The 50-year-old New York Mets rolled into town this week.
That may not seem like such a big deal to fans of the Atlanta Braves, a franchise that’s been around since the National League began play in 1876.
But it’s a big deal to someone who’s been with the Mets since their inaugural season of 1962, when they earned their place as the worst team in baseball history.
I’m speaking of their 89-year-old announcer emeritus, Ralph Kiner.
He was there in ’62 when the Mets first manager, Casey Stengel, dubbed his team “my amazin’ Mets.” He was there when those original Mets, lurching to a 40-120 record, caused Stengel to wail, “Can’t anybody here play this game?”
Casey’s job, as much as managing, was public relations; getting fans into the ballpark. The first two years, that was no small task, the ballpark being the ancient and crumbling Polo Grounds. Casey always tried to deflect attention away from just how bad the Mets were.
Toward that end, Casey was Ralph’s guest on the inaugural edition of his long-running post game show, “Kiner’s Korner.” Surprisingly, considering the interview included two masters of malapropism, the interview went well. Until Ralph thanked Casey for being on the show.
At that point, despite still being on the air live, Casey just got up to leave. His microphone was still attached, so he wound up knocking down the entire set.
From that inauspicious beginning, or perhaps because of it, Ralph earned a special place in Mets history, and a permanent spot in their broadcast booth.
“He’s as comfortable in his skin as anyone I know,” Met announcer Gary Cohen told Ken Belson of the New York Times last week. “While he never played for the Mets or another New York team, he embodies the history of the Mets.”
That he does. From the awful years as an expansion team to the incredible World Series win in 1969. From the “You Gotta Believe” pennant season of ’73 through the doldrums that ensued. From the ’86 Series win through the Bobby Valentine years, Ralph’s seen it all.
Ralph’s 10-year Hall of Fame career was cut short by a bad back. But he remains the only player to lead the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons. He averaged 37 homers and 100 runs batted in. His best year, 1949, produced these numbers: .310 average, 54 homers, and 127 RBI.
He also became the first National League player to request a $100,000 salary. This prompted Branch Rickey’s famous reply, “We could have finished last without you.”
Ralph played for bad teams throughout his career, which made him a natural for the ’62 Mets. “Though I made it up,” he told Belson, “I said the reason George Weiss hired me was I had losing experience.”
Ralph teamed with two wonderful broadcasters, Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy, as the Mets broadcast team through the ’78 season. They afforded Mets fans the same comfort zone that Braves fans enjoyed with Ernie Johnson, Skip Caray, and Pete Van Wieren.
The Mets had the extra benefit of Ralph as an unofficial hitting coach. In September of ’69, as the Mets raced toward the pennant, right fielder Ron Swoboda asked Ralph for some help during batting practice.
“All of a sudden, what he said felt good,” Swoboda told Belson. That night, Steve Carlton of the Cardinals struck out a record 19 Mets. But he lost the game, 4-3 — on a pair of two-run homers by Swoboda. “We thought we had the best three announcers in baseball,” Swoboda added.
Always knowledgeable and insightful, Ralph sometimes got lost in a sea of hilarious misstatements. These eventually became as legendary as his hitting prowess. Who doesn’t chuckle at hearing “The Mets have only gotten their leadoff hitter on once this inning” or “Sutton lost thirteen games in a row without winning a ballgame”?
He once gave a detailed explanation of why pitchers could only throw a curveball or a screwball (the wrist can’t take the strain of throwing both.) To recap, Ralph said, “A pitcher throws either one pitch and not the other, or the other and not the one.”
He noted that a pitching matchup of Todd Stottlemyre and Jason Isringhausen “will go down in history as the game where the pitchers have the most initials.”
Upon seeing Jesse Jackson at the ballpark, Ralph observed that “Reverend Reggie Jackson is receiving a warm Shea Stadium welcome.”
Long-time Met Gary Carter became Gary Cooper, Vince Coleman became Gary Coleman, and Dann Bilardello became Dann Bordello.
Nor were his broadcast partners spared. Tim McCarver became Tim McArthur on his initial telecast. Gary Cohen became David Cone. He even introduced his own show as “Korner’s Kiner.”
After Ralph struggled through a promo for a cookbook compiled by Mets’ wives, McCarver cracked that he heard Ralph had submitted a recipe. “Yeah,” replied Ralph quickly, “scotch and soda.”
Late in the dreadful ’77 season, Roy Staiger earned a visit to “Kiner’s Korner” by amassing three singles in a single game, impressing the tiny crowd at Shea. Ralph observed, “When you got that third hit, I think about three people fell out of the stands”.
My personal favorite was the night Pirate catcher Milt May scored the go-ahead run, and Ralph called him “Mel Ott.”
First, Ralph had to confuse May with Ed Ott, the Pirates catcher two years earlier. Then, he had to confuse Ed Ott with the famous Giant, Mel Ott. All in a fraction of a second.
Mister Met? It’s got to be Ralph Kiner.