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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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My Swoboda

“People like to see human error when it’s honest. When people see you swing and miss, they start to root for you.”
— Paul Westerberg

I became a Mets fan in 1976, when the team had seemingly perfected an imperfect formula: combine superb pitching and defense with no offense and finish third. Miracle Met stalwarts Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman were still around, as were Jerry Grote, Wayne Garrett, Buddy Harrelson and Ed Kranepool, who’d always been around and one assumed always would be. Joining them were representatives of the Little Miracle —  guys like Jon Matlack and John Milner and Rusty Staub.

Staub was my favorite player, though of course I loved Seaver, rooted for Harrelson and appreciated Kranepool. But as a newly minted Mets fan with a dorky, proto-blogger’s bent, my hunger was for history. Desperate to know what I’d missed, I inhaled books about my team — if the Emma S. Clark Memorial Library had a quickie book about the ’69 or ’73 team (or any other year), I read it and then immediately wanted to read it again. With DVDs and Web video yet to arrive, I got most of my postseason lore from the written word and static pictures, from descriptions and reminiscences and snapshots and sportswriters’ flights of fancy. Tommie Agee in awkward mid-stride, a plume of white at the end of his arm. The unhurried way Gil Hodges strolled from the dugout to visit Lou DiMuro with a spotted baseball in one big hand. Tug McGraw dodging and diving and weaving and bulling his way to the dugout. Willie Mays on his knees in vain supplication. Jerry Koosman jackknifed in Jerry Grote’s arms, with Ed Charles in the early stages of liftoff nearby. And, of course, Ron Swoboda — fully outstretched and parallel to the right-field grass, approaching an uncertain intersection with the ground and a baseball.

66 Topps Ron Swoboda

The Youth of America

Swoboda was gone by 1976, but in every account of the ’69 Mets he loomed large. Not just because of The Catch, but because he was smart and funny and reflective and complicated. Which, though I didn’t know it yet, made him my prototype for what we wish every baseball player would be.

The lore was pretty thick around Swoboda even before 1969. He signed with the Mets for $35,000 in 1963 as a 19-year-old from the University of Maryland. (Ironically, given what came later, Swoboda was born and raised in Baltimore and had played high-school exhibitions in Memorial Stadium.) His last name is Ukrainian for “freedom.” In 1964, he caught Casey Stengel’s eye — the young slugger reminded Casey of Mickey Mantle — and was hyped as part of the Mets’ about-to-arrive Youth of America.

Casey pronounced his name Suh-boda, which stuck with fans. Teammates called him Rocky, a reference to his mental lapses in the field and his ability to say the wrong thing at the wrong time off of it. He came to the Mets to stay in 1965 — a callup he would come to regret — and became a fan favorite. Writers loved the fact that he had a Chinese grandfather, which was sort of true — his grandmother had married the owner of a Baltimore Chinese restaurant. Fans loved his ability to hit long home runs and sympathized with his outfield misadventures — you were never quite sure what Swoboda might do out there, but you were pretty sure it would be memorable. In his first big-league at-bat, a terrified Swoboda fell into an 0-2 hole against Don Drysdale, and considered it a triumph that he lined out to second. (“I felt like a fish that had been dragged into the boat and somehow managed to flop back out,” he’d remember.) Two days later, his second big-league at-bat produced a home run. RON SWOBODA IS STRONGER THAN DIRT, fans proclaimed at Banner Day.

In one game, Swoboda forgot his sunglasses, misplayed a Dal Maxvill fly ball into a triple, returned to the dugout in a fury and stomped on a batting helmet. The helmet got stuck on his cleats and left Swoboda hopping around trying to dislodge it while Stengel turned the color of a ripe tomato. Casey pulled Swoboda from the game, asking, “Do I go around breaking up his property?” Another time, Casey groused that Swoboda “thinks he’s being unlucky, but he’ll be unlucky his whole life if he don’t change” — a bit of baseball wisdom I’ve recycled for Come to Jesus moments with a few wayward journalists. Yet for all his misadventures, Swoboda hit 19 home runs in 1965 — a Met rookie record that stood until Darryl Strawberry eclipsed it 18 years later.

Swoboda's catch

Immortality achieved

Swoboda managed the difficult and dubious feat of hurting his development as a ballplayer by alternately thinking too much and not at all. (Years after he retired, he admitted he still had nightmares about facing one of the great hurlers of the ’60s and not being able to get set in the batter’s box.) He wasn’t always popular with teammates, who were annoyed by his on-field mistakes and his off-field gift of gab. When reporters entered the clubhouse after a Met win, it wasn’t uncommon to hear someone yell out “Tell them about it, Rocky!” It should come as no surprise that one of his best friends on the team was the irrepressible, quotable Tug McGraw. (The other was Kranepool.) But Swoboda was pretty quotable himself: In ’69, he was booed after striking out five times in one game, and opined that “if we lost, I’d be eating my heart out. But since we won, I’ll only eat one ventricle.”

1965 was a template for everything else — heroic moments mixed with ignoble ones. On Sept. 15, 1969, Steve Carlton struck out 19 Mets, with Swoboda accounting for two of the Ks as well as the two home runs that beat Carlton. He went 6 for 15 in the World Series. And, of course, there was The Catch. It wasn’t a particularly smart play — obviously he should have played it on a hop — except for the fact that hey, he actually caught it. “I had no time for conscious thought or judgment,” he’d recall. “The ball was out there too fast. I took off with the crack of the bat and dove. My body was stretched full out, and I felt as if I was disappearing into another world. … Somehow it happened. Somehow I got it. A miracle? Wasn’t the entire season a miracle?” In that one play the ignoble and the heroic did battle, the heroic came out on top, and because of that Ron Swoboda was a baseball immortal. As Tigers manager Mayo Smith put it, “Swoboda is what happens when a team wins a pennant.”

Two years after the Mets’ champagne celebration (“they’ve sprayed all the imported and now we have to drink the domestic,” he griped cheerfully), Swoboda was traded to Montreal after complaining a little too loudly about playing time. He hung around for a bit with the Yankees, failed to catch on with the Braves and was out of baseball by 29. He then began a long career as a broadcaster, one that’s taken him to New York and Milwaukee and Phoenix and New Orleans. It sounds like a more successful version of his playing career: He was thrown in before he was ready, learned on the job, and periodically forced to pull up stakes by events he couldn’t entirely control.

Swoboda was a sportscaster in New Orleans when I arrived there in 1989 as a pathetically green Times-Picayune intern, and a lot of people I came to know at the newspaper knew him. This finally registered with me when the woman I was dating mentioned in passing some bantering exchange she’d had with him. She had no idea then that I was a Mets fan, and must have wondered why I stared at her in amazement. She knows Ron Swoboda. Which means I could meet Ron Swoboda. But I never did. The idea terrified me — I was a kid, and incapable of thinking of him as another journalist. After all, I’d read about him and looked at pictures of him since I was seven years old. He was a Met, a World Series hero, the man who made the Catch. He was Ron Swoboda. Meet him? And then what? It would have been like chatting with Zeus.

One of the reasons I never became a traditional sportswriter was that I wanted to stay a fan, and I figured out early that entering a press box would kill my fandom. Which is also why I’ve never had much interest in meeting baseball players in real life. What’s the upside? Since I couldn’t possibly like the flesh-and-blood people more than I love their on-field personas, it’s almost certain that I’d like them a lot less. They can’t compete with who they’re allowed to be on TV and down there on the field, as seen through fandom’s lens. I’ve shaken hands with Fred Stanley and Ron Darling, exchanged a couple of dopey words with Rusty Staub, done a double-take on Canal Street after passing John Franco, and had Wally Backman step on my foot. That’s enough for me.

Well, mostly. Now that I’m older, I do wish I could sit down over beers with Ron Swoboda. I don’t know if I’d like him or if he’d like me. But I do know I’d find him interesting. After all, I always have.

Swoboda and Jeff Hysen

Swoboda with Faith and Fear reader Jeff Hysen

I don’t assume baseball players are dumb — I’m amazed at how many of them can analyze pitch sequences and find little tells during the game, and how they remember at-bats in vivid detail years later. Beyond their superhuman physical talents, many of them have an extraordinary ability to focus that most of us don’t know enough to understand we lack.

When we grouse that ballplayers don’t seem smart, most of the time what we’re really lamenting is that they don’t seem big on self-reflection. There’s an entertaining W.P. Kinsella story called “How I Got My Nickname” in which the ’51 Giants are all hyperliterate gents given to pondering the cosmos — a story that works because it’s immediately and obviously a fantasy. Back in ’92, the writer Kelly Candaele (Casey’s sister) penned a great piece in the Times in which, among other things, she wondered about the fact that her brother and his teammates didn’t lie awake thinking about their purpose in life. Astros shortstop Rafael Ramirez’s answer for her? “When I wake up in the middle of the night, it’s because I want a sandwich.”

There are exceptions. Players like Seaver or Darling or Keith Hernandez can dissect baseball like generals or prize-winning academics, and I’m invariably riveted. The 2000 Mets had three such players in Al Leiter, Mike Piazza and Todd Zeile — all smart, complicated guys who weren’t afraid of being interesting. But those players are exceptions that prove the disappointing rule. The first Met I knew of who was exceptional like that was Swoboda.

It’s clear that Swoboda spent some middle of the nights lying awake, and not because he wanted a sandwich. He isn’t just a good quote, but bracingly honest about himself. (You’ll find great interviews with him — the sources of many of this post’s quotes — in Stanley Cohen’s A Magic Summer and Maury Allen’s After the Miracle.) He’s talked wistfully about he never got along with Seaver, admitting that he was the one who sabotaged any chance at friendship. “I wanted to be the best in the game at my position; I wasn’t,” he said. “He just made it look so easy, was so good — and it just frustrated me so much.” And he’s told the story of confronting Gil Hodges in the clubhouse bathroom over his use of Kranepool — after which, feeling Hodges’ glower on his back, “I was standing against the urinal and I couldn’t pee.”

Of course, Swoboda will always be bound up with 1969 and the Miracle Mets — a bit of typecasting he has taken to cheerfully. (At last year’s 40th anniversary celebration, he pantomimed his famous catch, now immortalized above the right-field gate.) That’s no surprise, but Swoboda’s reflections on ’69 have almost invariably been interesting, too. “We were ingenues,” he recalled once. “We had that wonderful, clear-minded innocence of not having the responsibility of winning it, of not having to doubt ourselves if we stumbled, and that’s a marvelous state to achieve.” Another time, he said that 1969 “wasn’t destiny. I don’t believe in destiny. What I believe is you can get to a state where you are not interfering with the possibilities.” That’s a long way from taking them one game at a time, pulling together as a team and all the other rote nonsense players have been taught to say so that reporters go away as quickly as possible.

And Swoboda has always understood what that summer meant to the fans, and refused to see what he did and what we did as disconnected. He has always been willing to bridge that gap, and make us feel like it doesn’t have to exist, even though we know better. “I never felt above anyone who bought a ticket — I just had a different role than they did,” he has said. “We were part of the same phenomenon.”

When I saw the ’69 team at Citi last summer I cheered for all of them, of course. I applauded the McAndrews and Gaspars and Dyers. I cheered for the departed Tug and Gil and Donn and Don and Cal and Tommie and Rube. I gave Seaver and Koosman and Ryan their due, as one must. But the player I cheered longest and loudest for from that team?

It was Ron Swoboda. It always has been.

20 comments to My Swoboda

  • pfh64

    When my brother and I were little kids growing up in Ozone Park, there was a little Italian grocery store on the corner of our block (okay, there was one on every block, in the early 70s, but hey, that’s being picky), and the guys that owned it used to call me Swoboda & my little brother Harrelson. Later as a college radio person, I got to have dealings with Mr. Swoboda, as he was a TV Sportscaster in Phoenix at the time…he was a genuinely nice guy.

  • Jacabite

    Just wonderful stuff there, Mr. Fry.
    The last two pieces on F&FIF are proof positive of the wonderfully restorative effects of spring!
    As you mentioned, Swoboda was our Mantle. Interestingly, Swoboda may be akin to say, Murphy today. But somewhere, we let our playfully optimistic, all-forgiving, unconditional love for baseball and the Mets be overcome by an almost Bronx-like demand for perfection.
    I’m glad I was there in those days and got to appreciate the incredible green grass of Shea and interminable sunnny days, as seen on the radio, before Swoboda’s golden carriage turned into what may be Murphy’s pumpkin.

    • Thanks Jacabite. Jeromy Burnitz always reminded me of Swoboda, from the complicated relationship with his manager to his feast-or-famine play. Except I never heard Burnitz say anything interesting. (Though he did always sound like the Brad Pitt character from “True Romance.”)

  • I’d tell Mayo Smith that Ron Swoboda is actually what happens when you’re a Mets fan. It happens every few years with tantalizing young, unformed would-be sluggers we take into our hearts, willfully oblivious to their ceilings because we really want to believe we’ve got something here. In the last twenty years, Burnitz, Huskey, Agbayani and Diaz have all made me think this must be what it was like in 1965 with Swoboda. I enjoy the delusion while it lasts and am surprisingly unbitter when these chips off the old Rock don’t constitute the foundation of anything more enduring than fond memories of fleeting hope.

    Murphy I file more in the Vail/Jefferies school of gun-jumping that leads to inevitable, tangible disappointment.

    • Whatever happened to those awesome LBJ-era nicknames like Mayo, anyway?

      Wouldn’t Jerry Manuel be more compelling if everyone knew him as Horseradish?

  • Great job, Jace. I rarely read FAFIF articles all the way through (I blame ADD and Royals fandom) but you sucked me into this one.

  • bmfc1

    It is an honor to be a part of this great column.

  • CharlieH

    This is brilliant, Jace.

  • Joe D.

    Hi Jason,

    I was one of those 55,000 but probably the only one who didn’t boo Ron after striking out for the fifth time in that 5-1 first game victory against St. Louis on June 22, 1969 (we won the second game as well).

    Was also at a game on May 5, 1965 when Swoboda hit two homers and drove in all four runs in a 4-2 victory over Milwaukee. He also made two errors that day.

    Two weeks later the Mets played St. Louis when Dal tripled off his glove. The story goes a bit deeper than you researched. The Mets were leading 7-2 going into the bottom of the ninth, the cards had scored two runs and had the bases loaded with two out when Maxvill hit that routine fly to right for what we thought was the final out and we went on to lose it in the 12th. The next day Dick Young opened game coverage with one of the most classic lines I even read: “Ron Swoboda, who hits homers with his bat and triples with his glove”. Despite that chuckle it was the hardest loss of the season for that 14 year old new breeder.

  • Lisa

    Oh, how I wish Ron was still playing and still with the Mets. For many reasons, but mainly just so “My Sharona” could play when he got a hit or made a great catch–with the words changed to “M-m-m-My Swoboda!” as all the fans cheer. Great column!

    Edited to add: I forgot to mention my favorite Casey Stengel quote about Swoboda, spoken after Ron missed an easy fly ball. “He’s still a little rough on fly balls,” Casey said. “He chases after them when they ain’t there.” I miss Casey, tooooo…

  • Jason,

    This is the best piece of yours I’ve read on here – and I consider the others pretty damn good. Loved it. Great job.

  • The Rabbi

    Jason –

    An awesome piece. I am lucky enough to call Ron Swoboda my friend for more than twenty years now, and he is all you imagine him to be and more. His reflections on the ’69 phenomenon and his role in it are a perfect encapsulation of who he is – a humble and curious dude with a very generous soul. Thanks for helping me admire him again in a whole new way.

  • Any post that starts with a Westerberg quote has to be awesome by default. Wonderful piece. Beautiful, open writing.

  • Bluenatic

    Swoboda’s catch was okay, I guess. So was Endy’s. But neither can compare to Al Gionfriddo’s catch against DiMaggio in ’47.

    — Fred Wilpon

  • […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by You Gotta Believe!, Caryn / metsgrrl.com and Greg Prince, Greg Prince. Greg Prince said: FAFIF's Jason Fry on His Swoboda. http://wp.me/pKvXu-1gK […]

  • Tim Hanley

    Jason, I loved reading this article. And I’d just like to add a couple of things.

    First, back in November, I contacted MLB Network and made a deal to sell them the rights to a 40-year-old 8mm film clip I made of Ron Swoboda’s World Series catch. A friend of mine, Phil Mushnick, a sports media columnist for the New York Post wrote about it at the time. You can see the details in his column here.

    The day after that column, I got a call from none other than Ron Swoboda himself! (In fact, I hade missed his initial phone call, so when I got back to my office I saw on my phone’s display of missed calls the following: “SWOBODA RON”.) When we finally did get to speak, we went on for about 50 minutes. We covered not only baseball and the Mets, but also Ron’s beloved New Orleans, local politics, jazz history, and a few other subjects.

    What I remember most about the conversation, however, is what many have already noted: Ron Swoboda is a truly nice guy.

    And, that goes beyond that great chat we had. He was also very accommodating to a relative of mine who contacted him (without my knowledge) about a Christmas gift my relative was hoping to give me involving Ron.

    And, more importantly, Ron was contacted by an old friend — a fellow ex-Shea Stadium vendor — whose wife is a lifelong Ron Swoboda fan, a New Orleans aficionado, and a recent cancer survivor. Ron took the time to give the woman a nice phone call which really brightened her day. I recently read a blog entry of hers which related the call in glowing terms and which referred to her being a grammar school teacher. I hope you won’t mind my adding her thoughts here:

    Last week Ron Swoboda called me!!! The minute he said, “Hi Pat, this is Ron Swoboda” I melted back into a sixteen-year-old girl. My voice went up, I giggled, and I could not stop smiling. He called me to cheer me up because my husband (XOXO) got in touch with him, explained what has gone on recently and asked if maybe he could make this call. Honestly, this man is as sweet now as he was then.

    As soon as I hung up the phone I could feel the switch inside my head click into teacher mode. I began writing a story in my head about Ron Swoboda’s Spectacular Catch. The kind of story that I could use with my students. Come on now, is there any cooler tribute than to be turned into a comprehension story complete with multiple choice questions?

    Just to redeem myself with all my NY Yankee friends, I must share that after he left the Mets, Ron played for Montreal, the Braves, AND THEN THE YANKEES! See, it all comes full circle. Today he lives is New Orleans where he has been involved in TV, writing and radio broadcasting. Does it get any better than that?

    I concur, Pat. It doesn’t get any better than that.

    Thanks for reading this.

    And Let’s Go Mets!

    Tim Hanley
    Shea Vendor 1969-70)

  • Tim Hanley

    Apparently, my hyperlink to the 11/23/2009 Phil Mushnick column in the New York Post, which I mentioned in my previous posting, didn’t work.

    If you’re interested, I think this will do the trick (I hope):

    http://tinyurl.com/yb9dcsh

    Sorry.

    Tim Hanley

  • […] will rack up a few of them over the course of a year. The A Train Mets Post of the Week belongs to Jason Fry’s elegeic and sentimental My Swoboda at Faith and Fear in Flushing – a tribute to Ron Swoboda that goes well beyond the back of the baseball card. Jason follows […]