John McGrath

Mariners reporter, columnist had a way of making the words sing

LaRue’s fascination with human-interest angles put him in the precarious position of balancing the amicable professional relationships he’d developed while fulfilling his responsibility as a journalist.
LaRue’s fascination with human-interest angles put him in the precarious position of balancing the amicable professional relationships he’d developed while fulfilling his responsibility as a journalist. Staff file

Larry LaRue’s surgically repaired heart finally gave out on him Monday. He was 68 years old, too young for somebody with talent and a zest for using it, but to borrow an expression from his favorite game, he got his swings in.

“Lash” — among Larry LaRue’s many gifts was the perfect nickname — worked at one time or another as a nightclub bouncer, private investigator, window washer and cleanup man on a turkey farm. Little about a job requiring a shovel, a bucket and the capacity to endure a severe stench is pleasant, but it played into LaRue’s signature skill: Telling a story.

Such an ability proved ideal for an occupation that wasn’t so much a job as a prearranged marriage. LaRue — who worked at The News Tribune from 1988-2015, covering the Seattle Mariners for more than two decades before becoming a news columnist — wrote about baseball as if each game were part of a 162-chapter novel.

“A generation of fans got started following the Mariners through his words in The News Tribune, and he and the paper gained a national reputation for excellence in sports journalism,” said current editor and former sports editor Dale Phelps.

“If we were to start a Hall of Fame for the newsroom, he’d have to be in it.”

And while LaRue paid attention to the details of how two teams arrived at a final score, the more relevant details were the players, all of whom arrive in the big leagues with a story.

Like LaRue’s other colleagues in the press box, I was amazed at how he could craft a smooth narrative out of a seemingly inconsequential, late-night game that left him with next to no time to put a string of cogent words together.

He received multiple awards from the Associated Press Sports Editors, including top game story in the 2009 contest for the 100,000-250,000 circulation category.

“Making it sing,” is what writers call a game story enriched by a plot. Watching LaRue making it sing on his laptop, typing at the speed of sound, could be a distraction for those of us struggling to make the second paragraph relate to the first.

LaRue’s talent was natural, but as with any natural, his talent came to fruition through hard work. Before a game, some writers will stroll through an open clubhouse, glance around, and conclude there is nothing going on. (I plead guilty, your honor.)

LaRue understood that because it was baseball — 25 guys, from all parts of the world, challenged to get along for more than seven months and, oh yeah, win — something always was going on.

LaRue’s fascination with human-interest angles put him in the precarious position of balancing the amicable professional relationships he’d developed while fulfilling his responsibility as a journalist.

LaRue was a confidante of the players who could never be his best buddy. His task was to report, which meant walking the kind of thin line associated with a trapeze act.

The consequences of the conundrum — friend or reporter? — were not always pleasant. When LaRue divulged that Ken Griffey Jr.’s indifference toward baseball had gotten to the point he was unavailable to pinch-hit because he’d fallen asleep in the clubhouse during a 2010 game, LaRue decided to report first and deal with the fallout later.

The fallout was explosive, and temporarily alienated LaRue not only from Griffey, among his favorite players since the Hall of Fame center fielder debuted as a rookie teenager in 1989, but from the entire Mariners team.

It’s a tribute to LaRue’s uncommon professionalism that he remained on the Mariners beat long enough to re-establish his credibility in the clubhouse.

The Griffey saga underscored the difficulty a sports reporter faces in maintaining friendships with the athletes he covers, but LaRue’s work ethic, and the pitch-perfect tone he took as an interviewer, found him with many admirers.

When LaRue spent a month in the hospital following heart surgery, former Mariners reliever Norm Charlton visited him for a get-well-soon chat that likely involved stray animals who came to be regarded as permanent household guests.

Charlton was among the 100 subjects LaRue profiled in his book “Major League Encounters,” published in 2012. From the household-name superstars to the frustrated grinders convinced some version of their childhood dreams awaited them, LaRue provided behind-the-scenes vignettes culled from the four decades he devoted to writing about baseball.

LaRue’s passion for the sport was not 24/7. When he met his wife, Marie — they would have celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary next March 26 — she knew nothing about baseball, which rendered her incapable of talking about the sport.

For Lash, it was the ultimate match.

“He’d come home from Seattle after a game, and the last thing he’d want to discuss was baseball,” Marie said Thursday. “And then the Mariners had that 1995 playoff season, and I started following them. I think I drove him crazy. On his day off, I’d tell him, ‘Let’s watch a ballgame on TV!’ And of course he put up with it, because he was Larry.”

In addition to Marie, LaRue is survived by daughter Jessica Bayer, son-in-law Tim, grandson Caleb, and LaRue’s mother, Valerie Multon.

The stories survive, too.

“Larry once stopped a robbery at a fast-food taco restaurant,” Marie said. “He was taking orders, and a guy walked up to the counter pretending he had a gun. Larry calmly told him, ‘See that camera over there? You’re on videotape. How about if I just give you a big bag to go and we’ll call it good?’

“The robber said ‘OK!’ ”

LaRue had long-term heart problems related to his condition as a diabetic. He and Marie had recently traveled to Southern California, where her mother is receiving treatments at a VA hospital.

“I got back from the hospital on Monday, and he was gone,” Marie said. “He had one hand over his heart and the other at his side. He looked peaceful.”

Of course. Whether it was preventing robbery at a fast-food joint or writing a game story on a tight deadline, Larry LaRue exuded the essence of grace under pressure.

And oh, how he made it sing.