This post is not meant to imply that I can't distinguish the difference between baseball and faith. I would never preach a sermon series on Dave Niehaus (though I have a sneaking suspicion some of this reflection will appear in my Sunday sermon). However, the death of Dave Niehaus and recognizing his impact on my life and thousands of people across the Pacific Northwest and baseball lovers across the country stirs reflection on similarities between what Dave Niehaus embodied and what I imagine the pastoral life to be.
For 34 seasons in games that spanned 6 months of the year, from spring training to the painfully infrequent, yet jubilant playoff appearances, Dave Niehaus shared with his listeners what I seek in myself as a pastor. Dave's signature voice was both the backdrop and forefront of my family's life since I was 6 years old. It is not a token statement to say that Dave radio depictions of a simple game taught me hope, joy, belief, wisdom, encouragement, storytelling, camaraderie, teamwork and passion.
I began to hear Dave's voice sitting in front of the console radio at my Grandparent's house in Renton. My parents attended the opening game, my father thrilled that baseball had returned to Seattle. He told me stories about the Seattle Rainiers and Seattle Pilots--his stories and memories of heroes, woven with stories of his own father, a man I never met. Beginning with my evenings in front of the console radio, I began to hear stories of my Gram, who listened to Portland Beavers baseball games with her father at their home in Camas, Washington, along the Columbia River. I was attached to Dave's voice almost instantly, developing my own heroes through his story telling. They weren't great players in those early years, but they were still my heroes: Ruppert Jones, Bob Stinson, Bill Stein, Diego Segui, Craig Reynolds, Enrique Romo, Rick Honeycutt. I wanted them to do well, just as Dave did. Dave even made food sound better with his distinctive voice--Darigold dairy products, and Langendorf Old Fashioned White Bread. Dave's voice was everywhere in our lives: as we participated in life's daily activities, travel, yard work, play, family gatherings of all kinds, and the frequent visits to my Grandparent's house. Dave's words became the words of my brothers John and Jimmy as we played wiffle ball wherever we could.
When I left the Pacific Northwest to pursue my own vocation and baseball life in the Midwest, I didn't realize how much I missed Dave Niehaus until I listened to broadcasts in other cities. The other cities had their signature broadcasters and calls, and were endearing to their fans--Herb Carneal and John Gordon in Minnesota, Bob Uecker in Milwaukee, Denny Matthews in Kansas City, no one I heard outside of Vin Scully in Los Angeles and Ernie Harwell of Detroit was in the league of baseball story tellers extraordinaire like Dave Niehaus. I appreciated the broadcasting craft, but the stories and telling of the game inspired in me a love for baseball and a passion for engaging life. Dave's words became a way that my family and friends brought some poetry and passion to our conversations. My friend Bret and I sometimes greeted each other with Dave-isms. I was thankful to have Dave's voice ring through my house in South Dakota once I could lounge on a summer day, with my wife Melanie joining my daughter in the backyard with a Mariners game streaming on my laptop from mlb.com. I was ecstatic to return to the Pacific Northwest in 2009 and reacquaint myself with more regular Niehaus contact. After hearing that the Mariners had traded for Cliff Lee during the 2009-10 off-season, I started to spout off Dave-isms in the car with my daughters on our daily commute.
"Ninety-eight mile an hour, high octane, GAS!"
"Swung on and belted!"
"Get out the rye bread and the mustard, Grandma, it's GRAND SALAMI time!"
"Diabolical. That stank!"
"Loooooowwwwwwwwwww, ball 3"
"Fly, fly, away!"
"My, oh, my!"
My 4-year old daughter sometimes echoed my exclamations, but sometimes she had to tell me to stop.
My family and friends imagined what it would be like if the Mariners ever won a World Series. I stated Dave Niehaus would spontaneously combust or die joyfully on the spot. Even if the Mariners staged a dramatic win 34 games out of first place, Dave shook the broadcast booth with his jubilation. He might not be able to contain himself.
In 1995, I thought the Mariners might get to that point of collective ecstasy. I was serving a congregation in Copenhagen on my pastoral internship. In the age before widely available Internet, I had to scour any piece of news to get my hands on the daily work of the surging Seattle Mariners. I lamented that I couldn't connect with Niehaus' words, but well over a decade of listening to Niehaus produced imagined descriptions in my mind's eye. My mentor and friend Steve Bain invited me to his home to spend the night so we could watch the playoff broadcasts in the wee hours of the morning, trying to contain ourselves just enough so that we wouldn't stir his sleeping family. We watched the national/international broadcast, all the time wishing or imagining we could hear Dave. Bleary eyed, yet joyful, I went to my work after watching the games, having slept maybe 2 hours. Good thing I was young at the time.
For the years 1995-2003, the Mariners often shaped the discussion of baseball excellence. They were the only example of "glory years" for the franchise, and even then, only about half of those years they were playoff teams. But Dave had a special lilt and enthusiasm in his voice during those years, and in some ways, I was most happy for him, because Dave was always present for the public and the Mariners, I felt he deserved some actual joy instead of hopeful joy (if those can be distinguished).
It was the other years of baseball that I learned more from Dave Niehaus. The Mariners have often been a bad baseball team. But my family has always been willing to listen, because Dave was always willing to lead the team and share the stories in his signature way. Listening to Dave in spring training and throughout the year, he always told a story of hope. He lived a life that said passion matters. Learning the facts matters. Encouraging the team matters. Seeing the best in people matters. Celebrating victories matters. He anticipated something good happening in every pitch or swing of the bat. It didn't matter that Dave's judgment of a batted ball was sometimes completely off, believing a lazy fly ball had home run potential. His hope and belief in what was possible for the Seattle Mariners was often endearing, yet on the whole, inspiring.
In some way, Dave Niehaus gave me a sense of interim ministry through all of those losing seasons. Dave gave me insight on how to go into a place and tell stories of hope in the midst of what appears bleak. That is part of my job in interim ministry, things that Dave did as a baseball broadcaster. To celebrate the daily joys of life. To offer wisdom and encouragements to teammates. To report on the context and goals of the organization. To live a life of thankfulness when many are tempted to dwell on the negative aspects of collective life. Jesus is my ultimate example of this kind of life. I do not know Dave Niehaus' faith, but he reminded me and highlighted to me some of what I am called to do in life.
Today I need to visit my 87-year old Gram and tell her that Dave Niehaus died. For 34 years his voice filled their house. That voice was second only to my Granddad. I remember during a baseball pilgrimage with my friend Cameron in 1991, we visited Tiger Stadium in Detroit. I knew my grandparents were listening, so I sent a message to the press box for Dave to greet June and Jerry Zubrod in Renton listening to the game. I knew he was glad to do it and my grandparents were thrilled to hear their names said by Dave. My mother saw Dave just a few weeks ago and shook his hand. He was gracious and hospitable, full of smiles and looking well. I'm glad she was able to show him some level of appreciation for his place in our family's life. It seems fitting that connection was made.
Thanks to Dave Niehaus and his family for sharing his gifts with the Pacific Northwest for 34 years. My life has been inspired and made better because of his gifts. I am sad, but I am thankful. This has been said many times over the past 18 hours, but fly, fly away, Dave. Thank God and thank you for the memories.