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Jason Fry and Greg Prince
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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The Summer Wind

Baseball comes down to rituals, too many to count, too wonderful to bother. Some recur in some form annually. Others 162 times a year and then some. Once in a while they collide.

Saturday night, one of my favorite rituals of baseball, one of the bonus tracks on every season’s DVD, popped up on the menu. It was the honoring of someone grand, someone vaunted, someone who demands our attention.

It was Ralph Kiner Night. If it wasn’t long overdue, it was certainly due. Ralph is due whatever the Mets and we can think to give him, starting with our respect. We respect a Ralph Kiner, we respect the game we love.

I’ve lived for this sort of ceremony since I was a kid, since I asked that my annual trek to Shea Stadium be reserved for Old Timers Day. I was irked when the Mets dismissed the need for such affairs, highly gratified whenever they eventually succeeded them with something, anything that acknowledges they and we have a past that is responsible for creating their and our present.

Of course I was at Shea for Ralph Kiner Night.

Nobody could be more of that past-to-present Mets roadmap than Ralph Kiner. Nobody. Nobody was a face of the franchise in its first year and still shows his face in its current year. He was on the air for Hobie Landrith and he’s on the air — irregularly, but there — for Jose Reyes. He’s 1962 and 1969 and 1973 and 1986 and 1999 and today. He’s WCBS-FM with the occasional new hit sprinkled in. He’s the music of your life.

An announcer should be able to tell you if a ball is a ball, a strike is a strike, an out is an out and if a runner moved up to second on the grounder. Other than that, he needs to be your companion, just as good a companion as baseball itself. Ralph has been a great companion, somebody you’re happy to run into at the game, somebody who’s going to keep you company, somebody’s who’s going to tell you a couple of things you didn’t know and are glad you do now and somebody you’re sorry has to leave in the seventh except he has to get to work. His real job, you would learn, started just after the final pitch.

To entertain us while the stage was literally being set for Ralph Kiner Night, DiamondVision showed some vintage Kiner’s Korner klips (they at first came on silently, so Joe and I offered a spontaneous vocal arrangement of Franz von Blon’s “Flag of Victory March”…you’d recognize it in a beat as Ralph’s theme). They weren’t as vintage as I would have preferred, mostly from the ’80s and early ’90s. It was what got saved, the stuff somebody had the good sense not to tape over. These were the editions with the slightly self-conscious production values that indicated Channel 9 management realized at last they had on their hands not just a postgame interview show but a genius-in-residence. None of it, unfortunately, was from the golden age of Kiner’s Korner, with that fair-play wall that listed each of the National League teams in funky ’70s fonts, with Ralph hosting the star of the game, not just the star of the Mets. Willie Stargell may have just pulverized Mets’ pitching, John Candelaria may have just shut us down, but seeing them talk it over with Ralph made them seem, I don’t know, human.

Not complaining, though. Any Korner is a desirable Korner. I would have settled for the turn-of-the-century Fox Sports Net version, the one he co-hosted with Matt Loughlin now and then for a couple of years. It seems strange to choose it, but my favorite Kiner’s Korner ever was not one with Agee or Grote or somebody from my childhood, but with Steve Phillips of all people at the end of ’99. The GM was saying very politic things about Rickey Henderson until Ralph nudged Phillips into admitting that he was pretty sure Henderson didn’t even know his name.

“Yeah,” Ralph said. “That’s one strange guy.”

The rituals within the larger ritual of a night like Ralph Kiner Night are fun to observe. For example, what’s the dress code? I find it both classy and inane when men wear suits and ties on a baseball field. Ties are for weddings and funerals and the stodgiest of white shoe law firms. If I admired nothing else about Ted Williams, it was his refusal to don a necktie for any occasion. But then flip it. If you’re going to wear the very antithesis of the togs of summer to the summer game, then it must be an extremely special event motivating your sartorial splendor. So good for those who saw fit to tie a tie and those, perhaps by dint of generation, who would have felt underdressed without one…and just as good for those who would flaunt such an outmoded conceit and, like Jerry Koosman and Bud Harrelson, sport a tropical look.

Hawaiian shirts on Ralph Kiner Night? Don’t you think Ralph would have been more comfortable in one?

I also like to deconstruct the guest list. Who was invited? Who wasn’t invited? Who was invited but didn’t show? Who should have been invited? Who am I surprised to see? Who could have I done without? All guests should be honored guests, but on something called Ralph Kiner Night, there is only one guest of honor. Anybody who would fly in just for a Howie Rose nod, an acknowledging wave and twenty minutes of sitting and listening to somebody else talk about himself is both a true friend of Ralph and a true citizen of baseball.

We had to endure only one Deputy Mayor for Superfluous Introductions and then only because Mayor Bloomberg had proclaimed Saturday night, July 14, Ralph Kiner Night in New York City, meaning…what, six to midnight? (Only the Mets would rate a proclamation potentially laden with alternate side of the street restrictions.) A bevy of Kiner kin followed. We never heard of any of them, but would we begrudge Ralph their presence if he wanted it? No Met brass — staying in the shadows and signing the checks is big of them.

Though I’d read a sample of who would be here, there’s usually one name I don’t imagine and don’t expect. Saturday night’s surprise guest (to me) was Ernie Harwell, associated generally with the Tigers but primarily with excellence. Ernie’s in everybody’s objective Top Three Broadcasters: Barber. Scully. Harwell. You can no longer get Red. Vin’s still working. To have Ernie Harwell drop by and offer via his presence a benediction that not only has Ralph Kiner been around and been fun and called Gary Carter Gary Cooper but has been a certifiably great announcer for 46 years…I think that was very significant.

I stood and applauded for Ernie Harwell though I’ve heard him only a handful of times. I didn’t stand for everybody. I didn’t necessarily applaud everybody. If there is protocol incumbent upon the on-field participants, what of us? For whom is it kosher to sit and applaud? I found myself tepidly receiving Kiner’s relatives; Bob Friend; and Joe Pignatano — but Piggy only because I got caught in between. To politely ignore? That deputy mayor. And Gary Thorne whom I rather loathe, though it was nice that he came.

For whom do you stand and clap enthusiastically? All the not-quite-immortal championship Mets, since you never know when you’ll see them again: Buddy, Kooz, Rusty, the Glider, the Krane — of unaccompanied Eddie, Joe declared “Ed Kranepool walks alone.” Keith, of course, the most latter-day Met they could find. (John Franco too busy?). For whom do you leap to your feet? In my case, I gave it up for Harwell and capital-G Great Bob Feller — neither related to the Mets but Hall of Famers who respected Ralph, so I respected them; for Tom; for Yogi (looking very much at home where he played, coached and managed for eleven years); for Joye Murphy probably more than any of the above.

I stood for Joye Murphy and I applauded as long and hard as I could. Of course I thought of Bob Murphy on Ralph Kiner Night. How could you not? I thought of Bob Murphy Night from September of ’03. What a sad, sad, terribly sad affair that was. It was so damn final and so hastily arranged. Bless Mets’ management for emphasizing 50 times over that this was not a retirement for Ralph, just an appreciation. And doubly bless Mets’ management for having the good sense to keep a seat available to Ralph Kiner to analyze the occasional Mets game just as they are to be eternally blessed for letting Murph find his way to the exit on his own terms. I flat-out loved Murph more than I’ll ever flat-out love any other broadcaster. Since August 3, 2004, I make sure to love Ralph a little extra every time I hear his voice.

Who wasn’t introduced? Who wasn’t invited? Who didn’t make it? The night was about Ralph, so it didn’t really matter, but you couldn’t help but think of names. McCarver? Doing a Fox game (he, like broadcasting greats Scully, Kallas, Brennaman plus overrated gasbag Jon Miller recorded thoughtful messages). Zabriskie? Living in Florida. I would have enjoyed seeing him. Healy? That would have been interesting. Few liked Fran Healy but other than Murph and Lindsey, did anybody do more games with Ralph? Is Fran holding a grudge for being deSnighed a job? Did he leave on bad terms with the powers that be? Was he taping an urgent Halls of Fame with Bob McAdoo? I didn’t really miss Fran, but it would have been interesting. What about Steve Albert? Lorn Brown?

Now we’re just being completist. And silly.

Seaver…Feller…Berra…Harwell…pretty stellar turnout for a Saturday night. But Ralph deserved as many stars in the baseball constellation as could be rounded up. He deserved the very gorgeous video tribute set to Sinatra’s “The Summer Wind” (it lost its impact on television where it was scored generically — somebody cheaped out — but believe me, it lost nothing in person, save for a few Kleenex). And he deserved the swelling Standing O the crowd gave him when he and his wife were driven in from centerfield in a vintage Chevy convertible (though it was my understanding that home run hitters drive Cadillacs). I wouldn’t say the entire crowd, many of whose members missed the glory days of WOR-TV, was riveted by all the niceties of the ceremonies, but they got on board for the main event. Everybody knew by the time Howie ushered him on stage that Ralph was one of theirs, one of ours.

Ralph’s speech was one part Ralph (who else would or could quote Phil Harris and Casey Stengel in the first 90 seconds?), one part Ralph Now (blowing Casey’s “dead at the present time” line) and one part Murph, actually. When Bob Murphy was honored in 2003, he didn’t talk about Bob Murphy. He talked about the Mets. His history with us was our history with the Mets and he would never presume anyone was interested in him without them. Like Bob, Ralph recounted those crazy early days of losing nine to start one season, eight to start the next and so on until the Mets won four to end the most magical season of them all. Funny how both announcers who made it into a fifth decade never really delved into much beyond the initial one. With Casey Stengel as an opening act and 1969 as an encore, it’s hard to think of anything that would top that set.

What a life Ralph Kiner has led. A Hall of Fame life, and I don’t mean just those ten years that got him into Cooperstown. We don’t know Ralph the way we’ve known some announcers and broadcast personalities who describe what they do away from the booth in occasionally numbing detail. We don’t have to know Ralph that way. We can only imagine the entirety of what Ralph knows, what Ralph has known. It is staggering to attempt to comprehend. That he has shared what he has shared as he has — casually and without airs — makes us feel just a bit like Hall of Famers, too.

Why does the chance to applaud Ralph Kiner Saturday night or the 1986 Mets last August or Bob Murphy in 2003 or the 40th Anniversary All-Amazin’ Team in 2002 or those who committed the Ten Greatest Moments in Mets History in 2000 or all those Old Timers I couldn’t wait to embrace going back to when I was 11 get to me so? Get to so many of us so? I won’t pretend everybody was into it as I was. For lots of people Saturday, they went to a Mets game and a ceremony broke out. But I did not stand alone, certainly not when the festivities revealed to all that they were in the midst of Yogi Berra and Tom Seaver and Ralph Kiner. Everybody got that.

Why does this particular ritual get to us so? Part of the answer lies in what Marsellus Wallace reminded Butch Coolidge in strongly suggesting he not try too hard in his prizefight that night: “Boxers don’t have an Old Timers Day.” Neither does most anything in this world. All we do in our lives is move on, get over it, get on with it. Little of what we do permits much in the way of reflection, of enjoying what’s come before. Sure, there’s the occasional class reunion and there are holidays with extended family, but, at the risk of betraying (or even portraying) a cynical streak, those are burdens. Somebody goes to the trouble of summoning the vibe of a great day or a great year or, in Kiner’s case, a great presence in a realm that you’ve chosen to link yourself to for as long as you’ve been around and for as long as you will be around…well, my friends, that’s an uncommon gift.

A more all-encompassing answer would be because baseball’s better than anything else. You can figure out the rest for yourself.

Ralph wrapped up his remarks, jumped into his Chevy with his wife and took a lap on wheels around the track, reaching out and touching Mets fans, just as he’s been doing since 1962. Then he was out the centerfield gate, one very powerful slugger and equally powerful ritual rolling into the sunset. Or perhaps back up to the booth.

Then there was the other ritual, the one that I said collided with this one. That was over around the same time. It was as much a ritual as any championship reassemblage or numerical retirement or mass appreciation Shea Stadium has ever hosted. It was a ritual that takes place so regularly that you don’t notice it unless you look for it.

It’s called getting ready for the game — stretching and running and loosening. Ralph Kiner did it who knows how many thousands of times. His successors, baseball players generations removed from his last at-bat in 1955, were doing it even while a night in his honor was picking up steam.

On one side of the Ralph Kiner ceremonies, around the rightfield line, there were several Mets — Reyes, Wright, Delgado, Gotay, Milledge — in the able hands of physical therapist Jeff Cavaliere. They were limbering and preparing for the Reds. A little deeper in the outfield was Paul Lo Duca playing long toss with assistant bullpen coach Tom Nieto. He was readying his right arm and preparing for the Reds. In the bullpen? Starter Tom Glavine, warming up and preparing for the Reds. Down the leftfield line were a couple of Reds doing whatever they needed to do to prepare for the Mets.

It was incongruous. Tens of thousands made a point of arriving at Shea early enough on Saturday evening to direct their gaze squarely upon Ralph Kiner, to feel as close to him in person as they have through radio and television for 46 years. Yet the ballplayers, those who Ralph has built an institution of a career around describing, couldn’t pause in their maneuvers — little drills they’ve repeated into infinity — to watch Ralph Kiner, to listen to Ralph Kiner, to not distract from Ralph Kiner?

No. They couldn’t. And incongruous though it was, good for them. They, too, were respecting the game we love.

Baseball was never more the circle of life than it was in the tableau you witnessed if you showed up at Shea Saturday night and watched both rituals unfold. Honoring our elder statesmen is what we do. Honoring the need to play hard and win…we do that, too. For purity of event’s sake, we could quibble, we could ask why all that stretching and running and throwing couldn’t have been taken care of by 6:30 when it was known the ceremonies would start at 7:00. We would probably be told there is a science to this, that first pitch was scheduled for 7:35 and that you don’t want your players’ bodies to be too hot or too cold when the whistle blows. If the story afterwards isn’t Glavine Wins on Kiner Night, but Reyes’ Hamstring Tightens, then what do we gain from an unsullied view of the grass onto which icons not in the starting lineup strolled?

Surely the manager and the front office knew the difference between a playing field devoted solely to Ralph Kiner Night and one otherwise partitioned. On the 2006 version of Jackie Robinson Day, I can still see Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Cliff Floyd being pulled into a proper foul line formation on the frantic gesticulation of Jay Horwitz so as not to detract from whatever Rachel Robinson was saying at the podium. Goodness knows Willie Randolph (caught on DiamondVision grinning a big Mets fan grin at the Ralphfest from the dugout) spent most of his career immersed in an organization where everybody queued by uniform number, height, weight, hat size and hair length for the national anthem. Willie, who grew up in Brooklyn watching the same Channel 9 telecasts as the rest of us, could have ordered his charges off the field so they could soak up a little history and pay a little mind to somebody who had glorified their ilk for going on five decades. He chose otherwise. His team lost 8-4 the night before. Their job was playing and beating the Reds.

Would it have been prettier, more aesthetically pleasing, more right to watch the Mets watch a Mets legend, to watch baseball players watch a baseball great in every sense of the word? Yes. Definitely. My first instinct was to carp that they didn’t (and also wonder what happened to the happy little tradition of the current team coming out and presenting a gift to the man of the hour). But a bit of thought on it negated my protest.

Ralph Kiner and his peers — a distinction only a few can claim — had plenty wide a berth on which to stroll to the center of the action. We could have both pregame rituals simultaneously. It was, given the continuing and constant nature of the game, appropriate — just as it shall be on some future Saturday night in some not-yet-built ballpark if one of those stretching in 2007 is the honoree and his successor is paying him little or no mind because that shortstop or that third baseman has a game to play and win.

Mets stretch for a game. A voice stretches across time. We pause to celebrate. We take no respite from rooting. It’s all special. It’s all baseball. It lingers there, so warm and fair…our gentle breeze for all seasons.

17 comments to The Summer Wind

  • Anonymous

    Why do you loathe Gary Thorne?

  • Anonymous

    Since an entry this epic deserves actual musical accompaniment, here comes Der Flagufvicturmarshenspiegelwhatever. Someone at Flushing U found it a while back; it's moved from that link, but was eminently trackable:
    http://trnmusic.com/sounds/flagofvictorymarch.mp3
    Ralph was always at the low end of my counting-to-three in the original booth. Too much of the “going, going, CAUGHT!” type of call. But Kiner's Korner was a necessary institution. Does anyone else remember the very brief experiment with giving Bob the post-game (it was called “Star of the Game” or something of the sort)? I only remember it being on once or twice, and nobody ever spoke of whether it was a vacation, a contract dispute, an advertiser preference or what.
    My third choice among the Original Trinity is still a better sight than any other organization's #1 guy. Thanks, Ralph:)

  • Anonymous

    Bravo, Greg,
    We were just as upset seeing the Mets and Reds going through their pre-game exercises throughout the ceremonies. Also surprised that players not in the field weren't in the dugout watching the tribute until a few minutes before gametime. Even though they probably have no knowledge of the impact Ralph Kiner has had on Met fans, except for Glavine (who needed to warm-up) there was no excuse for such rudeness.
    Can't believe Ralph and I have been together for 46 years. I was a fifth grader when the Mets started out, a charter member of the “new breed”, so, of course, I had to be there with him on his special night, 46 years older, to share memories and feelings that literally span my lifetime. As you put it, he has been a great companion to all of us who grew up with him.
    Originally, Kiner's Korner was both a pre-game and post-game show on WOR. The first year the show had a different theme song (forgot exactly, but it sounded like a John Phillip Sousa march) instead of Franz von Blon's “Flag of Victory March”. It opened up with the words “Kiner's Korner” appearing to the left of an old dugout batting rack. The pre-game show was usually an on-field interview, only occasionally originating from the studio. I remember in May of 1962 when, for a brief moment, the Mets climbed out of the celler, Ralph held a handwritten sign showing the Mets were now in 9th place. During that historic 23 inning game against the Giants in 1964, the last few innings the camera would shift to the studio showing a laughing Ralph sitting with nothing else to do but to wait for the game to finally end.
    The memories might have faded but the feelings haven't. Ralph (along with Bob and Lindsey) has been a staple of my life ever since childhood. It was strange seeing an old Ralph Kiner while remembering the old Polo Grounds, how new and glorious Shea once was, the early players who once roamed the field in baggy uniforms and stirrups, a no longer 18-year old Ed(die) Kranepool, Seaver, Koozman, the Glider, etc. while looking beyond the outfield fence and seeing the Citifield construction. It was a lifetime passing through my eyes and a reminder of how old we have all become.

  • Anonymous

    Unnecessarily bombastic; discretion-free; talks with no concept of listening; gets details terribly wrong and can't be bothered to correct them…long ago used up the goodwill he built in the WHN booth from 1985 to 1988. He gave a wonderful eulogy for Murph and I'll always appreciate it, but boy does he get on my nerves as an announcer.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for making clear that I am not imagining Murph's turn as the postgame host. I remember it from Opening Day '75 and thinking, “wha…?” Never saw it again. Maybe Ralph had a dinner date in the city.

  • Anonymous

    Joe,
    You always bring something to the table I can't imagine. A pregame “Kiner's Korner”? A “9th Place” sign? Thanks for letting those of us who missed stuff like that know.

  • Anonymous

    Hi Greg,
    Here's some more TV stuff you missed out of:
    In 1963, Ralph Branca hosted “Branca's Bullpen” which went on prior to the pre-game Kiner's Korner. In 1964, Branca's show was replaced by “Dow Finsterwald's Golf Tip Of The Day”.
    In 1963, Met television broadcasts opened with Lindsey or Bob saying “The New York Mets Are On The Air” followed by a drawing of Mr. Met dancing to “Meet The Mets” which was super-imposed against the backdrop of the baseball field. They also had “Homer” the dog holding signs with his teeth (you might have caught him in the 1986 25th anniversary video).
    1964 home games were the first in NYC to be broadcast in color.
    In 1965, Met telecasts ended with Casey being slapped on the back after a Met victory or Casey either kicking the dirt on the field or nodding his head in disbelief sitting in the dugout after a loss.
    On opening day, 1965, the Daily News printed full page color pictures of the Mets and Yankees, unusual for those days. Casey and Yogi appeared on the front page while the 1964 AL Champions with Keane, Mantle, Maris, etc. were regulated to the back.
    Bob Murphy also hosted a weekly “Jet's Journal” during the football season.

  • Anonymous

    I just find it stunning that they taped over most of the old KK episodes, like they never thought anyone would value them as archival footage. Or was videotape that expensive back then that they just had to keep reusing it?
    Ralph, to me, gets better with age, though — mine as well as his. I remember when I was a kid thinking he was an absolutely terrible play-by-play announcer. I remember one radio call that stunned me, when he said something like, “Here's the pitch, and now it's gone goodbye,” with no pause, no inflection or anything. Apparently whoever it was had hit a home run during the time Ralph said, “Here's the pitch,” and he barely managed to catch up to it. I was like, “Whaaaa?” But I love it when Ralph makes an appearance to do color and gives us some of his salty commentary about the old days and how no pitcher he's ever seen has ever been better than Ewell Blackwell, who didn't even win 85 games in his career. You always know whatever you're getting from him now is a bonus, in more ways than one.

  • Anonymous

    ..Words really cant describe what he has meant to us. Now Ralph is just a smirk on my face my wife wonders about..Daryl Strawberry/Daryl Boston..In the end does it really matter anyway?
    Rich

  • Anonymous

    I guess I really haven't listened to him to any great extent since he left Bob Murphy's side so in my mind I only rank him where he belongs in the list of Mets announcers, which is relatively high up. I guess that's what happens when I don't pay attention for 20 years or so.

  • Anonymous

    The Mets players should have all stopped and watched. Some things, you stop everything for. This was one of them.

  • Anonymous

    Couldn't have said it better.

  • Anonymous

    I also loathe Gary Thorne.
    And interviewing Ralph Kiner in 1996 was one of the highlights of my life. It was only by phone, and the magazine slashed it to ribbons (I didn't ridicule him enough for their taste–so they just used the few passages that made him appear to be the doddering old fool they apparently wanted to portray–a few Kinerisms–and I refused to write for them again) but I shook like a leaf for the entire half-hour.
    Wish I had it on tape, but I don't. Don't even have the notes. But I'll always have it up here *points to head* and in here *points to heart*.

  • Anonymous

    Thorne is really good on Hockey Broadcasts..

  • Anonymous

    Recently he got into hot water assuming a joke Doug Mirabelli about Schilling's Bloddy Sock made was a true statement. Any true journalist would know to double check on something like that, especially when its a hearsay story.

  • Anonymous

    The running and stretching reminded me of Tom Seaver Day. Dale Murphy and some other Braves had started to go down the LF/3rd base line to commence with their warmups while the Seaver festivities were well under way, well they were soundly booed by the fans down the LF line that they all turned around and went back to the dugout.

  • Anonymous

    If the story afterwards isn't Glavine Wins on Kiner Night, but Reyes' Hamstring Tightens, then what do we gain from an unsullied view of the grass onto which icons not in the starting lineup strolled?

    This reminds me of the day Tom Terrific won his 300th on Phil Rizzuto Day at the Big Bronx Bedpan. At the end of the telecast — I still have it on VHS — Bill White was excoriating the White Sox for having Tom Seaver pitch that afternoon because “it was a shame: this was really Phil Rizzuto's Day…”
    Reason number 4,673,215 to hate the Yankees…