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Talk Of The Town After Missing End Of Last Season, Niehaus Ready To Return To M’S Booth

Larry Stone Seattle Times

“Smoking or non-smoking?” the smiling hostess asked. Dave Niehaus smiled back and answered without hesitation, “Non.”

The question is one he has heard in a thousand restaurants in a multitude of cities over the years. Niehaus’ answer changed forever on that day last August when he sweated profusely and labored to breathe before a Mariners-Yankees game at the Kingdome.

Close to a three-pack-a-day man for more than three decades, Niehaus swears he never will smoke another cigarette.

“It’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life,” he said. “I really miss it, but I’ll never go back.”

Niehaus’ menu choices have changed, too. No more juicy steaks or ladles of gravy. Low fat and low sodium are the bywords, or as he puts it, “all the stuff that tastes terrible.”

But five months after he had a mild heart attack, Niehaus’ new lifestyle is paying off. He looks trim and fit, and says he feels as good as he looks.

“As far as I know, I’m fine,” he said. “The only thing I probably haven’t done as much as I should have is exercise. I should do more, and I’m going to.”

Niehaus will undergo a stress test next week. Provided the results are as favorable as other tests he has had during the off-season, he will head to spring training to start his 21st season as the voice of the Mariners. Never has he been more ready.

“I can’t wait,” he said. “Part of that is because I missed the last 17 games of last year, and part is because of the kind of club we’re going to have. I hate to put them on such a high pedestal, but I think we have a chance to win 100 ballgames. I think it’s going to be a fun, fun year.”

And immeasurably more fun for Mariners fans with Niehaus, 61, back in the booth.

Just Monday, Niehaus was informed he had been named the Washington Sportscaster of the Year for the second consecutive year by the National Sportswriters and Sportscasters Association.

His absence last September drove home to Mariners fans just how attached they had become to the Niehaus style, alternately soothing (“looooooooow and outside”) and frenetic (“MY OH MY!”), the summer’s background music.

But on Aug. 18, the music faded. Niehaus experienced what he calls “my little heart attack” - and that is precisely what it was, despite reports at the time that his frightening episode was merely shortness of breath.

“At first, (Niehaus’ doctor) didn’t think it was a heart attack. Then he finally told me, ‘Yeah, you did have a slight heart attack, but it was so slight your heart has repaired everything and there’s no permanent damage,”’ Niehaus said.

After undergoing an angioplasty to unclog a blocked artery and missing two games, Niehaus returned to work. But less than two weeks later, after two incidents during a Mariners road trip, he flew back to the Seattle area, had a second angioplasty and was shut down for the season.

Watching from home as the Mariners battled for the American League West title was agonizing to Niehaus, who has endured a barrage of bad baseball in his broadcasting career with the Angels and Mariners. He is savoring this awakening, which began with the M’s drive to the division title in 1995.

“I could go undefeated two straight years, 162-0, and still not be at .500,” Niehaus said.

He would have returned to broadcast the playoffs had the Mariners qualified. But the season ended with the Mariners 4-1/2 games behind division-champion Texas and 2-1/2 behind Baltimore for the A.L. wild card.

“I felt for him,” broadcast partner Rick Rizzs said. “It felt really strange when he wasn’t there. I’d take a look to my left and see an empty chair. It was like part of us was missing because Dave wasn’t there. He’s such a part of this franchise. This guy is the voice of spring and summer. We need him here a long time.”

Niehaus’ contract runs through 2000, when he will be 65. The job is still fun, he says, and he can’t imagine doing anything else.

“If I’m healthy, I won’t retire,” he said. “It all depends on my health.”

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