Living the dream

February 23, 2010

By Bob Taylor

Issaquah resident Rick Rizzs fulfilled his boyhood fantasy of calling major league games

Dreams do come true. Seattle Mariners broadcaster Rick Rizzs is living proof. From the time he was able to pick up a baseball bat and throw a baseball, Rizzs dreamed of becoming a Big League announcer.

“I’m one of the most fortunate guys in the world,” the Issaquah resident said. “How many people get to do what they dreamed of as a kid?”

Rizzs grew up in Chicago and was passionate about baseball at an early age.

“I’ve always been a baseball fan,” said Rizzs, who would get together with guys in his neighborhood and play sandlot ball during the summer.

“We would play all day long,” he said.

Meeting his hero

The White Sox was his favorite team, although he occasionally rooted for the Cubs. When it came to players, his idol was shortstop Luis Aparicio, one of baseball’s all-time greats.

Rizzs had another hero — Cubs’ broadcaster Jack Brickhouse. Actually, it didn’t matter whether the White Sox or Cubs were on the radio. Rizzs tuned in his transistor radio to whoever was on the air. He listened to the broadcasters of both teams, but Brickhouse, a future Hall of Famer, was definitely his favorite.

By the time Rizzs was 12, he knew what career he would pursue — broadcasting.

He worked hard to reach that goal. Sometimes as a youngster, he would race home from school and go down in the basement, where the family had a television set. He would turn the sound down, and pretend he was broadcasting the game.

When Rizzs was 12, he received support from Brickhouse.

“I wrote a letter to Brickhouse and told him I wanted to become a Major League Baseball broadcaster,” Rizzs said. “He wrote me a handwritten letter back. He urged me to get all the schooling I could and to work hard. I never forgot that.”

After high school, Rizzs attended Southern Illinois University, where he played baseball and majored in radio and television.

Then, he began a long climb to the top. It took eight years.

His first broadcasting job was with Alexandria, La., a Class AA farm club for the San Diego Padres. When the team moved to Amarillo, Texas, Rizzs went with it. He later worked for the Memphis Chicks, an AA team for the old Montreal Expos, and the Columbus Clippers, a Class AAA team for the New York Yankees.

In 1983, the Seattle Mariners had an opening and Rizzs sent a résumé and tape to the club. Former owner George Argyros called Rizzs and had him come to Seattle for an interview. Argyros and Dave Niehaus, another future Hall-of-Fame announcer, liked what they heard on tape. Rizzs got the job.

At spring training that year, Rizzs met one of his idols — Brickhouse.

“I came up to him and said ’Mr. Brickhouse. You probably don’t remember this, but when I was 12, I wrote you a letter about becoming a broadcaster. You answered that letter. I just wanted to let you know that I’m now a new broadcaster for the Mariners,” Rizzs said recalling the meeting. “He gave me a big hug.”

‘One of the best storytellers’

The 1983 season was the beginning of a long relationship with Niehaus.

“I couldn’t have broken in with a better mentor than David. He is one of the greatest broadcasters of all time. He is one of the best storytellers,” Rizzs said. “So much of the time when you are doing a baseball game, you have to fill those gaps with a great story.”

The one thing Rizzs learned early was putting the fan at home in the front seat at the ballpark.

“You really have to make him feel like he’s at the ball park. Radio is really a visual media,” Rizzs said. “The game takes place in your mind. If I can make the fan feel the excitement, then I’m doing my job. Imagination is better than any camera ever invented.”

The best part of the job?

“I get to be the fans eyes and ears. I have a responsibility to the fans to be creative and prepared for all 162 games,” Rizzs said. “Every game is different. You have a different story to tell every night.”

Rizzs settled in Issaquah in 1988. Like joining the Mariners, he has never regretted the move.

“I love it out here. I grew up in Chicago, where everything is flat. I came out here and there are mountains, streams and lakes. There is so much to offer,” he said.

From No. 2 to No. 1

Rizzs left the Mariners for a short time when he was hired as the Detroit Tigers’ broadcaster for the 1993 season. He was to replace longtime Tigers’ broadcaster Ernie Harwell, a favorite of Mo-town baseball fans. Tigers president Bo Schembechler, following the 1992 season, had forced Harwell out.

Rizzs said he knew it was going to be a difficult job replacing Harwell, another Hall-of-Famer, when he showed up for the club’s season opener.

“There were thousands of fans protesting the club’s decision to let Ernie go. A radio station in town had printed up Ernie Harwell faces and put them on sticks,” Rizzs said. “There were 10,000 fans at the park with Ernie Harwell on sticks. There was a ‘We want Ernie’ banner in center field. A plane circled the field with a ‘Bring Back Ernie’ banner.”

After being the No. 2 guy for the Mariners, Rizzs had looked forward to being the No. 1 guy for the Tigers.

“But I knew it was going to be a tough job, because I was asked to replace a legend,” Rizzs said.

At the season opener, Rizzs turned to Bob Rathbun, his sidekick in the booth, and said, “I hope people give us a shot.”

However, fans were so loyal to Harwell that he was brought back by popular demand. Rizzs worked with Harwell for a little more than a season, and then was let go.

“I did the best job I could do. Things just didn’t work out,” he said.

A memorable season, memorable moments

He didn’t stay unemployed long. Niehaus invited Rizzs back to the Mariners’ booth, and the duo wound up broadcasting a memorable 1995 season.

“As things turned out, it couldn’t have turned out better,” Rizzs said. “Thank goodness I didn’t miss the 1995 season. That was the team. That was the year baseball was saved in Seattle. The Tigers actually did me a wonderful favor.”

Rizzs has been with the Mariners ever since. Fans have become familiar with his catch phrase “Good-bye, baseball!” his call for home runs.

There have been many memorable moments for Rizzs in his 25 years with the Mariners. The 1995 season holds most of them, especially the Mariners’ dramatic finish to tie California for first place in the West Division, the playoff victory over the Angels and the five-game series with the New York Yankees.

Rizzs also cherished the 2001 season, when the Mariners set an American League record for victories. The 2009 season was special, too.

“I was really impressed with last year’s team. Jack Zduriencik (general manager) did a fabulous job of building the team. Don Wakamatsu (manager) did a great job, and all the players contributed.” Rizzs said.

With third baseman Chone Figgins and pitcher Cliff Lee among the new additions, Rizzs said he is anxious to get to spring training.

“This team has a chance to be very good, especially with the one-two pitching of Felix (Hernandez) and Lee,” Rizzs said.

If the Mariners reach the playoffs this season, Rizzs will really enjoy his job. Winning makes the job easy, but there are other benefits. He especially enjoys the relationships he has made with players, fans, front office personnel and the members of the Mariners broadcast team.

“I’ve been around a lot of great people,” he said.

His father once told him, “If you wake up in the morning and you’re happy to go to work, you’ve got it made.”

Rizzs knows he has it made.

“I am very blessed. I set out to be a broadcaster when I was 12. How many people get to do what they dreamed of?” he asked. “I don’t regret one day of the choice I made. Now, I am the voice on the radio I heard as a kid. I have the greatest job in the world.”

Rick Rizzs’ top 10 Mariners’ memories

1 – Edgar Martinez’s game-winning double in the fifth game of the 1995 American League series with the New York Yankees.

2 – The Mariners’ victory against the California Angels in the one-game 1995 playoff when Rizzs said “Everybody scores!”

3 – The 1983 Seattle Mariners’ opener, his first major league broadcast.

4 – The 1995 Seattle Mariners’ season. “Everyone contributed. They just refused to lose!”

5 – The 2001 season when the Mariners won 116 games, setting an American League record and tying the Major League record.

6 – Edgar Martinez’s grand slam in Game 4 of the 1995 playoffs that propelled the Mariners to a victory against the New York Yankees.

7 – Aug. 31, 1990, Ken Griffey Sr. and Ken Griffey Jr. play in the same game for the first time.

8 – The final game of 1991 season when the Mariners finished with a .500 record for the first time.

9 – Broadcasting his first game in Chicago’s old Comiskey Park in 1983.

10 – Brian Holman’s near-perfect game in 1990.

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