Friday, February 7, 2014

Ralph and Me

Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner passed away yesterday at the age of ninety-one. Yet another key link to my childhood is gone. In 1970 when I—a seven-year-old Bronx boy—bucked both my father's and the neighborhood tradition and became a devoted New York Met fan, rather than a Yankee fan, Ralph Kiner became an integral part of my life. In fact, announcers Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy, and Ralph Kiner were constants in my life that I wrongly presumed would endure forever.

These three men painted the baseball word picture so beautifully, without the game ever being about them. Ex-ballplayer Ralph Kiner, for one, made the game—the American pastime—extraordinarily large by bringing to life its storied past and the storied characters both on and off the field. I must have heard him recount a thousand times—but never tired of hearing it—how legendary baseball executive, Branch Rickey, cut Ralph's salary after he led the National League in both home runs and RBIs. Naturally, Ralph asked for and expected a raise for his Herculean exploits, but the Pittsburgh Pirates, for whom he plied his trade, finished dead last that year. Rickey uttered something along the lines of “We could have finished last without you,” and that was the end of that. I used to throw sidearm in my youth and recall Ralph talking about a sidearm relief pitcher from his era, Ewell Blackwell, who threw a “purpose pitch” at batters—the “purpose was to separate their head from their shoulders.” I didn’t do that while playing stickball. No matter where it was thrown, a tennis ball just lacked the “purpose.”

As Ralph’s myriad obits reveal, he was the genuine article, and that’s the greatest testament to a man. Even as a little kid, I sensed that Ralph Kiner was real—whom he appeared to be during the broadcasts. There was never any posturing on his part, or ham-fisted attempts to make himself the center of attention. Ralph Kiner was from a bygone era. Not too long ago, while listening to audio clips of Mets’ broadcasts from the early and mid-1970s—my all-time favorite time to be a fan—I was surprised how really good Ralph was a play-by-play man. I was young then with a non-cynical, youthful exuberance. I’d grown accustomed to him in the later years being more of a color man—an analyst and raconteur—but he was remarkably quick on his feet and well versed as an announcer.

Then, of course, there was Kiner’s Korner after each and every Mets’ home game. It was not to be missed. I even stay tuned and watched opposing teams’ players on the show after a Mets’ loss, which was always a tough pill to swallow. But it was worth watching because of Ralph. Sure, his malaprops were the stuff of legend. But what made them so amusing and entertaining, I think, was that Ralph was a very intelligent man. He just had a penchant for mangling the English language while on the air, and on occasion confused people’s names. He called Gary Carter “Gary Cooper”;  Tim McCarver, "Tim MacArthur"; and Hubie Brooks, “Mookie” throughout an entire Kiner’s Korner show. To Ralph, Fernando Valenzuela was always "Fernando Venezuela." On Father’s Day, he graciously wished all the fathers in the viewing audience a “Happy Birthday.”

In the early 1980s, the New York cable station SportsChannel was just getting underway, with Ralph working the games alongside Jiggs McDonald, a hockey announcer by trade. The duo had importuned viewers to send in baseball trivia questions, which McDonald would pose to Ralph. If he was stumped by the query, the questioner would receive two complimentary box seats to a Mets’ game. Well, I stumped Ralph Kiner with this question: “What unique distinction did Mets’ hitters not achieve during the 1972 season"—or some such thing? I recall being jelly-legged when I heard Jiggs posing my query to Ralph. He guessed that no Mets’ hitter surpassed the .300 mark that year, but the correct answer was that nobody on the team totaled more than 100 hits. It was an injury-plagued season—Yogi Berra’s first as manager upon taking over after Gil Hodges’ untimely death in spring training. So, yes, I stumped Ralph Kiner and won two tickets to a game. “Congratulations to Mr, Nick Negro,” Jiggs McDonald said on air, mispronouncing my name, which was par for the course. Virtually every schoolteacher did the same thing.

My SportsChannel spoils—two free tickets—were subsequently stolen, and I was sent a couple of handwritten passes instead. When my brother Tom and I arrived at the game, a police detective was sitting directly behind us. He asked us if we were from “SportsChannel.” We said yes and were asked to play it cool. He was hoping somebody would turn up with the stolen tickets for our seats. They didn’t. So why steal them?

Goodbye, Ralph Kiner, and thank you for so many years of incredibly good times, when baseball was still a game and civility and class meant something.

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