Pitchers and catchers haven’t even reported for spring training yet, and the New York Mets already have one loss.
Ralph Kiner, 91, died on Thursday after an almost unbelievably full and fascinating life. In fact, when Kiner penned his memoirs in the early 2000s, he titled the book, “A Baseball Life.”
Kiner was one of the great power hitters of all time for the short amount of time in the 1940s and 1950s that he was actually able to play before a back injury forced him to retire young. He’s in the Hall of Fame for his bat, but his 52-year career as a Mets announcer is what most Mets fans of just about any age will always associate him with.
Ralph Kiner was a classic. He didn’t have a classic voice or a classic delivery as an announcer, and his ability to mispronounce names and deliver malapropisms was legendary. Viewers would always hold their breath in anticipation of how he would pronounce the name of Expos pitcher Dan Schatzeder, because it was never the same pronunciation twice. And, once, on a hot summer afternoon in Busch Stadium, Ralph told viewers, “It’s the antithesis of a summer day here in St. Louis. Or, should I say, it’s the tith-esis of a summer day.”
But Kiner more than made up for it with his dry wit, remarkable storytelling ability and unmatched knowledge of baseball—which, right up until his final day last September in the Citi Field broadcast booth that bears his name, he was never bashful about expressing in direct, opinionated terms. He railed against one-run strategies and power hitters bunting or trying to hit the other way to advance the runner. He loathed the hitting theories popularized by Charlie Lau in the 1970s and 1980s, and told you so in no uncertain terms.
Kiner, Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy were the original three in the Mets’ broadcasting booth from 1962 through 1978, when Nelson left to join the San Francisco Giants’ booth. Three years later, Murphy was moved into the radio booth full-time, and Kiner just never sounded comfortable trying to mesh with out-of-place Mets broadcasters like Steve Albert and Lorn Brown in the early ‘80s.
But then, in 1983, Tim McCarver’s arrival in the Mets’ booth brought out the very best in Kiner as a broadcaster, freeing him to talk baseball with a fellow former player who was Ralph’s intellectual equal when it came to a baseball I.Q. Kiner and McCarver joined forces just before the Mets’ glorious mid-80s revival on the field. And, when he made his periodic appearances in the booth with Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling in recent years, even though his speech was slowed, Kiner’s observations and recollections were still sharp as a tack.
It was always interesting to hear Kiner express an opinion that clashed with conventional wisdom, such as the way he would detail his clashes with the much-celebrated Branch Rickey after Rickey left the Dodgers to run the Pirates while Kiner was a player in Pittsburgh: “I always say about Branch Rickey, he had the money, and he had the players, and he never let the two get together.”
But what was perhaps Kiner’s greatest legacy ever was his WOR-TV Channel 9 post-game show “Kiner’s Korner” after Mets home games. Opening with an old German military instrumental, the show was classic kitsch before the days of sophisticated highlight-show packages by the likes of ESPN. When the Mets and Cardinals went 25 innings in September of 1974, Kiner was there, in the studio, waiting for more than five hours to do the post-game show that finally went on the air at around 3:30 a.m.
One time, he had Lee Mazzilli on the show in the late ‘70s at a time when Met appearances on the show were pretty rare (Kiner would have two members of the winning team—even if the Mets lost—on every show). As he was showing highlights from the game, a clip of Mazzilli delivering an RBI single through a drawn-in infield was shown.
Kiner said, “And, as they say, when you bring the infield in, you turn a .200 hitter into a .300 hitter.”
Mazzilli, in a tone that was something less than facetious, said, “Oh, so I’m a .200 hitter now?”
Anyone who ever listened to Kiner’s recollections from his career would know that the toughest pitcher he ever faced was Reds’ sidearmer Ewell Blackwell, that the player for whom he had the greatest regard was Detroit Tigers’ legend Hank Greenberg, and that he never ran out of great stories and trenchant observations until yesterday, when, at 91, he finally ran out of time.