I had been around the Mets beginning in 1970. I had covered their home games in the '73 postseason. I had learned Koosman and Harrelson were approachable, good guys; that Tug was a joy, a guy who often behaved like his out pitch (a screwball); that Seaver and Rusty had to be primed a bit; that Cleon could be insightful; and that Grote, growling catcher Jerry Grote, could be ornery and quite difficult, particularly after a game.
But 5 o'clock had not arrived, and Grote's game face still was in a jar he kept by the door. I needed to get to know him. You can't easily cover a team if you don't have a relationship with the catcher. And on a team as well-armed as the Mets -- Seaver, Koosman, Matlack and McGraw -- conversations with the catcher were required.
So after pushing aside some misgivings, I approached the locker of No. 15 and said, "Jerry, got a moment?" And as pleasantly as Albert Belle with a thorn in his toe and a migraine, Grote responded: "For what?" He did not bother turning to determine who had interrupted his afternoon.
I thought quickly, "How can I defuse this approaching storm and maintain a modicum of self-respect?"
I said: "I'm doing a piece on Ralph Kiner, and I'd like your input."
There, I was certain Grote would be eating out of my hand in moments and that I would not have to count my fingers when he was finished. He turned, wearing an expression of torment. He pulled out his stool, sat, crossed his legs, folded his arms, and with an unhappy voice said, "Sure, what do you need?"
Months later, after the growling catcher and I had shared a few more civil conversations and a lunch at a hotel, I confessed to him that I never wrote a word he had said about Kiner, that I had used Kiner only as a topical icebreaker. I calculated that the mood of any player with Mets tenure would be soothed merely by the mention of Ralph Kiner. And Grote proved me right.
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Asking Mets players of that generation about Kiner was akin to asking about their mothers. They softened and willingly shared their thoughts and anecdotes. Kiner was a favored topic in the Mets clubhouse, in their dugout and on their charter flights. He was a favorite person as well. He became one my favorites, too.
Now Kiner is gone, dead Thursday of natural causes at age 91. What a loss! A monumental loss. If ever a planet was diminished by the passing of one wonderful soul, it was our sphere on Thursday. God, it hurt.
The radio and television programming Thursday was characterized by those speaking as "a celebration of a great man," and it was. I understand the concept; celebrate rather than mourn. But how difficult it was to see Ralph's passing as anything other than miserably sad. He had a good, long life. But I wanted it to be longer by 30 years, or at least by two months, so I could see him one more time and absorb one more anecdote about Frank Frisch or Hank Greenberg or Spahnie or Yogi.
When Casey Stengel died in 1975, Kiner replaced him as the game's premier storyteller. We who covered the Mets were privileged to have him in our midst. To say Ralph was a source was to call Sinatra a singer.
I spoke with three former colleagues -- Danny, Jack and Joe -- Thursday, and it helped me fight through sadness. Danny Castellano recalled how we would get to the hotel bar after a night game to experience another audience with Ralph, and how Ralph always reached quickly for the check.
Jack O'Connell noted that Kiner was the tiny figure in the background (lower left) in Norman Rockwell's famous "Bottom of the Sixth" illustration for a Saturday Evening Post cover in 1949. It had to be Ralph. Depicted were three umpires working a Brooklyn Dodgers-Pirates game at Ebbets Field, wondering about a rainout; Rockwell was nearly obligated to use Kiner. Ralph was the face of the franchise long before that term became prevalent, the primary muscle in the National League.
And Joe Gergen, my former co-worker at Newsday, called to say he had heard my breathless 13-minute radio response to the question, "What can you say about Ralph?"
"You had a lot of stories," said Gergen, who had written "Kiner's Korner" with Ralph. "I said, 'Ralph had a thousand times more.'" Perhaps 2,000.
Ralph could fill the thickest reporter's notebook at brunch with one fascinating tale after another. And he told them so well. Rarely did he stumble, as he did from time to time on the air. He knew them all and knew everything about them. God, we have lost a true treasure.
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Kiner could laugh at himself and even at his many Kinerisms. He once described a play in which Phillies outfielder Juan Samuel had deked baserunner Darryl Strawberry, the latter of whom went unmentioned in Kiner's account. Samuel was the clever outfielder as well as the foil on Kiner's words. "What a great job by Samuel, deking Samuel." Yes it was.
One of my November responsibilities each year was to go through all my notebooks to find the scores of phone numbers I had accumulated from February through October. Most of the numbers had no names next to them. Dumb, I know. The only means I had of identifying the numbers was to call them. So I did. I had two numbers -- 619 area code for both -- on one page. I knew it was San Diego. Tony Gwynn? Graig Nettles? I called. It turned out to be Palm Springs. Turned out to be Ralph.
After a few moments of laughter and pleasant conversation, he said: "Let me get this right. ... You called me because you didn't know my number?"
And before I could answer, Ralph provided his own self-deprecating footnote. "That sounds like something I'd say."
"Ralph," I said. "You did say it."
"Yeah, I guess I did."
* * * * *
I thought it was awful that the Pirates gave Kiner short shrift when they built PNC Park. Huge statues of Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and Honus Wagner were placed at corners directly outside the park. But nothing for the wonderful man who had led or tied for the lead in home runs in the NL for seven years, nothing for the game's foremost gentleman.
I called Kevin McClatchy, the Pirates owner at the time, and asked why. I found his reasoning to be flimsy.
A few years later, the Pirates saluted Kiner with a rather inconspicuous statue concealed near a stairway near the left-field foul pole. It was nothing more than two hands on a bat and a few words.
Ralph was present for the dedication. And when he thanked the Pirates, he mispronounced McClatchy's name. He probably didn't do it deliberately. But who can know for sure?