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Mariners' announcer Sims built dream career on hope, hard work

Over the years, I'd seen Dave Sims' face pop up on my TV screen. One time he was covering track and field at the Seoul Olympics. The next, he was broadcasting college hoops in Syracuse. Another time I spotted him anchoring a local sportscast in New York, and one Sunday I swore I saw him reporting from the sidelines at an NFL game.

In the mid-1980s, Sims and I had sweated out the intense deadlines together on a local TV newscast in Philadelphia. He was a part-time sports anchor and reporter; I was the sports producer. He was a talented, bright, down-to-earth guy, fun to work with, every producer's dream. After racing through countless scores, highlights and features for the 11 p.m. news, we'd head for our homes on a dark, clanking, deserted commuter train and critique the night's work: "The other stations led with the Phillies ... maybe we should have." "We kicked ass on the Dr. J story." And we'd talk about our families. We were in our early 30s and were both new fathers. And we fantasized about our careers. We were restless. I wanted to work for the networks; he dreamed of doing baseball play-by-play on TV.

I hadn't done much thinking about Sims lately, until he showed up as a friend of a friend on Facebook. My memory went into overdrive as I typed a "What's up?" message to him. Within five minutes I got a reply . "Hey, Dude," it read. "I'm doing play-by-play for the Seattle Mariners and loving it." OK, that's why I hadn't seen him for a while. But how had he nailed down his dream job? One Facebook message led to another, and I gradually learned the answer. It had taken Sims more than 30 years to get there. It had taken twists, turns and bumps in the road ... and never saying never.

* * *

Dave Sims is a rarity in pro sports: an African-American who does major league baseball play-by-play. There are only four among the 30 teams. Three -- Sims , Mike Claiborne (St. Louis Cardinals) and Eric Collins (Los Angeles Dodgers road games) -- never played baseball professionally. Ken Singleton, a former All-Star outfielder, does occasional play-by-play for the Yankees. But that's it. Sims, now 55 and in his third year with the Mariners, has built his career brick by brick with the help of a strong foundation, but without much of a blueprint. "This is something I've wanted for more than 30 years, something I've worked hard for, and something I thought might never happen for me," he says.

Former Washington Redskins tight end turned broadcaster Rick (Doc) Walker knows whereof Sims speaks. "Back in the late 80's and early 90's, when [Sims] was coming up, there were no African-Americans doing play-by-play in baseball," says Walker, who has worked with Sims on NFL broadcasts on Westwood One radio. "If you were black, you might get an opportunity to do color analysis, especially if you were an ex-player." (Walker, who is black, says that when he heard that Sims had gotten the Mariners job, he got so excited that he nearly jumped out of his seat.)

Nevertheless, Sims kept his eyes on the prize. He did whatever it took to stay in the game: working every sport and crazy hours, rushing through airports, sleeping in strange hotels, being away on weekends. Now, finally, his lengthy résumé is viewed as a bonus. "He's done all the local stuff, broadcast track and field at the Olympics, does pro football in the winter, he's done NCAA basketball, he's done everything," says Mariners color analyst Mike Blowers, a former major leaguer . "He's a great play-by-play guy, he always knows how to set the table for me, and I've never met anyone who knows as much about sports as Sims. The other day, Dave and [Mariners pitcher] Jarrod Washburn were on the field before the game talking about Wisconsin Badgers football. The guys love talking with him about things besides baseball."

* * *

For young Dave Sims, the dream began taking shape on warm nights in North Philadelphia during the summer of 1958. Baseball was his first love. "The house we grew up in was about a five-minute walk from Connie Mack Stadium at 21st St. and Lehigh [home of the Philadelphia Phillies until 1971] and our grandparents lived even closer," he recalls. "We went to lots of games, and when we didn't, we would still see the crowds walking towards the stadium. We could see the lights and all game long we would hear the cheers and the boos." But Sims didn't only hear the rabid Phillies' fans. He'd lie awake at night and listen to the Phillies' voices of summer paint pictures of the games on his transistor radio. "We had classic baseball guys calling the games ... By Saam and then Bill Campbell. I loved listening to them. They made me feel like I was right there."

For Sims and his younger brother, Don, the love of baseball was a birthright. Their dad, Ulysses (Pop) Sims, was an ambitious, hard-nosed third baseman on his post office softball team and a guy who took his sports seriously. "He was a total sports fanatic," says Don with a laugh. "Going with Pop to see the Phillies play was a thrill." The best games, recalls Sims, were when the Dodgers, Giants or Braves came to town: "For those games, there were a ton of blacks in the stands. The Dodgers had black players like Junior Gilliam and Maury Wills, the Giants had the 'Say Hey Kid,' Willie Mays [Sims' favorite all-time player], and the Braves had three blacks in the outfield: Hammerin' Hank [Aaron], Wes Covington and Billy Bruton in center." And, in 1963, the Phillies had their first black superstar, Richie (later called Dick) Allen, who the next season would be National League Rookie of the Year. "He was blasting moonshot home runs in every direction," Sims recalls. "We loved going to the ballpark."

Throw in trips to smoky Convention Hall to see the Warriors' Wilt Chamberlain, and fall Sundays at Franklin Field, where bruising Jim Brown plowed through Dave's beloved Eagles, and Sims was a fan for all seasons. "Willie Mays, Wilt Chamberlain and Jim Brown," he says. "Man, that was the Holy Trinity." Sims respected the superstars, but his true loves were his Philly teams. In this respect he was color blind. As he remembers, "We were so into Flyers' hockey, the Broad Street Bullies, most nights we'd be the only black guys in the Spectrum not selling concessions!" He laughs.

Being a fan came naturally, Sims says. But the idea of one day describing the action was literally a boyhood dream. "There were these two guys I played ball with at the local playground, Frankie and Anthony," Sims says. "They were both black kids. And when we played stickball, they'd do the play-by-play, doing their best to imitate the voices of the [white] Phillies announcers ...' 3 and 2 count, here comes the pitch, Sims with the swing and a miss, he struck 'em out!' they'd shout. "Frankie and Anthony probably have no idea what they set in motion, but I owe them a debt of gratitude. They got me thinking: Maybe I can do this kind of thing."

But for black kids in 1967 Philadelphia, pursuing a dream meant overcoming barriers. White kids typically got the best citywide opportunities and education. Black kids stayed in their own neighborhoods. Dave Sims had gotten a "knock down the walls" message at home. "My mom and pop told us we could be anything that we wanted if we worked hard," he says. Buoyed by his good grades and athletic prowess, Sims was offered a scholarship to the prestigious Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia. The private, all-male prep school was only a few miles from his home, but a million miles from his world. Sims starred in football and baseball at Chestnut Hill and, looking back, calls the school the turning point of his life. "I think I was one of only three black kids in the upper schooI," he says. "I learned how to get along with kids who didn't look like me and I was encouraged to grow and look ahead. To this day, I'm still best friends with some of those guys."

One of those guys recently reminded him that in high school, Sims was already providing a preview of his future. "He remembered that I did impersonations and play-by-play of our ping-pong games in the student lounge," Sims says, chuckling. "I must have been practicing on those guys. On my high school yearbook page someone, referring to two iconic Flyers broadcasters, wrote: 'Ambition Stu Nahan, destination Gene Hart.'"

Four years later, Sims had earned a dual degree in mass communications and English from Bethany (W. Va.) College , where he had immersed himself in sports and writing. "Man, I did everything," he says. "Sports editor for the school paper, executive producer for the campus radio station, play-by-play for football and basketball, and I even ran the public address system at games. " And in the summers he covered soccer ("I didn't know a thing about it when I started!") and football as an intern at the Philadelphia Inquirer. After graduation he signed on as a young sports reporter at the New York Daily News -- a decision, he says, that was sealed after a heart-to-heart with his mother. "I was a little apprehensive about going to New York," he recalls. "But my mom said, 'Walter Cronkite is one of your heroes and he's there, so if you want to swim with the big fish, go.' I never could have predicted then the way things would turn out and that I'd still be living in New York 34 years later."

Still living in New York and working in Seattle? I hadn't read that on Facebook! Turns out that Sims met his wife-to-be, Abby, in 1978 at a New Jersey Nets game he was covering for the Daily News. She was interning for the Nets in the public relations department. Today the couple has two grown children, and an unusual lifestyle.

"Each February, when the team schedule comes out, we sit down and figure out where Dave will be each weekend," Abby says. Then, every Thursday afternoon, from the beginning of April through the end of September, Abby leaves early from her job at the New York physical therapy firm where she's a partner and heads to the airport. "I travel every weekend during the season to wherever he is," she says. "It's good for both of us ... helps to keep him grounded and sane. His job is all-consuming and at least he gets to experience a little life outside of baseball." The Sims also rent an apartment in Seattle, about five minutes from Safeco Field.

"Abby's been a godsend," Sims says of his wife of 27 years. "I haven't spent a lot of weekends at home in a long, long time."

* * *

It was while at the Daily News in the late 1970s that Sims' career began to take shape. He met people and started writing full time while covering college sports, professional soccer (the internship at the Inquirer paid off) and the NBA. But after seven years with the paper, he left. He was itching to call the action, as he'd done back in school. Sims landed his first "speaking" job at a short-lived satellite news channel, then commuted back to Philly for the local sports anchor/reporter job at the station where we worked together. Months later in New York he got wind of a job that would allow him to speak on air ... a lot. "I had heard about an opening on a nightly radio sports talk show on WNBC, but I couldn't get an audition," he recalls. So Sims turned to one of his idols for an assist. "I'd met Marv Albert when I was covering the NBA for the Daily News," he says. "And when I told him about [not getting] the audition, he said he'd see what he could do."

Sims got the audition, landed the job and launched Sports Night with Dave Sims, later simulcast on the MSG Television Network. "I had a blast at that job," Sims says. "My first guest was [NBA commissioner] David Stern and I got to meet Willie Mays ('the greatest who ever lived'), Mickey Mantle, Earl the Pearl Monroe, Phil Esposito and Mike Tyson." That job was followed by another at WFAN Radio. "The talk radio gigs were going well," says Sims. "The play-by-play thing didn't look like it was going to happen."

But Sims never stopped looking. While he was at WFAN, NBC Sports selected him to cover track and field at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. It was an enormous boost to his career. "Those were the games that had Carl Lewis, Flo-Jo, Jackie Joyner-Kersee and the Ben Johnson story," he says. "It was great experience."

When the Games ended, Sims returned to New York and a meeting that would ultimately alter the arc of his career. "The Bill Cosby TV show taped down the hall from WFAN, and through a relative who worked on the show, I got to meet Mr. Cosby," says Sims. It was a huge thrill for Sims and, months later, when a radio play-by-play gig opened at Cosby's alma mater, Temple, Dave got word to Cosby. "Out of nowhere, I suddenly get a call from [Temple president] Peter Liacouris asking if I'm interested in the job!" he says. For the next three years, Sims called Owls football, again commuting from New York. "It wasn't until that job at Temple that I fully realized how much I loved the immediacy of play-by-play," he says. "From there, I decided to take that as far as I could."

In the years that followed, Sims seemed to be everywhere. He hosted a Phillies pregame show, reported on baseball and college basketball for ESPN, and co-hosted a weekly radio show with Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski. (The program is still heard on Sirius radio). He replaced the legendary Warner Wolf as sports anchor at WCBS-TV in New York, covered Big East basketball and football, and worked for CBS TV and radio calling the NCAA men's basketball tournament. Many of the jobs were high profile. Some of them lasted a long time, some didn't -- but each one was a building block.

"This guy has honed his talent over time and he's really a great broadcaster," says NFL color analyst Bob Trumpy. Sims and Trumpy, the former Cincinnati Bengals tight end, shared the announcing booth for two seasons of Sunday Night Football on Westwood One radio. The two had great chemistry. "He's a great friend with a super sense of humor," Sims says of his former partner. "Trumpy is unfiltered ... he's done it all and seen it all...great guy."

In return, Trumpy, ever the needler, can't resist aiming a gentle barb at his buddy. "Sims was so prepared you couldn't believe it," he jokes. "He'd bring in color-coded charts, magic markers. I've never seen anyone bring so much stuff into the announcer booth. It got so crowded, I didn't have any room to work." Sims still works the Sunday night games when the baseball season is over.

In 2006, while Sims was making the most of his crowded career ("parachuting in for games," was what one of his colleagues called it), he got an audition for the job he had dreamed about as a kid in Philly. The Mariners conducted extensive interviews. At first Sims was one of 12 candidates, then one of six, then in the final two -- until he was the only one left standing. His final test was a lengthy chat with the team's longtime broadcasting voice, Dave Niehaus. "He was warm and welcoming," says Sims. "Plus, Coach K and [former Seahawks quarterback] Warren Moon called management to put in a good word." The parachutes were tucked away.

* * *

Before each Mariners game, Sims starts the broadcast with a five-minute open -- "Doing the 'Hi, how are ya's' and the starting lineups," as he describes it -- then joins play-by-play man Rick Rizzs as color analyst for three innings on radio. In the fourth inning he replaces Niehaus on TV for play-by-play, with Mike Blowers doing color. Blowers calls Sims the "ultimate pro," adding, "Nothing fazes him, but we do have our laughs." Blowers' favorite story? "The two of us were opening the broadcast on camera," he says. "Dave was about 10 seconds into his opening remarks, when we heard over the headsets that there was a timing issue and the game was beginning early ... like now," he says with a laugh. "So out the window goes all of our preparation and Dave goes right from 'How are you, beautiful day,' to, 'And Ichiro swings and misses, for strike one.' We had to turn towards the field on camera -- they were shooting the backs of our heads -- but Dave didn't miss a beat. He went right into the play-by-play and saved us ... it could've been a train wreck!"

Live broadcasts aren't the only nerve-janglers for Sims. The Mariners set a major league record in 2008 by flying more than 56,000 miles. "It's a job that's not for the weak-minded," offers Rizzs. "It's the old cliché ... it's a marathon, not a sprint, and it can be a major grind. You better love what you're doing."

No way is it a grind for Sims, who savors each moment. "Every day the whole game evolves right in front of your eyes, up close and personal," he says. And he loves the contact with fans and players, especially the Mariners' future Hall of Famer, Ken Griffey, Jr. "Nobody holds court better than Junior," says Sims. "Any topic is fair game, plus he's smart and fun and he's a great teammate." Sims even commented about Griffey recently on that same Facebook page on which I reconnected with my old colleague. "I smiled when Ken Griffey, Jr. wore a white batting glove in tribute to Michael Jackson," wrote Sims. "There were no sequins and no word on if he went 'Hee-Hee-Hee' on his way to first after a walk!"

Even though Sims has made it to "the Show," he's still the same down-to-earth guy I knew way back when. He still loves listening to the classic announcers, like the ones he used to hear on his transistor radio. "My favorite is Vin Scully," he says. "I've met and spoken many times with him. I don't get to hear him often, because of our schedules, but I come to a stop when I hear his voice and just soak it all in ... his timing, his storytelling, his sense of drama." And a few years ago Sims telephoned the voice of his youth, Bill Campbell, to congratulate the retired Philadelphia broadcaster on a recently published biography. "It was my first year doing play-by-play for the Mariners and I wanted to thank him for inspiring me," says Sims.

Now Dave Sims inspires others. I was thinking about that and our late-night train rides and smiled to myself: Wow, he's living the dream. And I was thinking that Sims' former colleague Doc Walker puts it best. "Dave Sims," says Walker, "is living proof that, 'Yes, we can'."

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