Friday, February 07, 2014

Ralph Kiner leaves behind great memories as ballplayer and Mets broadcaster

His voice and stories and even his malapropos became the baseball soundtrack for one generation of Mets fans after another. There are all these Mets fans of a certain age who had Kiner's gravelly voice in their baseball summers for their entire lives.

By Mike Lupica
February 6, 2014

AUG. 14, 1982 FILE PHOTO


Ralph Kiner (r.) shares a moment with Willie Mays (l.) during Old Timers Day at Shea Stadium in 1982.

So Ralph Kiner, a home run hitter and a broadcaster and one of the best storytellers and characters baseball will ever know, does not make it to one more Mets season, after being around for all of them. And you need to know something today, now that we find out that Kiner is gone at the age of 91: He not only planned to come back, he wanted to do more games this season than last.

He was there at the beginning of the Mets with Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson in 1962. Then Lindsey moved on to the Giants at the end of the 1970s. Murph retired after the 2003 season and died a year later. But Ralph Kiner was still there in the television booth, even doing only a handful of games at the end, acting as this wonderful elder of the game, still enjoying every day and night at the ballpark the way he always had.

“He always wanted to work more,” Curt Gowdy, the executive producer at SNY, said Thursday night.

The last time I saw him was in a wheelchair in the lobby of Citi Field before the All-Star Game last summer. Even if they had to help him into the place that night, he wasn’t going to miss a baseball night like this in New York, one hosted by the Mets, his baseball family for more than 50 years.

He played on such bad teams in Pittsburgh, but tied or led the big leagues in home runs six straight times, led the National League seven straight times, ended his Hall of Fame career with 369 home runs in 10 years before retiring at 32 because of a bad back.

“Who would’ve thought,” he said to me one night at old Shea Stadium, “that my career as a broadcaster would have lasted five times as long as my career as a ballplayer? Nobody’s had it better than me.”

His voice and stories and even his malaprops became the baseball soundtrack for one generation of Mets fans after another. There are all these Mets fans of a certain age who had Kiner’s gravelly voice in their baseball summers for their entire lives. He moved over to the television booth and then he was with Tim McCarver in the 1980s when the Mets were back on top of the baseball world for the first time since 1969, and he had the biggest audience of his life, because in those days nobody wanted to miss a game.

You would walk into their booth at the end of the press box, and Kiner would have a cigar going and McCarver would have a cigar going and what you remember most about those days and nights is the smoke and laughter. You remember the look on McCarver’s face when Ralph would start telling one about Hollywood in the ’50s, or what it was like when the baseball world first took notice of him, when he hit 51 home runs for the Pirates in 1947.

“People know Ralph for the character he’s become with the Mets,” McCarver told me once. “But go look at the man’s career. Look at all the home runs he hit from last place. You almost feel as if it’s your duty to remind people how great a hitter he really was.”

Kiner wanted to talk about baseball with you, or golf. Even at the end, when he couldn’t really get around well anymore, they would see him at Greenwich Country Club chipping balls. And then he would be in the locker room afterward, and there would be a crowd of people around him, and he would be telling another story about the old days. And if you spent enough time around him, and I did, it was hard to think of a time when he repeated himself very much.
“On top of everything else,” McCarver says, “he was one of the great — and I mean great — after-dinner speakers of all time.”

He once met the actress Jamie Lee Curtis at the ballpark. Ralph, in his courtly way, told Jamie Lee that there had been a time when he was a younger man when he’d dated her mother, the actress Janet Leigh.

At which point, according to Ralph, Jamie Lee leaped into his arms and yelled, “Daddy, I’ve finally found you!”

There was the time in his broadcasting career, of course, when he fought through the after-effects of Bell’s palsy, which made him slur his words, made it difficult to understand him sometimes. Maybe another broadcaster would have sat it all out. Or maybe, if it had been someone else, someone without the history and bond Kiner had with Mets fans, the whole thing would have turned him into some kind of sad, old man.

But it was never like that. He was Ralph Kiner, he was Kiner’s Korner. And just the fact that he was still here, that his voice was still a part of the baseball summer, seemed to be enough. It was as if we all got through it with him together.
He was there when Tom Seaver was young and Willie Mays was old and when you had to believe. He was there when Doc Gooden was striking out the world and the K Corner became even more famous than Kiner’s Korner had been once. He was still around when the kid, Matt Harvey, started that All-Star Game at Citi Field last July.

“Isn’t it great,” Kiner said in the lobby that night, “to be young in this game?”

There have been other long runs in baseball. But tell me a more wonderful one than this, from those first shots over the wall at Forbes Field in 1946 to this gentleman of baseball still showing up for Mets games on television when the man was past 90. All those summers from Ralph Kiner. All those summers with him as such splendid company. Finally, after all this time, after more than a half-century of Mets baseball, comes one without him. And without his voice.

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