The View From Section 40: Remembering My Grandfather

It’s been a really lousy week.  Yet another business trip.  I suppose there are a lot of things to appreciate about business travel, but quite honestly I have a lot of difficulty finding any.  I love my wife and family, I love wrestling with my two kids, I love my early-morning runs with my two year-old yellow lab, and I love cooking in my own kitchen.  Sitting alone in a hotel room at the Hampton Inn in Spokane, Medford, or Moscow watching Sportscenter just doesn’t cut it. 

Dinners at Red Robin make my mission to drop a few extra lbs over the off-season in preparation for next year’s triathlon season an added challenge.  I’ve grown to despise airline delays and microscopic-sized bags of pretzels.  The five-hour drives to towns I’d never previously heard of?  Right up there with passing a kidney stone the size of a bowling ball. 

I’m currently in the midst of seven business trips over a five-week time frame.  Beautiful.

So I’m driving home to Seattle Wednesday evening after a few days of business in Northern Oregon when I got the phone call:  Grampa died. 

I nearly drove off of Interstate 5. 

There are those indelible memories we keep for a lifetime.  For my parents’ generation, it includes the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and JFK’s assassination. I have Neil Armstrong’s moonwalk and the shooting of Ronald Reagan while I was in high school, playing in a basketball tournament in Stockholm.  The tragic demise of the space shuttle Challenger while sitting in class during my senior year at the UW.  Holding my two babies, tearfully watching the World Trade Center towers inexplicably crash down to the Manhattan streets below.

And now, the passing of my grandfather.

I can’t begin to tell of the countless childhood evenings spent listening to stories spun like fine threads of a new silk shirt.  My grandfather wasn’t a storyteller, he an artist with words.   Clouds weren’t merely clouds, they were "pufferbillies".  The sunset over Puget Sound wasn’t beautiful, it was the final streaks of sunlight stretching from the heavens above the great Pacific Northwest.

My grampa liked all sports, but he loved baseball.  He shared stories of Ruth, Kaline, and Stan the Man. The Duke and The Mick.  Jackie Robinson and Josh Gibson.  Teddy Ballgame.  His stories were larger than life.  He was larger than life.

I cannot even begin to guess how many childhood evenings I spent listening to his voice, the last voice I heard before falling asleep.

Grampa’s gone.  His voice forever silenced, everywhere but in memory.

Grampa undoubtedly spent as much time raising my children as I have.  My children can hardly separate the memories of their time with daddy as their time with grampa.  From the time the children were born, coaxing them to sleep required only a comfy couch, their daddy’s chest, and grampa's soothing voice weaving another magical story of the baseball diamond. 

Life is pretty simple for my children, now ages 9 and 11.   Mommy for loving, daddy for snuggling, and their grampa’s sweet baritone chords to make life right once again.

I have come to dread the arrival of October.  We would never hear much from grampa over the cold winter months, making that time just darker, drearier, and far more challenging.  But when the first baseballs were rolled out each spring, grampa magically appeared in our family room again and we knew that warmer days were right around the corner.  

It breaks your heart.  It is designed to break your heart.  The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.  You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time.

- A. Bartlett Giamatti

We all knew grampa was getting on in years, not quite as sharp as he once was.  The routine seemed just a bit more challenging, the challenging appeared laborious.  But as long as the spirit was willing, grampa would be there for us.  And, oh, was that spirit willing, right up until the very end.

His passing wasn’t an altogether shock.  There have been warnings: the heart attack in ’96.  The doctor-ordered change in diet really frustrated him; I’ve heard him grumble on many occasions that without the salt and gravy, food just wasn’t fun anymore.  Smoking was absolutely off-limits.  That was a joy…he never discussed it openly, but we all knew what he was going through to kick that habit.  It was the timing, however, that has us all thrown for a loop; grampa seemed to be going as strong as ever, and the sudden finality was a slap like none other.  Grampa is gone.  I didn’t get to say goodbye.

I never met my grampa, at least in person that is.  In reality, we weren’t even blood relatives.  But Dave Niehaus was as much a part of my family as anyone has ever been or will be.

Dave's golden tones reverberated throughout my home for as as long as I can remember.  As an 11 year-old boy, I sat in my mom's kitchen during the Seattle Mariner's inaugural season, transistor radio in hand, scorebook spread across the table, learning about baseball through the eyes of my adopted grandfather.  Sliders weren't low, they were looooooooooooowwwwwwww.  Home runs weren't hit, they were Belted deep to right field...and this ball will FLY, FLY AWAY!  Dave's masterpiece, defining moment is forever burning into my brain:  And the 0-1 pitch on the way to Edgar...swung on and lined down the left field line!  Here's comes Joey...here's Junior to third...they're gonna wave him in...the throw to the plane will...be...LATE!...THE MARINERS ARE GOING TO PLAY FOR THE AMERICAN LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP!  I DON'T BELIEVE IT!  IT JUST CONTINUES!...MY OH MY!!!"

I have no doubt that late last evening, as if just out of Field of Dreams, the ghosts of The Babe, Cobb, The Big Train, The Cyclone, and the other Cooperstown immortals made their way across the parking lot to Doubleday Field and played an impromptu exhibition game with Dave Niehaus at the mike.  Just so they could hear him, too, a master at his craft. 

After all, it takes a legend to know when in the company of greatness.

Goodbye, Dave Niehaus.  You will never be forgotten, you will forever be missed

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