I stood by the fence outside the parking lot of the Peoria Sports Complex. The desert air was still cool with morning but starting to get warmer now. I’d gotten a few signatures that morning, but there was one I really wanted. He was someone who embodied the Mariners even more than the players themselves, for me, at least. It’s because I heard his voice every day on the radio. He could bring a game to life no matter where I was. I could be at the park even if I was walking the dog. Or playing little league. Those were the best moments, really, playing ball while someone had the Mariners game on in the background. Soft but there. It was almost like playing in the big leagues.
I listened to him late at night as well, long past the time I was supposed to be in bed for school the next morning. He called the Big Unit’s not hitter and I was probably up until 1 AM or later. I’d fallen asleep to his voice more than once. This was the man who came up with, I think, the best lines ever. “Get out the rye bread, it’s grand salami time!” He was the one who coined “A-Rod.” I swear this is true, and I was among the first (and all Mariners fans of the time) to hear that nickname. At the time all of us were giddy over the possibility of ARod and Griffey, the Big Unit, and the Bone playing together for years.
So I remember standing there was a gaggle of other die-hard autograph collectors. I have the feeling this was early morning. I think it was the same morning that I’d gotten up at something like 4 AM. This was because I’d been determined to get another player, a favorite of mine. But you needed to get up super crazy early for a kid to have a chance. I’d bene told he would only maybe sign at the time when he came in. So one morning we did just that. I’m almost positive it was a morning we did a quick stop on the way in at Krispy Kreme donuts, one of the few places open that early at the time. But I could be melding memories together into one day. But anyway my morning target had been Joey Cora. And I’d gotten him. In a thin blue sharpie, which hasn’t held up as well as I would have liked. But it’s still a favorite. Cora was a fan favorite, a great infielder, good solid slap type hitter with some power on a very rare occasion.
So the morning had started well, but my true target was none other than Mr. Dave Neihaus. He was my Harry Cary, the voice of my childhood. One of the good ones who knew the game so well and could make it come alive for a kid like me who dreamed of getting dirt on his jersey just like the Joey Cora’s of the game would (except I could never play 2b, I was a 1b/OF/P). The morning was getting on and the day warming up as it did. It’d warm up fast. It does in the desert. But those first hours could be nice and chilly, crisp, bright, fresh. It was reaching the end of that time.
Then we saw someone who might be him come out of the complex. We all agreed it might be him but no one seemed to want to take the chance to look like a fool, risk getting it wrong. I didn’t care. I’m not usually the one to shout for a player. But this time I did, as best I could.
“Mr. Niehaus!” I raised my voice and projected as best as possible. It didn’t work the first time, I think. The second time it did. I remember him responding when I asked “Will you please sign?” (At least I think I said please – always say please!). He turned his head and said “Yes, of course,” or something similar. But it was that voice. I recognized it instantly. He came over and I was nervous, happy, ecstatic at the chance to get his autograph. He took the time and signed for all of us, chatting, laughing. His laugh and his play-by-play will live on in my memories. Thank you Mr. Dave Neiahus for all you gave the game. You gave this Mariner fan so much joy. And helped me look forward to dog walking.
While Spring Training was the time for getting the voice of the Mariners, it was also the time for something else: Prospect hunting! I would get a lot of my Mariners cards at different shops in Seattle, but my main source was pure heaven for all card collectors my age: The Sports Card Show!
In the prime of my collecting career there were no shortage of shows. My prime years were between 1992 and 1999, some in 2000/2001. My last Spring Training games for the Mariners were in 2001. I remember how hot cards were in the early 1990s before the strike. Then the dreaded stoppage happened and I worried that baseball might never return. I couldn’t believe Mr. Tony Gwynn wouldn’t get a shot at .400 that year. He was so close, a favorite player of mine. I couldn’t believe that baseball had stopped over something like collective bargaining and money. But it did. At this time I do remember that there was worry in Seattle that the Mariners might leave. The Kingdome was getting old (not to me it wasn’t). I think there were worries about the market, even though the fan base to me was strong and loved our Mariners. Seattle has always been a baseball town. It may have started with the Tacoma Rainers, who played for years and had a large fan base. I also think it had some to do with Dave Niehaus, who brought the sport to life for so many. And the players were fun an easy to root for. Jay Buhner, Joey Cora, Tino Martinez, Edgar Martinez, and of course Griffey Jr. The Kid. Seattle loved the Mariners so it seemed impossible to me that they might leave.
But the 1995 season became magic. It was quite possibly the purest season of baseball for me. I was 15 years old and it was all that really mattered. Playing it, and going to as many games as possible. I was in survival mode with high school just trying to get decent grades and keep under the radar socially. Girls were not an option, really. Of course I had crushes but I didn’t think or believe there’d be any returned interest. There wasn’t. So for that summer it was baseball. As I think back on it now, 1995 was my Sandlot year. That is by far my favorite baseball movie – I love how it captures the joy of kids playing during a long summer, and how much the sport means. While I didn’t play every day all day I was playing rec little league. Outfield – yes, right – first base – some center field – and occasional pitching. This was the year I was able to go to games on my own, taking the 30 minute or so bus ride to the stadium and just taking the entire day. I was at the game Griffey broke his wrist, and then at all of the Yankees Mariners playoff games. I go into more detail in this post here on 1995. To add something new, I landed a key bench player from that team through the mail just recently. Mr. Rich Amaral! He was a great pinch hitter and utility man. These guys are needed for good teams.
1995 became the year that saved baseball in Seattle. People say it was Griffey who saved baseball in Seattle – he did – but it would not have been possible without Alex Diaz, Darren Brag, Tim Davis, Bob Wolcott, and many others that year like Rich Amaral.
Leading up to 1995 we were going to Spring Training each year. I can’t remember exactly the first year. Maybe 1992. The Mariners shared their Spring Training facility with the Padres so by extension I was also a Padres fan. Outside the Mariners, Tony Gwynn was probably my favorite player. This was because at Spring Training I’d gotten the chance to interact with him occasionally while getting his autograph. He always signed. Through these interactions he became more real, more relatable. He wasn’t just a big iconic star but a guy who loved trash-talking and joking with fans. These little moments cemented him as a favorite player. It was these moments that I enjoyed the most at Spring Training, whether or not they were with a big star or hot prospect. This is a favorite I got of Mr. Gwynn. Every time his signature remained consistent, bold.
One of my favorite memories, however, is getting Jose Paniagua, a Mariners reliever. One thing I prided myself on at the time was really knowing who players were. I did my best by memorizing numbers and faces. I couldn’t do multiplication tables worth anything but I knew who players’ numbers were. I still remember some classmates chatting about basketball and they didn’t know Gary Payton’s number. I did. I rattled it off, and some stats. I remember they were floored by it. But I digress. Somehow, I could remember players and their numbers.
In this case I was the only one who knew who Jose was, and I had two cards of him. Both rookies that I pulled from packs. Others were shouting the typical “Could you sign?” and he was ignoring us, staring out at the field. I had the time to snap a picture of him. Then I went ahead and asked – shouted loudly – “Jose, could you please sign?” That was when he turned his head and came over. He took my cards first, signed them. One got scratched and smudged on the hand off but the other turned out great. I grinned – I’d done it, gotten Jose in person on cards I pulled. To me, in this time, it was a great achievement. And he continued to sign more for others. The next year I also managed to get that snapshot of him on the fence signed. He gave me another good signature. Jose went on to have just an ok career, a short one I believe, but I love this memory of him. He was like any other player in the Spring. Full of belief that this was his year.
Other instances like that occurred. One was Robert Luce, prospect. I was walking between practice fields when all of a sudden he was there – I knew him because I’d heard others chatting about him before, and had a prospect card of him. So I’d gotten what he looked like in my head. “Mr. Luce,” I said (or something like that) and he turned around. I asked if he could sign the card, and he did. Unfortunately it didn’t turn out great – thin blue sharpie. For some reason back then I liked thin blues. I knew they were risky but when they worked, the results were awesome. This was a not-so-awesome result. He seemed very willing to sign another one but it was all I had. Unfortunately I had to tell him that, and he smiled and shrugged and said he had to move on. I still have that card. And it turns out you can still see the signature. Faint but there.
And though Mr. Robert Luce did not “pan out” as a prospect or MLB player, he lives on in this card and with that signature. I could go the route of lecturing about the dangers of prospect hunting and missing out. A lot of guys I got didn’t make it. But I disagree. To me a lot of these guys represent those who went all out for their dream. They were not afraid to fail. This is huge. I’m constantly afraid to push forward and make my goals. It’s a fault of mine, finishing something. Getting to the point where it gets hard and then switching to something else when I can’t get through.
That’s part of why I’m doing this blog. To find that finish line. The line that Robert Luce, Jose Panigua, Brooks Kieschnick, and others went for. I haven’t pushed myself that much yet. I am now. I don’t know where this is going, but I’m following this path. I’m enjoying every moment. I hope you are too, and decide to push through that fear of failing. Push forward, write, do your thing. Don’t ever stop.
Don’t stop. Keep pushing.