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Ralph & Chuck

Despite some ornery caretakers [1], Shea Stadium is the ultimate old friend to a Mets fan. Every year you go a minimum of six months without having seen him, yet the second you lay eyes on him, it’s like you never spent a winter’s second apart.

There are others in your life who are like that. You value your new pals, such as Jorge Sosa and Ruben Gotay [2] — each of whom came through for us in big and not altogether unfamiliar ways against the Diamondbacks Saturday — but you’re really taken aback by the way you’re not at all taken aback when you see your truly special someones for the first time in what seems like ages. There’s no jolt when you come upon them. You just expect they’ll be there. They always have been.

Saturday afternoon, I turned on SNY in the fifth and there was Ralph Kiner greeting me as he’s been greeting me intermittently these last few seasons, making himself a part of a Mets game the way he has every single Mets season there’s been. He’s been a part of the Mets longer than Mr. Met. Longer than Shea. Longer than anything or anybody. Ralph’s role has been severely reduced since those halcyon days when he was establishing himself as one-third of baseball’s longest-talking announcing trio. Lindsey, Ralph and Bob [3], in whatever order you list them, voiced the Mets between 1962 and 1978. Lindsey left first. Bob stayed until he really couldn’t anymore. Ralph was on the air Saturday.

There’s nothing much new [4] to say about Ralph Kiner. There doesn’t need to be. He slides into the booth that bears his name [5] now and then, sits next to Gary Cohen, graciously addresses game situations, speaks to evergreen issues of hitting and, after a couple of innings, takes his leave. Ralph pops by irregularly. I’ve only caught him two or three times in 2007, but every time I do, it’s warm, it’s comforting and it’s the best kind of familiar no matter how little we see of him compared to how often we used to. You should be able to watch at least a few Mets games with Ralph Kiner forever [6].

Of course my relationship with Ralph takes place through the TV (though we did pass one another once at Al Lang Field). That’s it’s televised doesn’t make it any less real to me, because that’s where most of my baseball lies…but it’s still TV.

It’s different when it’s somebody you actually know. Subtract out those I’m related to by marriage and maybe blood, and there’s nobody I know better than Chuck [7]. He’s the best friend I’ve ever had who’s not my wife or a cat. We’ve known each other since 1984, which to my mind doesn’t sound so long ago except when I pause to do the math and calculate that it’s been 23 years, which is more than half of my life suddenly.

Chuck moved from New York to Florida in 2002 for reasons best described by him. “I won’t bore you with the details,” is his recurring catchphrase of late. Chuck isn’t a blogger, so he doesn’t understand that without details, I’m sunk, but out of respect for his veil of secrecy, I’ll just let it be known that I hadn’t seen him in five years until a week ago. He calls last Sunday, tells me he’s at LaGuardia with a layover of seven hours ticking slowly away and maybe I could meet him there and we could find a place to watch the game.

I won’t bore you with the details, but I trudged across every secondary road in western Nassau and eastern Queens (Chuck forgot about my allergy to highways) until I crept my way into the parking lot closest to Shea and trotted into the arrivals area of the fairly desolate Delta terminal where I found him sitting and reading.

This was the first time we’d seen each other face-to-face in five years — Bobby Valentine was still the manager then — and you know what it was like reuniting after all this time?

It was like nothing. It was like I’d stepped out for a smoke, except I don’t smoke. It was like he and I weren’t living 1,027 miles apart for this past half-decade. There was no “ohmigod!,” no “you’ve changed so much/you haven’t changed a bit,” no manful hugging, nothing more than a mindless handshake to indicate there was anything unusual about Chuck and I being in the same place at the same time.

His first words to me in person in five years were:

“Do you know where we can go to watch the game? This terminal is pretty beat.”

Indeed it was. Security was set up to prevent anyone without a boarding pass from getting to wherever Delta keeps its televisions. After caucusing briefly on the possibilities, we settled on the main terminal, accessible by free bus. There we could sit at the mostly unoccupied bar, eat overpriced airport food and watch baseball.

And that’s what we did for the balance of the afternoon. Four TVs showed the Mets. Four showed the Yankees. This was heaven for Chuck in that he never bothered to hook up his TV at home for anything but DVD-viewing on the probably wise assumption that if he had cable, he’d have mostly Devil Rays games to watch. We saw the Mets sweep the Marlins — Joe Smith, Aaron Heilman and Billy Wagner squelching every potential disaster. We saw the Angels sweep the Yankees — Frankie Rodriguez inducing Captain Intangibles to fly out to left when it really counted. We watched the YES postgame show because Channel 11 didn’t have one and delighted first in the crawl that reported the Braves had been swept by the Phillies and then in the funereal montage of mournfulness from across the Triborough. The bar had the sound down on all its sets but we didn’t need a lip-reader to gauge the awesome sadness and thrilling disgust that had infiltrated the Bronx.

Overlooking the technicality that Chuck and I rarely hung out in bars either in college where we met or during the 13 years he and I lived concurrently in New York, this one-day gift of proximity felt intensely familiar. We talk by phone at least once a week, mostly about the Mets. I get the sense that Chuck dives right into baseball when he calls so he doesn’t have to bore me with the details of anything else, but what the hell? I like talking about the Mets. To do so with my best friend while actually watching the Mets together (as opposed to me providing impromptu and inadequate play-by-play long-distance)…I have to say I was in heaven, too.

The various sweeps were of no small consequence in that respect. I’m 100% certain Chuck would say the same thing.

When it came time to start thinking about planes, we parted ways by knocking fists the way two of the less demonstrative 2007 Mets might after a base hit. We used to low-five, but that’s so ’80s. Even though we’re 1,027 miles apart again, there was very little out of the ordinary about our surprise rendezvous to indicate that we wouldn’t be getting together on another Sunday soon, this Sunday even, to watch eight screens’ worth of baseball. Last Sunday, it was what we did, as if it were what we always do. Kind of like seeing Ralph Kiner on TV.