Just in case you were wondering what it is I actually want to do as a sportsologist/writer, here is an example. I’m really interested in the sociocultural aspects of sports — how individuals and groups interact with them, and how sports fan communities are created. Who’s in and who’s out? And just what is a “fair-weather” fan, anyway? How do we fans see sports, and why do we love them?
On the page entitled “Be in the Book,” you’ll find information about how you, too, can participate in the book/interview project. I’d love to hear from you. Write me!
In the meantime, here is the transcript of the interview I did with Dave Niehaus for my 2004 bachelor’s thesis. Niehaus, the Mariners play-by-play broadcaster, generously agreed to do a phone interview with me. I called him up one afternoon prior to Spring Training, and was treated with 45 minutes, one-on-one, with Dave. As a lifelong Mariners fan, this is pretty high up there on my own personal sports highlight reel. Dave is great, and still makes Mariners baseball fun to listen to after 30+ years with the ballclub. He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame last year.
Unless I can get ahold of Dave again to get permission, this will likely not go into the book. But it’s a good example of some of the questions about sports and culture of interest to me — and what I hope to write the book about!
I love the first part of this interview, where Dave is quizzing me about Walla Walla and college. I was on the other end of the phone, trying really hard not to be too nervous. My idol was asking me about college!
In addition, I’ll be at the George and Dragon tonight, looking for a few good Sounders fans who are willing to talk soccer with me. Stay tuned for some upcoming interviews with soccer fans who will tell me what this whole World Cup craze is all about!
Dave Niehaus — January 26th, 2004
ANNA: The Soc department has asked me to get a statement of informed consent from everybody, so I’m using this interview my thesis – is that okay with you?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Sure – what are you? Thesis for what – MBA, PhD, undergraduate degree, or what?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Okay.
ANNA: I’m a student at Whitman College.
DAVE NIEHAUS: Yeah, I know. What are you majoring in?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Great. Are you from here?
ANNA: Yes, I am. I live out in Shoreline when I’m not in Walla Walla.
DAVE NIEHAUS: Okay. How do you like Walla Walla?
ANNA: It’s great, it’s a little small.
DAVE NIEHAUS: Yeah, I know.
ANNA: It’s definitely – right now it’s pretty cold. But it’s a nice place and I’ll be sad when I have to leave.
DAVE NIEHAUS: There’s a lot of new wineries out there – aren’t – isn’t there?
ANNA: Yeah, there seems to be a new one opening almost every year.
DAVE NIEHAUS: Yeah, I know, I read an article about that.
DAVE NIEHAUS: Alright, I’m sorry, go ahead.
ANNA: That’s okay. Okay, so my first question for you is why did it take so long for baseball to catch on in Seattle?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Well, you know, for the first fifteen years, we – we were not a .500 ballclub, and I think that – and, for the most part, quite frankly, not even that much of a competitive ballclub. And to be competitive, you have to get to .500 first of all. And we did that in 1991, when Jim Lefebvre was the manager here and fell off the face of the earth again the next year, when, uh, Bill Plummer took over. And then Lou Pinella came on in 1993.
But that having been said, let’s not forget that in the original, inaugural year of 1977, we, uh, we established a new record for attendance for, you know, an expansion ballclub. So you knew that the interest was there. But you had to give the fans, you know, a competitive product. I’ve always said that. I knew this was going to be a Mecca of baseball if, you know, ownership would just give the – the fans a competitive product. And they have. This new ownership has done a marvelous job, and it’s turned into maybe the baseball Mecca of the United States right now, as we’ve been either one-two in attendance the last couple of years with the New York Yankees and it’s proven to be, you know, a bonanza.
ANNA: Do you think it’s important that Seattle has a baseball team?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Well, in a – yeah, what is this, the thirteenth largest market in the country and there are thirty major league baseball teams. You know, I’m – I’m, you know, very subjectively, I think it’s the greatest game in the world, and I think, I think in a city, indeed in this case, an area – the Pacific Northwest, identifies with a Major League Baseball team more than any other kind of professional team for a couple of reasons. Number one, it stretches out, not only six months out of the year but it’s almost, you know, a daily thing. Uh, that’s the reason I think that, you know, baseball announcers like myself become ingrained in, in-uh, people’s families, because you come into their homes, if you’re a baseball fan, almost every day. And you become a, a part of their family. And because of that, you know, they look – and baseball, let’s not forget, baseball at least from the broadcasting standpoint of view, people start to listen, listening to me – or when baseball season comes around, let’s put it this way, it’s a portent of good things to come. Because the winter is over, Spring has started, the trees start to bloom, it’s, you know, it’s a – vacations are around the corner, beaches, hiking, trips, everything. It all happens during baseball season, and it’s, and that’s the reason I think it’s so, you know, people look forward to it so, because it’s the best part of the year. I mean, the Winter is over, Fall is over, and, uh, you know, life begins anew.
ANNA: I would definitely agree with you there. I mean, I’ve been listening to you since I was really little, so. (Laughs)
DAVE NIEHAUS: (Laughs).
ANNA: Regionally speaking, how large would you say the Mariners fan base is?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Regionally speaking?
DAVE NIEHAUS: I would say it stretches, obviously from Northern California, or certainly Southern Oregon, maybe Northern California – I’m not, I’m not sure about that. As far as south as that, as far north, certainly, as north of Vancouver. As far east as, probably, Boise, Idaho, if not a little bit farther, maybe even into North Dakota. That would probably be the area.
ANNA: How would you describe the average Mariners fan?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Well, you know, I don’t know what – I don’t know what your definition of average is. I guess, the average Mariner – the average Mariner fan is pretty, is a, is a pretty well-versed fan. I mean, they know the game. I’m not sure they knew the game or took that much, you know, took that much interest in the game until quite frankly, 1995. In 1995, as you know, was a “bastard year” – I use that phrase because it was the year that started out in Spring Training with, with replacement players, remember?
DAVE NIEHAUS: They were on strike, and so we had a bunch of guys that were, you know, that were really amateurs trying to make a major league team. It looked like we were going to play with replacement players, and then they settled the strike, and then the real big-leaguers came in, and we had a short Spring Training. We played, you know, I think we only played about three-and-a-half to four weeks of exhibition baseball, which proves you can – you don’t need six weeks at Spring Training, which they do now. Which they always do. And then we had, a hundred and forty-four games scheduled, because it – because of the strike, it bit in so deeply into the regular season. As it ended up, it turned out to be a hundred and forty-five game season for the Mariners because they tied with the Angels and had to beat them in a playoff to get into the playoffs.
And it was about, you know, August of that particular year when, I think the Mariners were thirteen games behind the Angels, and funny things began to happen. And not only did they catch the Angels, the Angels caught them at the end. If you might recall, we were in Texas, and had clenched a tie for the division championship with two games to go, and then Texas beat us the last two games, and the Angels swept all four games down in Anaheim against Oakland. And tied, and then they came up here and then we beat them.
And then went to New York, and af – ironically, I’ll never forget this, because the first day we were in New York, uh, to play the Yankees in the playoffs, it was the day that the OJ Simpson verdict came down. And, uh, and then lost the first two games and that – certainly the second game, that bitter thirteen, fourteen-inning, fifteen-inning game. I think it was thirteen innings, where Jimmy Leyrich hit a home run into the, into – raindrops into the seats in right field, and we’re coming back down two to nothing, and you knew the season was over. And, well, as you know what happened, it wasn’t over. We won all three games, culminated by Edgar Martinez’ double down the left field line with Joey Cora scoring and then Junior scoring from first base.
And – and I think it was from August of that year that the town became absolutely rabid, fanatical. I’ll never forget, there was – UW was playing Notre Dame, a rare time that they played Notre Dame in football, over at, over at Husky Stadium. And as we began a playoff game, I looked in the upper deck off to my right at the Kingdome, and there were all these empty seats. It was a game that the Huskies had won and blew at the end. I don’t know if you remember it or not, but it was a game that they had in their pocket and let slip away. And then all of a sudden, after that game was over, the entire – that entire area that was unoccupied, all of a sudden, people rushed and rushed from Husky Stadium over to the Kingdome to see this particular playoff game. I remember that vividly.
But ever since that time, ever since that time, this town has, uh, basically belonged to the Mariners.
ANNA: Mmmhmm. So do you think the 1995 playoffs then, had a huge role in?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Oh, absolutely.
DAVE NIEHAUS: The 1995 playoffs built the new stadium. It, it, you know, they did lose that – they did lose that vote that particular year, and then they put the pressure on the, barely lost the vote, the popular vote, and then they put the pressure on the state legislature. And the state legislature came through, and Safeco Stadium was built, and uh, again, I think it’s the best stadium in baseball. It’s not my favorite, but I think it’s the best.
ANNA: Okay. So Mariners fans have sometimes been criticized as fair-weather fans. How would you respond to that?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Well, I, you know – fair-weather fans, I think every fan in base – basically, every fan in baseball is a fair-weather fan, maybe with the exception of Boston and Chicago. Cubs, the Cubs draw because of Wrigley Field. Boston draws because of Fenway Park. And, the Yankees, if they don’t win, they’re not gonna draw just because they’re the Yankees. But, as I mentioned, and what your definition of fair-weather is, I mean, they want a good product. Yeah, I – yeah, I would say that most fans are fair-weather fans.
ANNA: In the ballpark, are there behaviors or actions that Mariners fans do that are unique to Mariners fans?
DAVE NIEHAUS: (Sighs) Goodness, you know that’s a good question, and I don’t know if I have an answer for it because quite frankly, I am concentrating on the baseball game so much, I don’t pay a heck-of-a-lot of attention to what’s going on in the stands. Uh, I, I do know that all of a sudden Ichiro has become a cult hero out there in cen – in right field. And they have what they call Area 51. And you know, there are a lot of people now that come over from Japan to see Ichiro play, not only that, but Hasegawa pitch and Kazuhiro Sasaki pitch, but he’s not gonna be here this year. But, uh, uh, you know, it – it just seems like they have a wonderful, wonderful time when they come out.
And because of this stadium, and the atmosphere that it produces, and it’s, you know, almost always full. Uh, it – it’s a wonderful place to be. I – I think that the Mariners have done a – a great job, of – of watching the drinking. There are non-drinking sections, and you know, they don’t put up with any baloney out there. And you – you can’t really be a, you know, a ruffian and come out to the ballpark and disturb other people. And I think people appreciate that, too. It’s a nice, wholesome place to come, and have entertainment.
ANNA: Okay. Throughout your involvement with the team, what players do you feel have received the most support from fans?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Well, you know, I think right now, of course Ichiro. He’s been the most popular player in baseball if you, if you take the All-Star vote the last two or three years, last two years. Uh, he’s been very popular. Bret Boone has been very popular.
I – I think, without Ken Griffey, Jr., we probably wouldn’t have Safeco Field. Uh, baseball wouldn’t be as popular. I think, when Junior arrived on the scene in 1989, he became, you know, the fair child of baseball. He started hitting home runs, he did everything magnificently, he had a great arm, he hit – hit for average, although he probably could have hit for a higher average if he didn’t go for home runs, and was magnificent defensively. The only problem was staying healthy, and crashing into walls, breaking bones and things like that. But, but, I certainly he – he would, I think, be number one in, uh, in Mariner fans hearts. If you had to name Mr. Mariner.
But, finishing a very close second, if maybe not edging him out now would be Edgar Martinez. I don’t think there’s any doubt about it, because, Edgar is – Edgar is, you know, I named Alvin Davis Mr. Mariner, because of the gentleman that he was and everything. And Alvin Davis, uh, personifies everything I think a man should be. And uh, and uh, but, but Edgar Martinez may have taken that mantle away from him now and, uh, you know, Bret Boone – so many, uh, so many favorites. John Olerud (missed).
We have, we have a – a group of ballplayers that are really good guys. And I mean that, right down to the twenty-fifth man, uh, so, you know, to name one probably would not be fair. But if I had to name one, it would probably be Junior.
ANNA: Do you think these players have received support mainly because of their onfield skills or also because, as you mentioned, fans perceive them as good guys?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Well, I – I think, almost by definition, uh, one goes with the other. But if you don’t have onfield skills, and if you don’t have – you were talking about fair-weather fans – if you’re not competitive, and you don’t have wins, then you’re not going to get that – you’re not going that recognition anyway. So I think one goes with the other.
ANNA: Okay. In Out of Left Field, Art Thiel referred to you as “the most beloved figure in Mariners baseball.” And, many of the fans I’ve spoken with strongly connect you with the Mariners baseball experience. Um, how do you perceive your role among most fans?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Well, you know, that was very kind of Art Thiel – Thiel to say that, in, in the book. But, when you’ve been here as long as I have and I’m starting my twenty-eighth year, I – I can, you know, like Harry Carey to me, when I grew up was the Cardinal announcer, and I identified with him. And I was just talking about how you become a member of your family – if it wasn’t me, it would be somebody like me because of, you know, the number of times you visit with people during the course of the year. Now the last several years, we have been doing every exhibition game. So I’m doing thirty-one, thirty-two exhibition games, a hundred and sixty-two regular season games. If you get into the postseason, you’re probably doing more than two hundred games a year. That only leaves a hundred and fifty days in the year when you’re not on the air three or four hours a day, right?
DAVE NIEHAUS: So, I mean (laughs) – so that’s the reason you become so familiar, I think, to families, and probably become popular. Uh, uh, the thing of it is, I’ve been here so long, and that has a lot to do with it. Plus, you know, I’m one of these guys – I, I quite frankly think, you know, has had the opportunity – never have had to go to work a day in my life. Because I enjoy it so much. I am a fan, and I, and I try to exude that, you know, that to people that listen to me. They know that I wear my emotions on my sleeve, and that, you know – I, I also try – and this may – this is going to make no sense at all. But I try to be as objective as my subjectivity will allow me. You cannot be what a group of people from the middle of February until hopefully near the end of October, if you go to the World Series, and not be for them, root for them. But also, a guy in a gray uniform can make just as great a play, if not a greater play, than a guy in a home uniform. And, uh, and I have – and I have – the one thing I have to keep, is, is my credibility. I, you know, you can show signs of rooting and things like that. But I don’t, if you listen to me, I’m not that much of a homer. And, and I really want to keep it that way, because I want to keep my credibility. The one thing people – I, I’d like to think, do, is believe in me, and believe in what I have to say, and once I lose that, I might as well step away from the game.
ANNA: Okay. From your perspective, what was a typical Kingdome experience like?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Well, it depends on what era you’re talking about. You know, it depends if you’re talking about the first fifteen years when it was kind of a drab experience. It was, to my, to my way of thinking, it was laboratory baseball. You had, you know, and I – quite frankly, I liked the Kingdome. And, believe me, on cold, April days, I still miss the Kingdome, and May when you go in there, but, but not during the course of the long year, you know. Not, not with the majesty of, of the elements that we have here in the Pacific Northwest. But, you know, the Kingdome was utilitarian more than anything else. I, I didn’t mind the Kingdome at all.
But it could be cavernous, it could be a lonely place back in ’77, back in ’78 and ’79, when not very many people were showing up. It was – it was a fun ballpark in the fact that, uh, it was an offensive ballpark. A lot of home runs hit there. We established a new Major League record for home runs there. And uh, you know, it was – you know, a lot of people describe it as a wart, but you know, I – I, I, I liked the Kingdome. I really did.
ANNA: Okay. How does the Kingdome experience differ from the Safeco Field experience?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Oh, well, you know, it’s night and day, because, as I mentioned it was laboratory baseball. No wind, no sun, no clouds, uh, none of the shadows coming across the field. No – nothing to affect the flight of the baseball. It was, you know, the only time you get to see outdoor baseball in the Pacific Northwest when the Mariners played in the Kingdome was to go on the road with them. (Laughs) So, it’s a completely, it’s a completely different game. And it’s a better game outdoors. It was meant to be played outdoors, don’t get me wrong. But, at – the Kingdome served it’s purpose, but I would never want to go back there.
ANNA: Okay. What role do you think the 2001 season had in popularizing the team?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Well, the 2001 season was a freak, and it turned into a freak not only because of the Mariners win, but because of 9/11. I think, I think, the wind kinda went out of the balloon a little bit. We were in Anaheim when the terrorists struck in New York and in Pennsylvania, and, and it was, it was one of those seasons where you thought you were never gonna lose. And funny things happened that particular season, and yet, as you, as you got – we, as I recall, clinched a playoff berth Labor Day. And that never happens in baseball. You never clinch a playoff berth that, that early in the season, with a month to go. And, and after that, I was concerned about keeping the sharpness, the edge and everything, and it proved.
Ironically, that season there is one game that I remember more than any others, and it was a loss. And if you follow Mariners baseball, you will remember the one I’m talking about. And it was the game where we had a ten run lead against the Cleveland Indians in the seventh inning.
ANNA: Oh yeah, I remember that.
DAVE NIEHAUS: (Laughs). And blew that son of a gun. And lost that – the Indians came back and beat us that game. I’ll never forget that. Or we would have won a hundred and seventeen games. Ironically, the hundred and sixteen wins were the most in baseball history. Uh, people say that no, the 1906 Chicago Cubs also won a hundred and sixteen games. They, they won a hundred and fifteen. They had one game given to them. It was forfeited to them, when John McGraw would not play, the Cubs wouldn’t put his team, the New York Giants on the field because he didn’t like the umpiring crew, and he said if this particular umpire is gonna umpire behind home plate he wouldn’t put his team on the field. And the umpire says “okay then, see ya later.” And they forfeited that game to the Chicago Cubs. So the Cubs actually on the field only won a hundred and fifteen games, the Mariners won a hundred and sixteen. But of course, you know, there are all kinds of nuances to that, too. The Cubs only played a hundred and fifty-four games, the Mariners played a hundred and sixty-two, so.
ANNA: Okay. Do you feel that the Mariners contribute to the community, in Seattle?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Oh, well, you know, here today, for example, Jamie Moyer is receiving the Fred Hutchinson Award. He received the Roberto Clemente Award. So many charities and things. Dan Wilson – all these people, do so many – Jay Buhner, uh, when he played and still does. Uh, such a fabric of the community. They, they – they practically live at Children’s Hospital during the offseason. A lot of tours, we do that. And, uh, they’re a huge part of the fabric of the community. Everybody knows that.
ANNA: Okay. How do the Mariners incorporate local culture into Safeco Field?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Local culture?
DAVE NIEHAUS: What do you mean by that?
ANNA: Well, I okay, let me rephrase that – are there elements of Seattle, specifically, that you see in Safeco Field?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Elements of Seattle – you see elements of Seattle every time you go there, because you’re outdoors and you see Seattle. And you see downtown and things like that. But, but, but, uh, I, you know, I don’t know. That’s a – that’s a good question. I’ll have to give that some thought. I don’t think I have an answer for you right now.
ANNA: Okay. If baseball were ever to leave Seattle, what would we lose?
DAVE NIEHAUS: You would lose the identity of being major league, which I think is huge. When you, when you asked me earlier about, you know, what does baseball, Major League Baseball, mean to an area, I think that – I don’t care, you, you can – in the NBA, you’ve got what, you’ve got franchises in San Antonio and Indianapolis and all these different franchises, and the NFL you’ve got Carolina, wherever that is. And I’m being facetious of course, is in the Super Bowl this year. But you, you look at all the teams that are in the NFL, the National Hockey League, the NBA, uh, you know, and if they don’t have baseball, I don’t care. To my way of thinking, they’re not a major league community, and, and baseball puts that stamp on municipalities.
ANNA: Okay. Do you think the Mariners are unique in the way they unite Seattle, or are there other elements of the region that serve the same purpose?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Well, I think this ownership has, has, has made sure that they get the right people here to be able, you know, and we were talking about, talking about not only talent, but how people carry themselves. How they treat people, how, how the public perceives them, and how they operate in, in public. Uh, I think they try to get players like that, that will identify with the fans and have fans be proud of ‘em, and I think that goes all the way to, to Howard Lincoln and this particular ownership. They’re just – I, I, I think they, they really like to get quality people.
ANNA: Okay. And I have one last question, and that is what does Seattle’s relatively new status as a baseball town reflect about the region?
DAVE NIEHAUS: What does what?
ANNA: Seattle’s relatively new status as a baseball town reflect about the region.
DAVE NIEHAUS: You know, it’s, now that it’s going into it’s 28th year, it’s beginning to, to move out of the new status. And I said – I heard you say relative, and you’re probably right. But as they begin into their, their, their 28th year, they are beginning to leave a footprint, they are beginning to leave a little bit of history. And they are certainly identifiable, where I’m not so sure that the first ten years they, they were that identifiable on the Major League Baseball map because they were always last. They were “the Washington Senators of baseball” for so many years. The Washington Senators used to be baseball’s worse team, and now of course that, that mantle ironically is, has turned, at least in our division, kind of down toward Texas way, where they have all that money and they have Alex Rodriguez. And, and I think that uh, now, that Seattle has had the tremendous success that they have had the last ten years, I would say, that they are looked upon as the model for Major League Baseball. Even though they haven’t won a World Series yet, that will come, but because of the way they have conducted themselves. They have, they have probably the second – I don’t know this, you’d have to talk to the people in the front office – but I think probably they have, this, if not the most attractive radio and television contract in the major leagues, they have one of the two of them. Maybe the Yankees make, have more income from that, but I think the Mariners are number two.
ANNA: Okay, well thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me. I really appreciate it.
DAVE NIEHAUS: Well Anna, it’s uh – good luck to you. And, uh, if you get a chance, when you write this, let me, let me read it.
ANNA: Okay, um, yeah, I’m sending a copy to Howard Lincoln. Should I just send it care of the Mariners at Safeco Field, and it’ll get to you?
DAVE NIEHAUS: Yeah, send one in care of me, and one in care of Howard.
ANNA: Great, well thank you so much.
DAVE NIEHAUS: Good luck, honey.
DAVE NIEHAUS: All right, bye bye.
(End of interview.)