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Friday, February 14, 2014

Remembering the great Ralph Kiner

I was born a Mets fan.

At least, I think I was.

I mean, the Mets were born right after me. We entered the world almost together. I entered the world in 1961, the Mets a year later.

I don't remember consciously making a choice to be a Mets fan. My first baseball game came in 1965, when my father took me to see Sandy Koufax pitch against the Mets. My father was a baseball historian to the utmost degree. He taught me about all the legends, about Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio and his all-time favorite Ted Williams.

So when my father took me to see Sandy Koufax pitch against the Mets, he kept reminding me how great Koufax was and that I should always remember how great he was. Only one problem. On that day in August, 1965, the Mets beat Sandy Koufax. So I was hooked.

But I truly think my love for the Mets started before that day in 1965. It was an inane gift, something always in me.

So with that in mind, my childhood always centered around the Mets. I remember sprinting out of third grade to go home to watch the Miracle Mets in the 1969 World Series. I remember sneaking a transistor radio into seventh grade to listen to the 1973 World Series.

My early childhood was filled with days of Seaver and Koosman and Harrelson and Agee and Grote and Shamsky and Swoboda and Cleon Jones. They were my life back then. I lived and breathed the Mets. Those were my heroes. I don't know if anything else ever existed back then.

And those days were also filled with Lindsey Nelson, Bob Murphy and Ralph Kiner.

They painted the picture of the ballpark when they were on the radio, doing the games for WHN. They made the grass greener and the lights brighter. That trio also did the games on WOR Channel 9, although back then, not every game was televised.

When a game was on, I was glued to the set, hanging on every single pitch.

And those games were produced to me by Nelson, Murphy and Kiner.

Ralph Kiner had even a bigger role. He was the host of the post-game show, the popular Kiner's Korner. If the Mets won, you wanted to hear your heroes talk. This was long before every word was recorded on video like it is now.

The only way we would get to hear Seaver or Koosman would be after a Met win with Ralph. They would sit with their warm-up jacket on, a towel around their necks and a cup of Rheingold, the extra dry beer.

So in that way, Ralph Kiner was a huge part of my upbringing. My Dad was dead and gone in 1971, but Ralph continued to bring me Met games and Kiner's Korner every year.

I remember Kiner's Korner when Benny Ayala was a hero rookie, hitting a homer in his first major league at-bat. Benny was a guest on Kiner's Korner, but there was a problem, because Benny couldn't speak English, so Felix Millan was on as well as an interpreter.

Another time, Roy Staiger was on, after his three-run homer gave the Mets a win, but since Seaver was on, Staiger never got a chance to talk except for the pitch he hit for the homer. "It was a curveball, Ralph."

I religiously watched Kiner's Korner, even all those times when the Mets lost (and there were plenty of those nights) and the guest was someone on the opposing team.

After many years, after I was a sportswriter, I used to take "my annual baseball sojourn," to Chicago and then Milwaukee to see the Mets play six games. I made that trip for about seven straight years. It was a blast to go back to where I went to school and see the Mets play.

In 2000, the Mets were supposed to play the Brewers, but there were thunderstorms all day. I stayed in the same hotel, the Hyatt Regency Milwaukee, with the Mets.

I thought it would be a nice thing for my two-year-old nephew to get him a baseball signed by the two greatest Mets, namely Tom Seaver and Mike Piazza, considering they were staying in the same hotel with me.

So I went to a sporting goods store, bought a baseball, and approached Seaver with a pen and the ball.

"Would you sign the ball for my nephew?" I asked.

Seaver went bananas.

"I'm not signing that shit. That's what they have card shows and autograph shows for. I'm not signing. And don't you guys sign it either."

Seaver was sitting in the lobby with Kiner and Al Leiter.

I was devastated. I took the ball and went to the hotel bar.

Soon after, Kiner walked into the bar. He ordered a bratwurst and a beer. He looked over at me sitting there.

"He can be like that sometimes," Kiner said about Seaver.

Kiner then asked me to slide over and sit with him. We spent about an hour talking about baseball, Milwaukee, Hank Aaron and Joe Adcock, about good meals, anything and everything, as the rain continued to pour down. There wasn't going to be a game that day, so we sat and had beers and brats at the hotel bar.

We were later joined by Met players Todd Zeile and Mike Hampton.

It really was a wonderful afternoon, thanks to the friendly gesture of Ralph Kiner.

About three years ago, I was at a Met game and as I came down to the front entrance, Ralph Kiner was sitting there in a wheelchair, waiting to be escorted home.

I approached Kiner and said, "Mr. Kiner, I don't know if you remember me, but..."

"Milwaukee, the hotel bar," he said in amazement. "How could I forget someone your size?"

He had a good point.

I asked if he wouldn't mind posing for a picture with me. His handler obliged. The picture was taken. I have that picture to treasure forever.

Ralph Kiner died last week at the age of 91. He lived a fruitful life, announcing games right until his final year on the planet.

He was such a huge part of my childhood, my adolescence, my adulthood. Ralph Kiner helped to carry me through those years _ and then became an absolute joy in one chance encounter, right after my childhood hero treated me like a piece of trash.

I will treasure those memories, those childhood days of Kiner's Korner, the day that I met him and the day I saw him again.

Through all his malaprops, like calling Gary Carter "Gary Cooper," and failing to say Candy Maldonado after three tries, or saying that the Dodger pitcher was born in Valenzuela, he was still Ralph and we loved him.

Ralph Kiner was a part of the Mets since they were born, since I was born. Now, another piece of my childhood is gone, like my father, like my mother. I'll remember them all fondly.

Derek Jeter announced that he will retire at the end of this season and he will get the same farewell tour that Mariano Rivera had last year.

And the Yankee captain deserves it. Over the last two decades, no one handled being a superstar better than Jeter. He understood his importance from the beginning and was the ultimate role model for young kids. In an era where our children need positive role models, you needed to look no further than Jeter.

Who knows how many games he will be able to play this year after missing most of the last 17 months with bad ankles? Instead of bemoaning the fact that Jeter announced his retirement before the season, we should applaud him and treasure him, because players, people like Derek Jeter don't come around often.


As for my health, I'm coming along, slowly but surely. I've been announcing games at Rutgers-Newark and NJIT and covering some indoor track meets. I'm still hobbled, relying on a cane and sometimes a walker, but I'm getting better. I'm still going to physical therapy three times a week, working hard, like I learned at Kessler Institute, to get better, to walk freely again without any assistance.

I'm not there yet. In fact, I'm not close. My doctors said that it would take months and guess what, it's taking months, but I am getting better.

Like they say, it's one day at a time. Today, regardless of the piles of snow outside, it's a good day. I love the good days. The doctors say that there will be some bad days _ and I have those _ but lately, the good ones outweigh the bad. And that's a good sign.

Thanks for the love and concern.


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