SEATTLE (AP) — It took Rick Rizzs only a few minutes before he was overcome with emotion talking about Dave Niehaus, his broadcast partner for 25 years.
"Tom Hanks was wrong," Rizzs said fighting off tears. "You saw the movie, right? 'There's no crying in baseball.' Yeah, there is."
A few thousand fans turned out at Safeco Field on a chilly Saturday afternoon to pay tribute to Niehaus, the Hall of Fame Seattle Mariners broadcaster who suddenly died of a heart attack on Nov. 10 at the age of 75.
Niehaus was the narrator for 34 seasons of Mariners baseball, from the first pitch in franchise history in 1977 through the end of the 2010 season. He was getting ready to barbecue some ribs at his suburban Bellevue home on the afternoon of Nov. 10 when he passed away.
"All of us grew up with Dave. He taught you the game of baseball. There was no better teacher," Rizzs said. "Dave put us right there in the front row at the Kingdome and the front row at Safeco Field and every ballpark he broadcast from on the road."
The Mariners waited nearly a month before putting together a formal celebration of Niehaus' life. Fans filled the lower bowl of Safeco Field behind home plate with Niehaus' family and members of the Mariners front office seated on the field between home plate and the pitchers mound, where Niehaus threw out the first pitch in the stadium's history in 1999.
The logo of the California Angels, the first major league team Niehaus worked for, was placed on the hand-operated scoreboard in the left-field corner, while a Mariners jersey with "Niehaus 77" hung from his spot in the Mariners broadcast booth.
Team president Chuck Armstrong announced during the ceremony that the Mariners will wear a commemorative patch for the 2011 season and a statue of Niehaus will be erected at Safeco Field.
"He was a guy who was a class act and he meant more to the city than the players," former Mariners star Ken Griffey Jr. said in a video message. "When he walked down the street people knew him. He's more recognizable than any player that's been here."
From Diego Segui's first pitch on April 6, 1977, through the end of the 2010 season, Niehaus called 5,284 of the Mariners' 5,385 games. He was the instructor for a region void of the major league game sans the Seattle Pilots' one-year experiment in 1969. Adults and kids regularly tuned in on summer evenings to hear Niehaus try and put his best spin on what were among the worst teams in baseball during much of the club's history.
But no matter how bad the Mariners were, Niehaus never let the on-field product affect his approach to the game. He always brought enthusiasm and drama to some horrible teams, horrible games and horrible seasons.
"You just could picture whatever was happening and eyesight wasn't necessary," said Marlaina Lieberg of the Washington Council of the Blind. "You've made blind and visually impaired people proud of you. You've made everyone proud of you and we love you."
Niehaus was the recipient of the 2008 Ford C. Frick award and was inducted into the broadcasters' wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame. He is the lone Seattle Mariners representative in Cooperstown.
Armstrong said after Niehaus' induction in Cooperstown that the only item missing from his career resume was the opportunity to call a World Series game. Niehaus never got that chance in his time with the Angels or the Mariners.
Niehaus' daughter, Greta Niehaus Dunn, and one of his son's, Andy, spoke about their dad away from the ballpark. Andy Niehaus joked that he sometimes heard his dad's catch phrases of "My Oh My" and "Fly Away" but in a different context, especially when he was a teenager driving his parents crazy.
"I know my dad and if he was here he would want us to focus on the positive, and in the midst of pain we can find some joy in the outpouring of love and emotion and kindness from every one," Niehaus Dunn said.
Former Mariners players Dan Wilson, Jay Buhner and Edgar Martinez spoke as well. Buhner and former broadcast partner Ron Fairly added some laughs to the afternoon with old stories of Niehaus' quirks. Buhner took great pleasure in cracking on Niehaus' wardrobe — even wearing white shoes like Niehaus regularly did — but Buhner got choked up when he looked up to see the jersey hanging in the broadcast booth.
"Players have come and gone and there has been a lot of them ... over the years since the first pitch there's been one guy that has been loyal to this organization," Buhner said.
Of all the former players, Griffey perhaps held the closest kinship with Niehaus. A private family service was held shortly after Niehaus' passing that Griffey flew in from Florida to attend. Their close relationship was forged when Griffey was a teenage sensation making his major league debut with the Mariners and continued even after Griffey left Seattle.
The first person to call Niehaus on the day he was announced as the Frick award winner was Griffey.
"It'll never be the same," Griffey said. "It will never get better because there is nobody better than him."