A Chat With Rick Rizzs, the Other Voice of the Mariners

Notably absent from last week's Seattle Times series on legendary local sports broadcasters was Rick Rizzs, the long-time Mariners' announcer. Of course, his partner, Dave Niehaus was on the list. Niehaus is the undisputed voice of the Mariners, a Hall of Famer who has called nearly every game the team has played. But Rizzs is in his 24th season with the M's (he began in 1983 and did a 3-year stint with the Tigers in the early 90s) and his calls, too, are a part of the Mariners lexicon--for example, "Goodbye, baseball!" And he's the only Mariners' announcer to have recorded a rap song.

A few weeks ago, during the All-Star break, Rizzs agreed to sit down with SW for an interview.

We met at an Issaquah Plateau Starbucks, not far from his home nor that of his 29-year-old son and two grandsons (aged 2 and 4). Rizzs was relaxed and affable and, as in the broadcasts, unfailingly positive. (He was also interrupted at several points by fans who wanted to tell him how much they enjoy his work.) In fact, Rizzs is so consistently upbeat that the USS Mariner once created a fictional, opposite-day doppelganger for him: Evil Rick Rizzs, a nasty commentator who demands fresh souls as payment.

True to style, the real Rizzs says he's thrilled about this year's team, effusively praising Jack Zduriencik's personnel moves. "This guy's smart," he says. "He knows what he's doing." But Rizzs isn't afraid to talk about how frustrating last year was. He describes the '08 team as "a rudderless ship. No leadership, no direction. It was one of the worst situations I've seen in my 35 years in baseball."

Still, while Rizzs says the organization places no restrictions on him as far as criticizing the team, he stops short of calling players out for anything but lack of hustle. "It's very difficult getting to the big leagues. They're not out there trying to screw up, trying to make mistakes. They're out there trying their best, so unless they're not hustling, that's good enough for me."

And he refuses to question the manager's and general manager's moves, even when he disagrees with them, as he says he did with the team's choice of using Jose Vidro as a DH, or keeping Brandon Morrow in the majors. "My job is to report what [management] is saying. Then the fans can decide whether that's the way to go."

Still, even though Rizzs thought last year was such a disaster, you'd never have known it, listening to his broadcasts, wherein he sounded, as my friend Paul--a devoted fan--put it, "positively tickled" about the team. Rizzs says that's because he loves his job. "I'm living my dream," he says. "I don't know how many people can say that. I've wanted to do this ever since I was a 12 year old kid."

His childhood, as you may know from listening to the broadcasts, was spent in the South side of Chicago, where he listened to White Sox and Cubs games on the radio and played baseball all day with his friends. "Ever see the movie The Sandlot?" he asks, referring to the nostalgic 1960s period comedy about a set of boys playing pickup baseball in their neighborhood. One of whom grows up to become an announcer (as has Rizzs), and another, because he's the fastest, has to recover their baseball from a yard with a scary dog (as did Rizzs). "That's the story of my life."

Indeed, Rizzs' approach to and love for the game comes off as old school. He glows as he recalls his favorite players from his childhood and praises the accuracy of the movie Bull Durham's portrayal of 1980s minor league ball. (Rizzs called minor league games for seven years before joining the Mariners in 1983.) And he says he prefers working radio, the old school medium, which is what the M's have had him doing since 2007.

"Radio is much more powerful. I get to take the listener wherever I want to go, to paint the picture. Your imagination is better than any camera ever invented. That's how I grew up, listening to games on radio."

Finally, Rizzs isn't terribly enamored of basball's statistical revolution, the new emphasis on quantification that began with Bill James' Baseball Prospectus and really caught on with the public with the success of Billy Beane in Oakland, as chronicled in Michael Lewis' Moneyball.

"I think you incorporate the stats, but you can overdo the stats," he explains. "I try to use the numbers that tell the story. The basic stats--average, home runs, RBI--give you an idea. What I like to use is, 'What's this guy hitting with runners in scoring position?' It tells you what that guy can do with a runner on 2nd base, 3rd base, his approach to the game. Does he have the ability to come through with the clutch hit? It's really easy to overuse the numbers."

Meanwhile, many statheads doubt whether such a thing as a clutch hitter even exists--statistics show that with a large enough sample size, what you find is not that the perceived clutch hitters are consistently excellent in the clutch, but that their performance during those times varies as much as if the numbers had been drawn at random. I mention this to Rizzs, but he is undeterred.

"The numbers tell certain story if there's enough of them. Certain guys handle pressure differently than others." Players, he says, want to be in their comfort zone, and for many of them, pressure takes them out of it. "The great ones," he cites Ken Griffey, Jr. and Edgar Martinez, "are not ever outside that comfort zone. They take the comfort zone and move it."

He shifts gears, saying the same holds true in broadcasting. "The goal of any announcer, any great announcer like Dave, is that you've got to be there for the moment. There's only a handful of moments during the course of your career--you've got to be there for that moment and get it right. And everybody remembers those great moments."

As an example, he points to Niehaus' call of Edgar Martinez's game-winning double against the Yankees in the 1995 playoffs, and says that his moment, thus far, was Luis Sojo's double-turned-home-run that same year. (For footage of both calls, as well as comedian Bob Nelson's "low key" narration of the same plays, check out this Almost Live sketch.)

"You want to set the stage and rise to the moment--but not beyond it. You don't want to be a part of the action. The main goal of broadcaster is, you want to put the fan listening to the game on the radio in the front row."

Yet perhaps Niehaus' most memorable call followed a grand slam by Tino Martinez. Niehaus shouted, "Get out the mustard and the rye bread, grandma--it's grand salami time!" I asked Rizzs whether such a far-fetched and digressive bit of wordplay--however fun--might not be making the broadcaster part of the action. He insisted not.

That Rizzs is so quick to praise and defend Niehaus is no surprise. Niehaus was a mentor to Rizzs, and Rizzs' reverence for his booth-mate is well-documented. "I'm Ed McMahon to Johnny Carson," he says. "I understand what it means to be the #2 guy. He's one of the greatest announcers of all time. My job is to complement Dave."

Rizzs did have one shot as the #1 guy, when he replaced Detroit broadcasting legend Ernie Harwell as the Tigers' play-by-play broadcaster. Harwell was being forced out of the job, and Rizzs says he told Harwell, "I feel sorry for the guy who has to replace you." Harwell then told Rizzs he should apply for the job. Rizzs got it, of course, but he and his partner, Bob Rathbun, weren't well received by Tigers fans, who were mad about losing their legend.

On opening day in 1992, Rizzs recalls, "There was a plane circling the ballpark, trailing a banner that said, "Where's Ernie?" They'd set up bleachers outside for the fans who were protesting wouldn't go inside ballpark. A local radio station passed out 10,000 Ernie Harwell faces on a stick. There was a big sign in centerfield, we want Ernie." After three years, Rizzs' contract wasn't renewed and the Tigers, under a new ownership that was determined to be more responsive to fans' wishes, brought back Harwell.

Thus, he returned to the Mariners just in time for their '95 playoff run, the first time the city had really been energized by the team. (He references the experience throughout the interview.) And, no surprise, he says he wants to stay.

"I love it here," he declares. "I love this city, the fans. The organization has been great to me. I raised my son here. I'm gonna raise my two grandkids here. I'm gonna die here."

It's a little weird to hear the glass-is-half-full Rizzs even mention death. But, like the rest of us, he's human. It's just that his outlook's a little brighter.

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