In Niehaus' Seat, Calling Niehaus' Team

Aaron Goldsmith isn’t replacing Dave Niehaus. He’s just keeping the microphone warm.

It didn’t take long for the absence of dearly departed Mariners announcer Dave Niehaus to be felt.

It was February 22, the afternoon of the Mariners’ first Cactus League game of the 2013 season in Peoria, Arizona, and 29-year-old Aaron Goldsmith was positioned in the M’s spring training broadcasting booth—only moments into his first game behind the mike. At his side was Niehaus’ longtime partner Rick Rizzs.

Shortly after introducing Goldsmith for the first time, Rizzs turned his attention to the weather.

Two days earlier, a freak snowstorm had covered the desert in white.

“You know, folks, for many years Hall of Fame broadcaster Dave Niehaus so vividly referred to this place as the V.O.S.—the Valley of the Sun,” Rizzs said. “Well, today the V.O.S. is starting to live up to its name. The weather this afternoon: blue skies and bright sunshine. I’m sure Dave had something to do with that.”

Two years after his passing, Niehaus’ presence looms large over the Mariners. The man is so revered he gets credit for sunshine in Arizona.

It’s this sizable void that Goldsmith is entering. Having secured before age 30 one of his profession’s most sought-after jobs—a spot in a big league booth—Goldsmith’s maiden campaign will be anything but routine. For six seasons he scaled the minor league broadcasting ranks. Most recently, the young announcer spent a year calling games for the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox in Rhode Island. Now he’ll occupy the seat next to Rizzs, a man who has been calling Mariners games almost as long as Goldsmith has been alive.

No matter how well he performs, Goldsmith will face skepticism. Starting on Monday—opening day, when the Mariners will face the Athletics in Oakland—he’ll spend the next 162 games trying to introduce himself, and endear himself, to Northwest baseball fans.

David Niehaus’ words painted so many years of Mariners baseball, good and (mostly) bad, that his name was synonymous with the team. It is his emphatic voice that will forever be linked to the team’s greatest moment, Edgar Martinez’s double down the left field line that beat the Yankees in the 1995 playoffs. As Mayor Mike McGinn said in November 2010 after Niehaus’ death from a heart attack at age 75, “From now on, there will be just two eras of Mariner baseball: the Dave Niehaus era and everything else.” The loss was so great that the team didn’t even seek a replacement for two seasons, instead relying on a rotating cast of fill-in broadcasters.

Goldsmith now becomes the voice of “everything else.”

Having grown up in St. Louis admiring the play-by-play of Jack Buck—even attending Buck’s memorial service at Busch Stadium in 2002 in what he recalls as a 110-degree day—Goldsmith knows about locally treasured, iconic broadcasters. He’s not here to make people forget about Niehaus—his “My, oh my”s or his “grand salami”s—but he’s certainly aware there’s pressure on him to perform.

That pressure is twofold. Not only is Goldsmith’s the first full-time voice added to the M’s booth since Niehaus’ death, he’s a fresh-faced MLB rookie hired out of left field. He’s not from here. And prior to the January announcement that he’d been hired, no one from the Northwest had heard of him.

“Nobody wants to forget about Dave Niehaus, and nobody should,” says Goldsmith. “Fortunately, the way the Mariners went about the process, it’s very obvious—and I hope the fans see this—that I’m not replacing Dave.”

The two-season buffer should help. “I don’t know if I’ve ever seen a city more endeared to a voice on the radio than Seattle is to Dave Niehaus,” Goldsmith continues. “It’s encouraging to know how much a city can fall in love with a broadcaster.”

Whether Seattle falls in love with Goldsmith is yet to be determined. But it’s safe to say that for many fans, the former PawSox play-by-play man was not the first choice to join Rizzs on the air. That distinction goes mainly to longtime Tacoma Rainiers announcer Mike Curto, who was part of the rotating cast that teamed with Rizzs for two seasons, and who’s much more connected to the team, its history, and the region. Curto has been the voice of the Mariners’  Triple-A affiliate Rainiers since 1999, watching many of the Mariners’ top prospects come up through the system.

As Ryan Divish of The News Tribune in Tacoma has reported, Curto, despite his history with the Rainiers, was not a finalist for the position. Admittedly a friend of Curto’s, Divish campaigned for two years to get him a chance with the Mariners. Popular M’s blogs like Lookout Landing and U.S.S. Mariner also openly lobbied for Curto. When he didn’t get the gig, commenters on those blogs voiced their frustration.

“I think there is a skepticism,” says Divish of the Goldsmith hire. “Mariners fans embrace their history, and being from here, and the culture of it . . . For an outsider to come in, it can be difficult.”

Speaking by phone with Divish—who, on a rare spring training off day in Peoria, was positioned by the hotel pool—it’s apparent the Curto snub still stings. “You see this guy grinding in Triple A,” Divish says of Curto (who declined to be interviewed for this piece). “People want him to get a chance.

“That was his shot. It’s personal for me. I know what I like in a radio guy, and I thought he offered those things.”

“It’s not easy passing by somebody you know better,” M’s Senior Vice President of Communications Randy Adamack says of Curto. “Mike’s a good guy, and a very talented guy.

“It’s a real judgment call. We took it very seriously.”

The Mariners front office admits they had no idea who Goldsmith was prior to receiving his resume, but they say he quickly separated himself from the pack. The M’s launched the process to hire another full-time voice in the booth shortly after the 2012 season, deciding the time was right to permanently fill the position. Radio broadcast producer Kevin Cremin says that while Goldsmith was helped by the fact that his name topped the staggering list of 160-some candidates (it was organized alphabetically by first name), he had more than just that going for him. “You hear from a lot of people,” Cremin says of searches for major league announcers, noting that the list of applicants included former players and current big league broadcasters. After whittling the list of candidates down to seven or eight, Cremin says a round of phone interviews was conducted, after which five candidates were brought to Seattle to interview in person

“The first thing that stands out is his voice. Young man has just a tremendous voice,” says Rizzs, sounding like he’s describing the M’s latest prospect. “But then as you listen, you want to listen more. I think that’s the key for any broadcaster. Can I listen to this guy every night? He just kept passing every test along the way.”

The immediate chemistry Goldsmith displayed with Rizzs was not lost on Niehaus’ former colleague or on Cremin, both of whom cite it as something that will be just as essential to the broadcast team’s success as the new guy’s huge voice or play-by-play chops. “You have to feel comfortable with your broadcaster partner in order to do this the right way,” says Rizzs. “You build the relationship just like you build any relationship—one day at a time.”

Although Divish was pulling for Curto, he’s quick to note that he’s been impressed by what he’s heard so far from Goldsmith. “He has a voice that’s born for radio, that’s for sure. It’s deep, and just clean,” he says. “He’s not pretentious. Has a very Midwest feel. He’s excited about baseball. I like that.”

If he has any advice for the new guy, it’s to immerse himself in the Pacific Northwest, the job, and the community. “The worst thing you can do as an announcer is come from the outside and tell people what to think and what to feel,” Divish continues. “The best advice I can offer is to learn as much as possible. And embrace the Puget Sound area. That’s important to people.”

Aaron Goldsmith could not get to sleep. Two years out of college, and fresh from the Broadcast Center in St. Louis, Goldsmith was spending his mornings working as a landscaper and his evenings calling baseball games for the Bourne Braves of the Cape Cod League. He needed his rest, but Goldsmith wasn’t getting it. Ostensibly the problem was his pillow.

The real problem was that Goldsmith didn’t have the money to buy a new one. After driving 1,100 miles to join the Braves as an unpaid broadcaster, Goldsmith had spent nearly every penny he had (and every penny he had on credit) just to do what he travelled to the Cape to do, call baseball games. The Cape Cod League is “literally a nonprofit league,” he now says, where games are free to attend and held on “glorified Little League fields.” Goldsmith was tasked with play-by-play for Braves home games. Broadcasting the contests on the Internet via Skype, he would sit outside during Braves home games and describe the small-time action for what he recalls as “four or five” listeners.

Unable to afford a more ideal living situation, he moved in with his then-girlfriend and future wife Heather’s grandmother—who lived in the area. Heather was nearby, working at a summer camp near her parents’ home in Boston. Goldsmith slept on her grandma’s couch. It was an unusual set-up, but worth it.

“There was an incredible sense of pride and joy driving to the ballpark for the first time,” Goldsmith recalls of the job, his pristine baritone warming the phone line from Peoria.

The field Goldsmith arrived at—complete with a chain-link backstop—was built on the back lot of a regional tech high school. “I remember being so excited, standing there and looking out on the field,” he says. “I just kept thinking, ‘I got a job.’”

Road games weren’t part of the deal. But that didn’t suit Goldsmith, who hadn’t traveled all the way to the Cape to call only half the games, he says. That wouldn’t have allowed him the growth as a broadcaster he needed. Instead he took it upon himself to travel with the team on his own dime, burning through his savings and taking on debt to do so. He bought tarps and a card table from Kmart, often miking the action by running the 300 feet of orange extension cord he’d also purchased from an outlet in the concession stand. Sometimes he’d sit in the stands, next to spectators or the team bus driver, and call games into a recorder—for nothing more than the practice. The resourcefulness was a product of Goldsmith’s childhood, but the approach to his craft was at least partially Bob Costas’ doing.

Goldsmith’s mother, a retired middle-school English teacher named Bonnie Hoerner, says she was told she would never have children. Then she had a son. Following a divorce when Goldsmith was 5 she raised him as a single parent for most of his childhood. She says that she and her son forged an unusually tight bond, and Goldsmith “raised her as much as I raised him.

“He was everything, whether he wanted to be or not,” she remembers.

By chance, the man Bonnie would marry when Goldsmith was 18, Hal Hoerner, had already formed a relationship with the future M’s broadcaster years earlier—at the Principia, the private K–12 Christian Science school Goldsmith enrolled in after moving to St. Louis when he was 12. Hal was the dean of students, and when Goldsmith was 16, he helped arrange an opportunity for him to interview Costas.

As Bonnie remembers, Hal once asked her son, “just off the cuff, ‘If you could interview anyone, who would it be?’” Her son listed the renowned sports broadcaster as one of his top choices. “He knew a lot about sports, and he knew a lot about broadcasters. He knew what he liked and what he didn’t like.”

As luck would have it, one of Costas’ kids played baseball for a school that frequently faced off against Principia. Though Hal didn’t know him, Bonnie says her future husband approached Costas one day in the stands and asked if he might have time to sit down with Goldsmith. He cordially agreed.

The sponge-like Goldsmith took Costas’ advice to heart, including his suggestion to call games into tape recorders, even if he’d be the only one who’d ever hear it.

Bonnie continued to encourage her son’s interest in sports radio. Years later she and Hal sat discussing career possibilities with Goldsmith in a St. Louis sandwich shop during his senior year of college at Principia College, an exclusively Christian Science school in the tiny town of Elsah, Illinois. Broadcasting again came up, but this time the familiar discussion was interrupted by a waitress.

“We’d been talking about broadcasting,” Bonnie recalls. “The minute Aaron starts ordering, the waitress stopped writing, looked at him, and said, ‘You need to go into radio.’ I looked at him and said, ‘I didn’t pay her!’ ”

Goldsmith made his decision over lunch that day.

But back to that pillow.

Bonnie says she wasn’t surprised—or alarmed—when her son called her one day to ask if he could use a credit card she and Hal had given him for emergencies. Goldsmith was penniless, his personal credit card was maxed out. But he had to get a new pillow. He had to get some sleep.

“That’s when it really kind of hit home,” says Goldsmith of his summer in the Cape Cod League. “I’ve got no money, and I’m spending the money I do have on extension cords and a card table to call games no one will hear.

“It’s the only way I could do it, because I knew I had to get better.”

By the time Goldsmith arrived in Pawtucket, he had bounced around the farm system much like a minor league ballplayer. Following his season speaking into tape recorders while sitting next to bus drivers, he got a job calling games for the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs in Maine. The next two seasons, he was in Frisco, Texas, working for the RoughRiders, also Double-A.

To make ends meet in those years, Goldsmith spent off-seasons working in retail, coaching junior varsity basketball, and tugging on leashes as a professional dog-walker (bringing in $8.50 for a 30-minute walk, he recalls). Those jobs paid more than calling games.

Then Goldsmith was hired by Pawtucket, perhaps the premiere broadcasting post in Triple-A ball.

He isn’t the first—or likely the last—broadcaster to parlay a stay in Pawtucket into bigger and better things. Jumping from minor league to big league ball is an even rarer feat for a broadcaster than for a ballplayer. With only 30 major league teams, each with two chairs in the radio booth, only 60 jobs are to be had in all the land. That makes the PawSox’s history of launching broadcasters to the next level all the more impressive. Its alumni list includes Gary Cohen, who joined the New York Mets in 1989; Don Orsillo, who joined the Boston Red Sox in 2001; Dave Flemming, who entered the San Francisco Giants’ booth in 2004; Andy Freed, who started with the Tampa Bay Rays in 2005; Dave Shea, who joined the Washington Nationals in 2005; and Dave Jageler, who jumped into the Washington Nationals’ broadcasts in 2006.

“For a Triple-A team, it’s kind of a big-time deal, with a big-time atmosphere,” says PawSox Vice President of Public Relations Bill Wanless.

To people Goldsmith has worked with over the years, his ascension in the ranks is no surprise. It starts with his voice, his maturity, and the way he calls the action.

“He had a very pleasant sound,” says Wanless. “We want someone who’s a really good, easy listen. Would a mother enjoy listening to him? Would a grandfather? Aaron has that type of quality. We would have liked to have him here for a few more years.”

“I’d like to bottle his voice up,” says Brian Boesch, a friend of Goldsmith’s and a fellow broadcaster who met him during a one-season internship with the Frisco RoughRiders. “He’s like a 45-year-old guy trapped inside a 29-year-old-guy body. He taught me how to be a pro. No one who meets him is surprised he’s climbed as quickly as he has.”

Mike Antonellis, the “Voice of the Portland Sea Dogs,” hired Goldsmith as an assistant after a 2009 lunch interview at an Applebee’s. Antonellis says he’s been impressed by Goldsmith since first receiving his resume.

“He seemed like someone I liked instantly,” Antonellis says. “He deserves 100 percent of what’s come to him.”

What’s come to Goldsmith in Seattle—along with the most important thing, the long-desired big league job—is a substantial raise from the pittance he earned in the minors. Though the Mariners won’t discuss the terms of Goldsmith’s contract, Jon Chelesnik, the President and CEO of Sportscasters Talent Agency of America and a former ESPN Radio Network host, speculates that a first-year broadcaster like Goldsmith in a market of Seattle’s size likely makes “in the low six figures” on a multiseason deal.

Goldsmith will tell you he had plenty of help along the way. “You’re not going to make it alone in this business,” he says matter-of-factly. The list of people Goldsmith credits with advancing his development over the years runs from major league voices like the Rangers’ Eric Nadel and the Red Sox’s Dave O’Brien to lesser-known broadcasters in outposts like Sauget, Illinois, where he interned for the Triple-A Grizzlies in 2007. That summer, then-Grizzlies announcer Joe Pott let him “stink up his airwaves for two innings a night,” Goldsmith says, giving him his first taste of life behind the mike.

Now the Mariners are staking their broadcasts on the hope that Goldsmith can go nine innings—with nothing stinking but maybe Justin Smoak’s batting average.

Aaron Goldsmith enters the Mariners booth at a time of transition for baseball on the radio—and an uncertain time for radio as an industry. Ad revenue is down across the board in the post-recession world. Because of this the landscape of baseball-rights deals has shifted. These days the real money is in TV deals. If you’re the Red Sox or Yankees, you’re still sitting pretty, but a team like the Mariners has seen the dollars they’re able to fetch from traditional radio-rights deals decline, even though listenership remains strong. This changing landscape led the team and its current radio partner—KIRO 710 ESPN—to forge a new path in 2011, one significantly different from the way things had been done in the past.

Seattle isn’t necessarily known as a baseball town, but due in no small part to the lasting impact of Dave Niehaus, it is most certainly a baseball-on-the-radio town. Attendance at Mariners home games has slipped over the past decade—a 2012 analysis by 24/7 Wall Street found that starting in 2002 the M’s suffered the biggest 10-year drop in attendance among the four major sports leagues in America (a slide greased by some truly terrible Mariners teams). Still the M’s enjoy the eighth largest radio audience in MLB, and, according to KIRO 710 ESPN General Manager Dave Pridemore, have seen regional listening numbers increase in each of the past three years.

Whether it goes back to the “Refuse to Lose” season of 1995 or further, Seattle fans have a love affair with baseball on the radio—one far stronger than the team’s small-market reputation suggests. “It’s phenomenal. It’s one of the great radio play-by-play markets in the country,” says KIRO Radio Program Manager Brian Long.

Arizona-based radio consultant Rick Scott—who formerly had an office in Bellevue—agrees that baseball on the radio in Seattle is something special, and attributes much of this to Niehaus. “Baseball is a fabulous sport on the radio,” says Scott. “I think the classic example of that was on a summer night when you would turn on the radio and you hear Dave Niehaus. He was like a poet, and he made the game so special. Baseball is really set up so nicely for radio.”

Poetry aside, though, radio isn’t generating the money it once did.

Prior to the 2003 season, the M’s reportedly signed a staggering $10-million-a-year rights deal with KOMO 1000—ending an 18-year run with KIRO in a move that Larry Stone of The Seattle Times said “stunned both the radio and baseball industries.”

But the deal proved far from lucrative for KOMO. In 2008, the Seattle P-I ’s Bill Virgin reported that in a conference call with analysts, Fisher Chief Executive Colleen Brown said the company’s cash-flow margins were higher without the Mariners than with it.

“It was a rich deal, there’s no question,” says Fisher Communications Executive Vice President of Operations Robert Dunlop, who was General Manager of Radio at the time of KOMO’s six-season deal with the M’s. “[It was a] high-cost agreement. It definitely was a circumstance where we didn’t feel like continuing with it made good financial sense.”

It’s no surprise, then, that KOMO quickly dropped out of negotiations when the contract opened again at the end of the 2008 season. KIRO was able to swoop in and score the Mariners for a reported $5.5 million a year on a three-year deal—roughly half the per-season price KOMO had paid.

The reasons why stations are having a harder time making deals like this “pencil out,” as Dunlop puts it, are plentiful. He says sports on the radio don’t generate the revenue they once did, and having nearly every game on TV doesn’t help matters. He also cites developments in mobile technology, and the launch of MLB’s own Internet streaming service—which allows any fan in any location, as long as they have Internet access, to tune in audio broadcasts of all 30 teams.

The MLB’s online streaming service is available by subscription, with all 30 teams sharing the revenue generated. Radio stations see none of this money, though fans hear the same thing they get on the dial. “We’re in a congested environment today,” says Dunlop.

“I think what you’ll find is that broadcast entities are going to look long and hard when making a bid to make sure they can make money with it, or at least break even and bring an audience to the radio station,” says radio consultant Scott of traditional rights deals. When it comes to radio’s struggles, Scott doesn’t blame the Internet as much as he does the recession. “Prior to the economy tanking, I think the mentality was a lot looser,” he says.

The most recent contract the Mariners forged with KIRO in 2011 is greatly different than anything that’s been done before. It forgoes a large yearly check from KIRO for rights fees (in exchange for the opportunity to sell advertising during broadcasts) for what Pridemore describes as a “revenue-sharing” agreement—with KIRO broadcasting the games, but the station and the M’s sharing the advertising revenue that’s generated.

Such an agreement, according to Pridemore, “shares the risk and the opportunity.”

The economics may have changed, but Pridemore says the appeal of a deal like the one between KIRO and the M’s is still easy to understand: People tune in to Mariners games in massive numbers. “It’s a huge audience,” says Pridemore. “For an average game in April, we’ll have just under 100,000 listeners [in the Puget Sound area]. That’s two Safeco Fields following the Mariners on our station.”

One thing’s for certain: Aaron Goldsmith will have come a long way from the Cape Cod League and his lonely road-game recorder when the Mariners kick off the season Monday in Oakland. And far more people than the team bus driver will be listening to him.

Goldsmith says it all hit him at this year’s Mariners FanFest in January, not long after the announcement of his hiring. Flown in for the annual pre-season festivities, he and his wife launched a search for a home, eventually settling on Kirkland. The new voice of the M’s says the event drove home the magnitude of the job he’d been brought to Seattle to do.

“It’s so foreign for me to be on the end of it that I am now,” says Goldsmith of the notoriety that comes with his dream job. “It’s flattering, obviously, but it’s such a strange feeling. When you’re a minor league broadcaster, by and large you’re in the shadows. Nobody knows who you are.”

In Seattle that won’t be the case. One family of M’s fans who approached Rizzs and him at FanFest made the situation abundantly clear.

Goldsmith remembers the family being starstruck, telling Rizzs, “You’re part of our bedtime routine.”

“Oh, my gosh,” Goldsmith remembers thinking. “This is heavy.”

mdriscoll@seattleweekly.com

 
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