The death of baseball Hall of Famer Ralph Kiner Thursday at the age of 91 saddened me and made me think.
I've been a part of sports media in one form or another for nearly 20 years now, but long before that, I was a fan. I could write about Kiner's passing as a journalist and cite chapter and verse about his playing career and his half-century in the broadcast booth, but I'd rather just recall Kiner in the role of a lifelong New York Mets fan.
I started following baseball in 1972 at the age of five. That means Ralph Kiner has been a part of my springs and summers for more than 40 years. He was with the Mets for more than 50.
The original Mets broadcast team of Kiner, Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson were together for nearly 20 seasons doing both television and radio, often during the same contest. Turning on a game on WOR-TV, channel nine or listening to WMCA, WHN or later WFAN radio, I knew Kiner would come into my home or car and talk about the Mets and the great sport of baseball.
Kiner played the game, so he didn't just know the history of baseball, he lived it. One of Ralph's greatest strengths as a broadcaster was making the history of the sport come alive. For example, the Brooklyn Dodgers teams that my dad rooted for became much more real when Kiner shared stories about the guys he played with and against or talked about great ballparks that were long gone.
Kiner wouldn't just talk about what happened on the field; he'd put you in the dugout, the clubhouse or in the stands at Forbes Field, Ebbets Field or any other classic ballpark.
The most famous Ralph Kiner story from his playing days involved a contract dispute he had with Branch Rickey while Kiner was playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Kiner led the National League in home runs for the seventh straight season in 1952, but Rickey decided to cut his salary. When Kiner protested, Rickey reminded the slugger that the team had finished in last place. "We can finish last without you," Rickey said.
In that brief story, Kiner told us what contract negotiations were like in the days before free agency and gave us rich details about the general manager who signed Jackie Robinson as the first African-American player in Major League Baseball.
Kiner was a celebrity during his playing days. He famously dated many movie stars, including Elizabeth Taylor. He could just as easily share great stories about classic Hollywood as he did about baseball.
Kiner was also there from the beginning of Mets history. He told great stories about the original 1962 Mets team that lost 120 games, but did it with enough color and flair that they captured the hearts of New York baseball fans still longing for a National League team to replace the departed Dodgers and Giants.
My favorite story involved an interview Kiner did with catcher "Choo-Choo" Coleman. Kiner asked the player, "What is your wife's name and what's she like?" Coleman famously replied, "Her name is Mrs. Coleman and she likes me, bub."
Kiner also helped keep the legend of Casey Stengel alive and often told yarns about interviews Stengel gave to the press or his famous testimony before a Congressional committee that essentially made no sense at all.
After a televised game was over, Kiner hosted the postgame show known as "Kiner's Korner." The show was on for more than two decades. The best player of the game would join Ralph and break down highlights of the contest. No Mets' broadcast was complete without it.
Kiner was also famous for making mistakes during his broadcasts. He often referred to "Hubie Wilson" or "Mookie Brooks" in the early '80s, combining the names of the Mets third baseman and center fielder. He also once asked viewers to stay tuned for "Korner's Kiner." But these errors kept fans on their toes and we were laughing with Kiner, not at him. It just made the game even more entertaining.
Kiner was there in 1969 when the Mets shocked the world and won their first World Series. He was there in 1973 when the Mets pushed the Oakland A's to seven games in the Fall Classic despite winning only 82 games during the regular season. Kiner was also on the scene in 1986 when a brash Mets team overpowered all comers to win a second championship.
But Kiner wasn't just about stars like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, Cleon Jones, Doc Gooden and Gary Carter.
He could also tell great stories about guys like Ron Hunt, Joe Christopher, Bruce Boisclair, Doug Flynn or George Theodore or recall when the Mets had two relief pitchers named Bob Miller, one a lefty and one a righty. His love for the game, the team and his ability to recall specific games, players or umpires in vivid detail made us love baseball even more.
In later years, Kiner was slowed by health issues and only called a handful of games each year. Still, his memory was sharp and he provided fans with a treat when he told his stories even if he was a bit tougher to understand.
So Thursday, Ralph Kiner passed away at the age of 91 and with it, another piece of my childhood is gone. The 2014 Mets season will be strange without hearing Kiner's voice. He is gone but far from forgotten.
Somewhere, in baseball heaven, Nelson, Murphy and Kiner have now been reunited. Lindsey is blinding fans with his loud sport jackets, Murph is getting set to do a happy recap on the radio and Ralph is about to interview his next guest on "Kiner's Korner." After the game, they'll all go out and enjoy a drink or two. What a great place that must be.