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Rizzs brings heavy heart on M's Caravan (w/ gallery)

RICHLAND -- Rick Rizzs found this week to be just the remedy he needed to get ready for the upcoming Seattle Mariners' season.

Rizzs, the team's longtime television and radio commentator, spent the past five days on the road in Eastern Washington as the 2011 Mariners Caravan got going.

He spent it with pitchers Shawn Kelley and Luke French and Mariners employees -- including the Mariners Moose.

And he spent it with some serious Mariners fans, including a group of 250 on Friday at Columbia Basin College.

In essence, all of those people are his Mariners family.

Rizzs is trying to recover from the loss of his broadcast partner, Dave Niehaus, who passed away Nov. 10 from a heart attack at the age of 75.

"I worked side-by-side with him for 25 years, every day for seven months of the year," Rizzs said earlier in the day while visiting patients at Kadlec Medical Center in Richland. "We formed a special bond. We got to know each other's families so well. We just became family. It's just a huge loss."

Rizzs went out on the Caravan this week and found out he wasn't alone in his feelings about Niehaus.

"The fans feel that way too," Rizzs said. "They tell me 'We've lost a member of the family. We're gonna miss Dave.' "

These Caravans are important for the Mariners to connect with their fans.

Sean Grindley, the Mariners' community programs manager, said the Caravan in this format has been going on since the early 1990s.

But even before then, from the franchise's first season on, the Mariners would send players out in vans all around the state to meet with fans in the offseason.

"We had 500 people in Moses Lake the other day," Grindley said.

Rizzs understands the connection.

"We're a regional ball club," he said. "Fifty percent of our attendance comes from outside King County. That's why we're so grateful to the people around the state. I think this is just a great baseball area. We have that certain connection with the fans. We're on television and radio every day. You can go hiking and still listen to us on the radio. It's just a magical connection."

Rizzs likes what he sees from the club in this offseason.

"I think (general manager) Jack (Zduriencik) is trying to improve the offense, especially when he signed Jack Cust," said Rizzs. "We didn't have a guy with power last season. I think Miguel Olivo will help us behind the plate. Guys just need to step up."

As for the new manager?

"Eric Wedge, I like him a lot," he added. "In 2007, he got Cleveland to within one game of the World Series."

The Mariners have talked about how to approach this season -- their first ever without the Hall of Fame broadcaster Niehaus in the booth.

"We're going to bring back the guys who used to work with Dave," said Rizzs. "Kenny Wilson, Ron Fairly, Dave Valle, Jay Buhner, Dave Henderson, Ken Levine, Dan Wilson. They will all come in during the season to work games. We felt it was the best way to honor Dave's legacy. And we'll do our best to carry on Dave's legacy.

"It's going to be real tough. It's impossible to replace a legend like Dave," he added. "It really is."