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Ralph Kiner, Original and Forever

Y’know, I had just been thinking about Ralph Kiner. This was before the Super Bowl, when I read Edwin Pope of the Miami Herald wouldn’t be covering the game at MetLife Stadium. Pope, you see, had never missed a Super Bowl. The Super Bowl is still young enough so there are people who can be said to have been directly involved with all of them. The Roman numerals would keep accumulating: X…XX…XXX. Players and coaches and commissioners came and went, but a critical mass of those charged with reporting it to us would reappear year after year. By the IVth decade, however, the ranks of orginals and forevers began to thin noticeably. That’s just how the flipping of calendar pages works.

Every few Januarys in recent years, I’d come across an article about the group of writers who’d covered each and every one of pro football’s championships from 1967 forward and was about to cover another. Their numbers couldn’t help but dwindle as time went by. With Pope missing Super Bowl XLVIII, the corps was down to three, including, I learned last week, two from our vicinity: Jerry Izenberg and Dave Klein, both from New Jersey, and Jerry Green, out of Detroit.

Those guys and their constancy made me think of Ralph Kiner, specifically how Ralph Kiner, 53 years into the franchise’s history, was the only person you could be sure was affiliated with the New York Mets when they started and remained affiliated with them throughout. For the longest time growing up with the Mets, you’d hear this person or that person had been there from the beginning. It wasn’t all that unusual for a while. Then it became a badge of genuine longevity. Bob Mandt. Pete Flynn. Bob Murphy, quite obviously. And Ralph Kiner.

Retirements. Illnesses. Deaths. But Ralph Kiner was still a part of the Mets every year. He was 1962 and 1969, 1973 and 1986, 1999 and maybe a dozen day games right up to the very present. He was Ralph Kiner, voice of the New York Mets when they were new, when they were grand, when they were atrocious, when they were there no matter what. Ralph was there no matter what. Not like he used to be, maybe, but just enough so you didn’t have to imagine he wouldn’t be.

Nobody was more original. Nobody was more forever.

Ralph Kiner will not be dropping by the booth in 2014. I want to say he’s unavailable and leave it at that [1]. It’s too tough to believe, even after he lived 91 years, that the Mets go on without him. There’s never been the Mets without Ralph Kiner calling their games or, per his more recent part-time role, interrupting them. The Ralph of whom we were treated to select innings in the SNY era was the dandiest of intermittent presences. He was a baseball sage who could address any element his partners steered his way, and in doing so, he transported his audience to bundle after bundle of games, years and personalities that nobody else was telling us about anymore. It was a gift he kept on giving, and knowing that the gifts wouldn’t always pile up under the baseball tree made them that much more precious when we were lucky enough to receive them.

Before SNY, before MSG, before FSNY and before SportsChannel usurped most of the function that Channel 9 served, he was Ralph Kiner, voice of the Mets. Ralph with Tim McCarver and Steve Zabriskie on TV. Ralph, of course, with Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson, switching between TV and radio for 17 fraternal-triplet seasons. Ralph with others along the way, too. And Ralph, quite naturally, with the star of the game coming up right after the game on Kiner’s Korner. But always Ralph.

Eternally Ralph.

Ralph Kiner, Gary Cohen once calculated, had to have dispensed more autographs than any man alive. Ralph Kiner, as far as I can fathom, enhanced the expertise and experience of more Mets fans than anybody who ever lived, maybe anybody who will ever live. Ralph played it straight, balls-and-strikeswise. Ralph danced among the malapropisms that, for an amiable stretch, became his unwitting signature. Ralph analyzed swings and held forth on hitting. Ralph told and retold stories. Ralph didn’t necessarily kiss and tell, but it was pretty clear fate puckered up when it saw him making his way from Southern California to Pittsburgh to, eventually, us.

Ralph embraced us and embellished our baseball-loving lives while he was here. His statistical standing among all-time power producers may have fallen when homers became commodities rather than events, but when it came to grace and class and style and solid-gold professionalism, Ralph Kiner never vacated his spot atop the charts.

Now and then it would be pointed out Ralph hit home runs at rates almost unmatched in the annals of slugging and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in recognition of his prodigious skills. It was almost like finding out your parents used to have this whole other life. “You mean you were somebody before I was born?” Oh, Ralph was somebody, all right. And he remained somebody, a whole other transcendent Met figure that seemed to materialize independent of what he accomplished as a Pirate, a Cub and an Indian.

He could’ve rested on the laurels of being Ralph Kiner and made hay that way. But instead of being impressed with himself, he transmitted the Mets to us first and foremost. He looked to the plate and described Richie Ashburn and Cleon Jones and Lee Mazzilli and Darryl Strawberry and Bobby Bonilla and Mike Piazza and David Wright. He peered out to the mound and let us know the situations facing Roger Craig and Jerry Koosman and Craig Swan and Dwight Gooden and David Cone and Al Leiter and Johan Santana. He processed the thinking of Casey Stengel and Gil Hodges and Yogi Berra and Joe Torre and Davey Johnson and Bobby Valentine and Terry Collins. He shared air time with Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson and Steve Albert and Art Shamsky and Lorn Brown and Tim McCarver and Steve Zabriskie and Fran Healy and Rusty Staub and Gary Thorne and Howie Rose and Ted Robinson and Dave O’Brien and Tom Seaver and Gary Cohen and Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez.

He interviewed every big star for generations or, more accurately, every big star got to be interviewed by him. He made every scrub with whom he crossed paths look and feel like a king for a day.

Because of what he did, how long he did it and how well he did it, Ralph Kiner, as much as anybody, made me the Mets fan that I am today and figure I always will be. I’m guessing he did something similar for you.