Friday, February 7, 2014
Remembering Ralph Kiner
By Jayson Stark
I never got to see the late, great Ralph Kiner swing a bat. But I was lucky enough to spend many summer evenings listening to him speak into a microphone.
And it was hard to think of a better way to pass a few hours than that, on many levels.
Ralph Kiner was a beautiful man. Try to find anyone who ever met him who didn't love him, or love being around him. Anyone.
He had a story for every occasion. He saw the game on levels a lot of people didn't. And he had one of life's special gifts -- the ability to laugh at himself.
I'm especially grateful for that last gift because, as anyone who read my old Week in Review column in the Philadelphia Inquirer could tell you, I somehow became America's foremost collector of Ralph Kiner malapropism classics.
It became, after awhile, a weekly feature of that column, because, let's just say, there was never a shortage of those pearls to choose from.
Collecting them was a labor of love, and it didn't require much labor. I heard many of them myself. And Kiner fans sent them to me by the hundreds.
They were true treasures of American broadcasting. And the reason I felt free to relay them to the world was simple:
Ralph didn't mind.
Not one bit.
His good friend and old Mets broadcast partner Tim McCarver used to assure me of that on a regular basis. At one point, I got a phone call, out of the blue, from Danny Peary, an author who was writing a book with Ralph Kiner.
Peary's question (of course): What were my favorite Kinerisms?
After I relayed a few, I couldn't help but ask: "If you're writing a book with Ralph, why'd you call me?"
"Ralph told me to call you," he said, "because you have the best collection of these of anyone."
Ralph Kiner, pictured here interviewing Neil Allen, joined the Mets as a broadcaster in 1962.
So before I start reminiscing about some of the greatest Ralph Kiner gems of all time, I needed to make that clear.
Ralph Kiner understood those Kinerisms were part of his legend. And he was totally cool with that.
It was part of his unique charm. As my friend Chris Isidore observed in an email Thursday, after learning that Kiner had died at age 91, "It'd be nice if every announcer could be Vin Scully, spinning prose poetry in describing both the great and the mundane moments on the field. But failing that, we're best off with the Ralph Kiners and Phil Rizzutos of the world, former athletes with a knowledge of the game along with a trove of amusing anecdotes and a propensity for malaprops that made the hours of dead time during the game funny and enjoyable."
Exactly. There were many reasons to watch a Mets game with Ralph Kiner in the booth. But even Ralph himself knew what one of them was: There was a chance you were going to hear the English language used in ways never heard before.
So on that note, presented with total love and affection for a great man, here they come, some of my favorite Ralph Kinerisms:
The Name Game
Not only could Ralph mispronounce the names of players everywhere, he even got his own name wrong. Ask any earwitness who heard him call himself "Ralph Korner" or "Ron Kiner." But there were many more where they came from.
Dan Driessen came out "Diane Driessen." Gary Carter came out "Gary Cooper." Vince Coleman was "Gary Coleman." Dave Kingman was "Ed Kranepool." Milt May was "Mel Ott." And Ralph once called Dann Bilardello "Dann Bordello." Needless to say, I'm not touching that line.
One of my favorite Kiner/McCarver moments ever came after Ralph even referred to his pal McCarver as "Tim MacArthur" during a game. Whereupon, as they were heading for a commercial, McCarver deadpanned: "And like MacArthur, we shall return." Awesome.
Ralph the historian once said of Cincinnati's old Riverfront Stadium: "Baseball began right here in this very stadium, back in 1869."
Ralph the geographer once reported that veteran pitcher Keith Comstock was so well-traveled, "he's even been released by four different countries."
Ralph the calendar chronicler once told us that "Darryl Strawberry was voted player of the month for June 4 to June 10" and that David Cone could be "the pitcher of the year for the month of July."
And Ralph the college football fan once said that the Mets' hot-hitting Dave Magadan "does not have enough at-bats to qualify for the Big 10." Which was Northwestern's problem for years, right?
Ralph the sabermetrician revealed that all of switch-hitting Howard Johnson's early-season homers had "come left-handed as a left-handed batter," and that "all of Rick Aguilera's saves have come in relief appearances."
And, as thousands of you seemed to recall in the last 24 hours, Ralph the human greeting card marked his favorite holiday by telling all the dads out there: "And on this Father's Day, we again wish you all a happy birthday." Heck, why wouldn't we?
A bunch of people heard Ralph the weatherman try to explain one night why it's so hard to hit in cold weather. His premise was that cold could affect the distance a ball traveled by 25 feet:
"On a cold night," he said, "you have to hit the ball 25 feet farther. So, in other words, if the fence is 338 feet [away] and you hit the ball 338 feet, you'll be 25 feet short."
Which was, undoubtedly, news to the fence.
Great moments in music
I could go on like this for hours. But let's finish this tribute with one of Ralph's all-time all-timers, which was heard and relayed to me by more people than any Kinerism in history. And was recalled by many of you since you heard the news of Kiner's passing.
It emerged from the late innings of a 1993 spring training game between the Mets and Yankees. Ralph apparently left the booth between innings, only to discover upon his return that the Yankees had made some defensive changes. Only one trouble with that: He was on the air live and hadn't quite had a chance to note them all.
But he plowed in there anyway.
"I see the Yankees have made some changes in the outfield," he said. "They've put Bernie Williams in left field. And now playing center field is ... "
Hmmm. Good question. Who was playing center? Fortunately, he thought, the scoreboard had the answer.
Unfortunately, what he discovered up there wasn't the defensive changes. It was the results of fan balloting to decide which song would get played on the PA system before the next inning.
And the winner was ... Uh-oh.
"And in center field," Ralph said, finally, "that's John Fogerty."
Now none of us were in that booth, or the production truck, when that bulletin reverberated over the air waves. But there's a really, really good chance the next sound Ralph Kiner heard was: "Nooooo. That's Gerald Williams in center."
"Sorry," Ralph said. "Correction. That's Gerald Williams in center field -- and John Fogerty in right."
True story. No truth to the rumor that the song they wound up playing the next inning was "Help." But it would have been a great idea, because all of us who remember that gem could use some help -- to help us quit laughing nonstop. For the last 20 years.
That was Ralph Kiner. Still making us smile, even after he's gone. And we'll never forget him for it.