September 22, 2006 in Sports

Without Fairly, we won’t have Fairly around

John Blanchette The Spokesman-Review
See story, C3

Drivers are taking out second mortgages to fill up the tank. Weird Al Yankovic is back in the recording studio. Even eating spinach is unhealthy.

But there’s bad news and there’s worse news, and Thursday was an especially hard day on the planet.

Ron Fairly announced his retirement.

Also, he’s quitting.

After 14 years in the Seattle Mariners broadcast booth with Dave Niehaus and, later, Rick Rizzs, the Redhead is packing up his obsession with the infield fly rule and heading home to Southern California to spend more time with his grandkids. Maybe there’s a ballplayer in the brood, and perhaps Red wants to be able to impart the same baseball wisdom to them as he once did to the M’s radio audience:

“There’s two strikes. One more strike and he’ll be out.”

Where else is the hard-core M’s fan going to turn for those kinds of insights? Dave Niehaus is still the mellow narrator of our summer nights, even when the belted-deep-to-lefts are caught in front of the warning track. Rizzs’ work crests when he’s interviewing the Junior Sportscaster (“What’s your favorite subject in school, buddy?”). The two Daves, Valle and Henderson, are Tweedle Hum and Tweedle Drum.

No, it’s the oral frescoes of Ron Fairly that set Mariners broadcasts apart while mere mortal announcers paint their baseball pictures with stick figures.

“Last night,” he once said, “I neglected to mention something that bears repeating.”

That may have been the only thing he neglected to mention in his 28 years at the mike. But it wasn’t the first thought that bore repeating.

In announcing his retirement – effective a week from Sunday – Fairly noted that he’d played or broadcast more than 7,000 baseball games. It only seems as if you’ve listened to all of them.

For instance, the come-lately Mariners fan may not know it, but Red got his start as a broadcaster with the Angels after a 21-year major league career – which was interrupted by a 1960 season in Spokane. He jumped to the Giants’ broadcast booth in 1987, when he really began to hone his craft.

“Bruce Sutter has been around for a while,” he said then, “and he’s pretty old. He’s 35 years old – that will give you an idea of how old he is.”

And there was this: “The wind at Candlestick tonight is blowing with great propensity.”

Naturally, the Bay Area was too provincial a market to hold such a cosmopolitan talent, and so in 1993 Fairly joined the Mariners team – coming to Seattle the same season as manager Lou Piniella, heralding the birth of true baseball passion in the Northwest.

Lou left, alas, but Red stayed.

Also, he didn’t go away.

Yes, whatever else he has brought to the baseball broadcast, Fairly has been the last word in redundancy, if not the final one. Baseball’s unique pace – languorous one batter, manic the next – almost guarantees that the obvious will sometimes be overlooked, but that’s never a danger with the Redhead on duty.

“If that ball would have gone over the wall,” he once said, “it would have been a home run.”

Also: “When a pitcher can’t get that last hitter out, it opens the door for big innings.”

And: “It’s 5-0, and Edgar’s on third base. If he scores, it’ll be 6-0.”

These examples have all been lovingly collected in any number of Internet scrapbooks. But there are also closet historians in our midst who have faithfully recorded all types of Fairlyana for posterity. Who, for instance, can forget this exchange from a game against the White Sox just a year ago?

Niehaus: “And the Mariners will bring the tying run to the plate!”

Fairly: “And they also bring the tying run to the plate.”

Niehaus (stunned, awkwardly): “Yes. That’s what I just said.”

Fairly: “Luis Vizcaino, warming up in the White Sox bullpen.”

Now, there have been announcers beloved for their gift of malaprop – Jerry Coleman, Ralph Kiner – and those who’ve just been unspeakably bad. Ron Fairly has been something else altogether, that is to say unique, if not one of a kind. There’s no question about it, he might say. He’s convinced us that the “the tying run can’t beat you,” that the double play is a pitcher’s best friend, that all a pitcher really needs to do is throw strikes.

Why, just last night, when Rizzs offered that the defending world champs may not make the playoffs, his partner had a ready explanation:

“I just think that the Minnesota Twins and primarily the Detroit Tigers have won so many more games is why the White Sox have had so much trouble.”

Of course. Why didn’t we think of that?

Come 2007, we’ll have to. We won’t have Red to explain away all the losses and to applaud the wins by saying:

“This is the first time we’ve seen the Mariners play one of their best games all year long.”

Have we neglected anything that bears repeating?

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