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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.