“He likes the ball out over the plate.”
“You gotta keep the ball down.”
“Those leadoff base on balls will come around to kill you.”
“There are good outs and there are bad outs.”
“If you don’t have your A stuff you have to go to your B stuff.”
“He’s a first ball fastball hitter.”
“Edgar’s bat will heat up with the weather.”
“You have to make all the plays you need to make.”
If you watched Mariners baseball between 1993 and 2006, you know these lines. You have heard them again and again. You may even find yourself idly repeating them at times. “You know, the hardest play an outfielder has to make on a ball hit right at him,” you, or, uh, a friend, may absent-mindedly throw out there every so often.
The man who voiced those lines was none other than Ron Fairly. When the Mariners sent out a tweet a week ago announcing his death I found myself surprised at the overwhelming sadness I felt at learning this news. Nearly as much as Dave Niehaus and Rick Rizzs, Ron Fairly was the voice of my childhood baseball fandom. He can never be separated from the years I grew up, growing more in love with baseball, and obsessively devoting myself to the Mariners.
I have spent the last week thinking about Ron Fairly and his legacy. I’ve read many tributes. Shannon Drayer’s tribute to Fairly was the most touching and it made me wish I could have known that side of him. Many tributes, respecting the don’t-speak-ill-of-the-dead edict, skipped over his broadcasting style. That skips over so much of what fans experienced with him. When we think of Ron Fairly the broadcaster, we think of his Fairlyisms and clichés and the repetitions with which he voiced them.
Like most sports fans, I find myself criticizing broadcasters. Whether it’s the content of their words or the way they say them, it’s as much a part of sports fandom as criticizing the players on the field. Fairly, himself, recognized that dynamic, telling the San Francisco Chronicle, “That is the burden of any broadcaster. Some will like you immediately, some will learn to like you and there will always be those who say you’ll never be a Mel Allen, a Harry Caray or a Hank Greenwald.” When he was hired by the San Francisco Giants an enormous amount of protest arose. Partly it was because he had been a long-time rival Los Angeles Dodger. Partly it was because of his broadcasting style with the California Angels. Jon Carroll of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote after Fairly was hired, “Replacing Hank Greenwald with Ron Fairly is like replacing Pavarotti with Howdy Doody.” Ouch. Carroll would also put out the call for readers to collect “Fairlyisms”, quotes from Fairly’s broadcasts.
Even though he had a positive outlook in every quote and interview I’ve heard from him, he had to have been happy to escape San Francisco for the smaller-market Seattle Mariners. He hopped aboard at an advantageous time. In 1993 the Mariners had all new everything: new ownership in Nintendo of America; a new manager in Lou Piniella, only a couple years removed from winning the World Series with the Cincinnati Reds; Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez had just signed new contracts; the team had revamped their uniforms and logos to the navy blue and teal, and compass logo we still love (?) all these years later. In addition, as reported by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the team even had new dugout benches made of solid maple that set them back $8,500.
In the Mariner’s booth Fairly replaced Ken Levine, who had worked on the TV show “Cheers” and wanted to devote more time to screenwriting. At a press conference after his hiring Fairly said, “I’m not a comedian, but as the season goes along, I think people here will come to appreciate my knowledge of the game and love of the sport.” Blaine Newnham of the Seattle Times observed, “He has the reputation of being a nice human being and not wrapped up in his on-air persona.”
Fairly had the stories and quips and baseball maxims he loved to share. We have heard so much love pour out from his colleagues about his story-telling abilities. From my perspective though, the overarching thing Ron brought to Mariners broadcasts was an unabashed love of baseball. He was the perfect fit at a time when the Mariners were showing Seattle what it meant to be a baseball fan.
When he began in 1993, there was some buzz about the Mariners and all the new changes they had made. There was even talk of a pennant race. The team would secure only its second winning season in its 17 years of existence. The next season, the labor strike would put an end to a Mariners team starting to build momentum. In 1995, well, you know what happened then.
While the Mariners chased pennants and brought in new fans, Fairly was there in the booth, teaching us the basics of baseball. He reminded us that pitchers should throw strikes and keep the ball down. He helpfully pointed out when the Mariners needed to score runs. He told stories about his playing days, mostly with the Dodgers. I remember him talking about Don Drysdale frequently.
He was somewhat polarizing for fans, neither universally loved nor loathed. The battle of opinions over Fairly were waged in the Letters to the Editor in sports sections across the northwest. The sports columns throughout Fairly’s time in the booth were littered with shots, big and small, at him.
Was his repetition annoying? Yeah. Did it feel a little too basic once you had caught on to the basics? Yep. Did you sometimes scream at the television in annoyance? Look, that was probably the friend I mentioned earlier.
But Ron Fairly loved baseball. He literally lived it. He played for 21 years followed by 28 years broadcasting. Even though he was ready with critiques and second-guesses he was never negative. He saw it as the joyful game that it was. It seems so often we get former baseball players in the booth talking about their playing days and getting in barbs at the modern game. And sure, Fairly did that on occasion. The game was different in the 60s and 70s than it was in the 90s. But when he talked about the differences, it was always to praise his former teammates, never to disparage the modern players or the modern game.
He brought us clichés that 90s Mariners fans can repeat to each other like a secret language. He brought us an earnest enthusiasm for baseball at a time when so many people were falling in love with it. He gave us a connection to the game of the past, and an appreciation of the game we were watching unfold.
Ron Fairly was not a perfect broadcaster. Most of us won’t think back on him and wax poetic about the time we spent listening to him.
But he taught us about what makes us baseball fans; the basics, the history, the goofy joy of getting lost in the stories of the game.
Ron Fairly taught us the essence of baseball.