Tuesday, April 01, 2014

Goodbye, Kiner's Korner by Brian Cogan

Ralph Kiner lived a good, long life. He came, seemingly out of nowhere, to become one of the great
sluggers of his era. He had to be shut down after ten years in baseball due to a bad back. Today, they would probably build him his own mobile whirlpool to drive back and forth to the stadium. There would be special trainers and a masseuse and even a towel boy (same uniform as a bat boy) whose one job would be to run over with a towel as Kiner got out of his “whirlpool on wheels” to make sure that he was relatively dry by the time he stepped to the plate. Heck, any team today would very likely buy a separate private plane for someone who could consistently hit home runs with a ratio of 7.1 home runs per 100 at bats. In that ten-year span, Kiner averaged over 100 RBIs per season, while leading he National league in slugging parentage in three of his ten years in baseball.

When a lot of hitters’ careers are over, that’s it. (Had their also been a DH back then, perhaps Kiner would have hung on for a few more years and might have hit over 500, or even 600 home runs.) They had their time in baseball. It was fun, they met some pretty girls, had some great poker games on the road, then retired to some sleepy town to open a bar and tell the same stories over and over again. Then there was Ralph Kiner. Instead of opting for the easy life of local celebrity, Ralph Kiner decided that he would rather tell old war stories on the new medium of television, and so instead of opening “Kiner’s Korner,” the finest suds place in Alhambra, California (where he was raised), Kiner joined the New York Mets.

The Mets were a colorful team cast of cast-offs, has-beens and players well past their expiration date, and if you really want to experience the ‘62 Mets in retrospect, go and read Jimmy Breslin’s Can’t Anyone Here Play this Game?, which nicely evokes the fans overall sense of bemusement at the new team’s futility. Maybe it was because of manager Casey Stengel’s indefatigable chuckle in the face of yet another game ending strikeout, or even the overall goofiness of some of the early players sheer inability to even come close to playing actual baseball, but deep down, I think that many Mets fans, and many baseball fans in general, give credit where credit is due. The Mets have consistently had the best announcers in baseball, from the original trio of Kiner, Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy, up to today’s troika of goofiness, Keith and Ron and Gary. Mets announcers have been light years ahead of most other teams. And for all of that time, up until last season, for over fifty years, Ralph Kiner was a part of it. Even when Bell’s Palsy made him slur his words and made his announcing sound as
tanked as (supposedly) he and fellow announcers Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy got after every
game, Kiner never gave up and just before he died, the one thing he had discussed with his
family, was the possibility of doing even more games the next season.

Enough has been written about Kiner’s malapropos, once even calling himself “Ralph Korner” during a game, and you can read the standard obituaries for that, but I’d like to mention one thing that most people left out of their fond remembrances of Kiner. Don’t get me wrong, those of us of a certain age loved Kiner’s Korner almost as much as the actual ballgame. What other team would allow the other teams stars to be interviewed after a Mets game? While that was certainly one of his legacies, to me, it was how much I associated him with baseball and with the Mets. That for over five decades and to millions of people, he was the face and voice of the Mets. Nelson left the Mets in 1978 to announce for the Giants for the next three years Murphy moved over to be exclusively on radio in 1982 and that left Kiner as the last of the three on television. He was paired with a who’s who of announcers afterwards, including Tim McCarver, before he started to ease up his workload and let the kids take over, first Keith in 2002 and then Gary and Ron 2006.

Kiner never “retired” per se. He was just phased out gradually. I’m not sure if it is my general paranoia about the bone-headed moves of various Mets owners and tone deaf inconsistency that makes me think that Ralph was a little “old fashioned” for a new game where Sabermetrics demanded that every time a new hitter approached the batter’s box, an array of statistics must be thrown at the audience (“Brooks is batting .327 against left handed hitters during Thursday games in April!”) as if manna to the fans, wandering starving in a desert of meaningless statistics. My theory is that the Mets management knew that Ralph would lovingly mangle those statistics just as he would mangle the players’ names. They thought they would graciously slide him into retirement, bringing him back a few times a year for old time’s sake. Maybe it was Kiner’s frustration with his speech problem that made him cut back. Either way, it wasn’t as jarring as it could have been. We loved Gary and Keith and Ron, but when Ralph was there, the booth had an entirely new dimension, it sounded both livelier, and more focused. I think, even towards the end, the three younger announcers were always a bit in awe of Kiner. Even Keith was usually on his best behavior when Kiner turned up to announce a game.

And now, Ralph Kiner has passed away. There are still players alive from the 1962 team, but as far as I can tell, (there may be an elderly groundskeeper I’m missing) this severs the last line to the 1962 team. It also severs a link to baseball in the 1940s, to players who served in World War II and accepted less money when the team wasn’t doing well. The passing of Ralph Kiner will be commemorated by the Mets. There will be a Kiner’s Korner in the stadium, as well as a patch for the players to wear this year. But Ralph is gone and with Ralph, one of the last links to a time when baseball really was the national game. I’m not naive enough to think that no one cared about salary in the old days. But hearing Kiner reminisce, even well into his eighties and nineties, the way he talked about baseball, the game itself, the hopelessly bloated monstrosity of today’s baseball game, just seemed like so much fun. If you are reading Zisk, you are probably a baseball junkie, hopelessly hooked on a team (you have yours, I have the Mets) who’s owners seem hell bent on squeezing every little bit of fun and spontaneity out of a wonderful game. When I heard Ralph Kiner’s voice, I knew that no matter how the Mets did, I was going to enjoy the broadcast. I obviously never heard Ralph when I was at the stadium, cursing the Mets and wondering if I had enough spare change to somehow get nine dollars together for a beer, or maybe a pretzel and a half in a stadium seemingly designed by someone who had never set foot in a major league stadium before. And then I could say to myself, if you were watching this at home, you would be having fun not because it was cheaper, but because Ralph is calling the game. And sitting there, in the cheap seats, at least I knew that Ralph was there, in the booth that I couldn’t see from my cheap seats, probably mispronouncing a player’s name, and then I realized, it’s enough to know that Ralph was present.

Here’s a real fact about baseball fans, the teams don’t make the sport fun, we as fans, make things fun ourselves. The teams don’t own the team, we do. If that’s the fiction I needed to get me through the game again, then Ralph provided that for a long time. We will still have fun at a game, but when I look over at Kiner’s Korner, I’ll realize that a huge part of what made the game fun for me is gone.

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