and a guy from New York city named Jay. He looked every bit the New Yorker with the hairy chest, long heavy metal hair, and aggressive demeanor. I liked Jay. Jay liked the Yankees. He liked them like so many New Yorkers do, in passing. They were his team because “who doesn’t like the Yankees?” and nobody else really matters. When the Yankees lose, it has little effect on a large portion of the Yankee fan base. They move on and, rightfully, assume the team would find a way to win in the long run. This total lack of burden incensed me. How could any fan be so cavalier about their team’s losses, but be so obnoxious when they won? Don’t they realize how much suffering Mariners fans have gone through? This was a team that never made the playoffs, let alone win a World Series. They had the best pitcher in the game and the best player, and that still had not been enough to break the curse. How dare you not feel like your life was on the line during the first-round playoff series Yankees fans?
The series started, and even though I was on the East Coast, I had no way to watch game 1. The internet was just getting off the ground, and ESPN.com was only so helpful. I knew Ken Griffey Jr. had homered in his first playoff at-bat. Of course he did. The loss was tough, but game two was much tougher. Fucking Jim Leyritz. By the time the series reached game five, my life had come to a complete halt. I was trapped in a world that could not care less about the Mariners at a time when nothing mattered to me more. Thankfully, I was able to watch game five on TV in my apartment…with Jay and Will. When the Yankees took the lead in the Top of the 11th off of Randy Johnson, it seemed like all was lost. Jay was celebrating in my face, and my world was crumbling. It was fitting that my most hated team would continue my lifetime of bitter disappointment as a Mariners fan. And then, Joey Cora bunted his way on base. And then, Ken Griffey Jr. singled him to third base. And then, the most flawless hitter in his most flawless season, Edgar Martinez, ripped a double down the line to score my hero from first base and send my most hated team out of the playoffs. I bounded through the apartment screaming a scream I may never repeat. Jay and Will had no basis for which to compare this reaction to. People don’t typically act like that, and certainly not their mostly mild-mannered roommate. The Seahawks making the Super Bowl came close, but never have I participated in a trip from such depths to such heights in such a short period of time. Even then, the moment was incomplete.
The only person I had ever shared my love of the Mariners with growing up was nowhere to be found. Not even calling my best friends growing up, or my family would have helped. None of them had cared, or at least none had followed the team for more than a few marvelous months. What did they know of path that had taken the team here? How much had they suffered through one miserable season after another? All I wanted to do was listen to Dave put words to my feelings. He understood. His job had so often been grief counselor that my imagination ran wild thinking of what he must have sounded like during that fateful play. It was no surprise at all that his call became the seminal moment in his perfect career. When I finally got to hear it replayed with his call, it was as if I was right there next to him. It was one of life’s perfections. The perfect team, with the perfect history, beating the perfect opponent in the perfect fashion with the perfect storyteller. Dave, I miss you. I miss our Mariners. When the ship finally gets righted and we win our first World Series, it will be a thrilling occasion. It will be imperfect, though, because you won’t be there to tell me about it. I love you, and thank you for all that you did to make my life that much better. Rest in peace.