Spring Training was complete. Ralph Kiner was in place, about to limber up his larynx for another season. Even on an uncharacteristically cool day in the original home of Spring Break, the sound of his voice created a sense of warmth. It was another indication that winter had passed, that the regular season was about to bloom. I found comfort in that voice.
It was 1995. Kiner was about to begin his 34th season working Mets telecasts. It was my 21st Spring. I had spent some of them covering the Yankees in the same complex the Orioles inhabited. Most had been spent covering the Mets in St. Petersburg and later Port St. Lucie, working for Newsday.
I'd spent a lot of time with Ralph -- quality time always. So when his voice registered in my mind that day, I turned in my seat to greet him. I spoke his name loud enough for him to hear and, evidently, loud enough for every autograph seeker in North America to hear as well. They attacked like piranhas, extending their baseballs, scorecards and Sharpies to him and rarely uttering a "Please" or anything more than a perfunctory "Thanks."
Later, when in-the-aisle gridlock had eased, when all had been satisfied and when Kiner should have had a bad case of writer's cramp, I apologized to my victim, apologized for the 30 minutes he had spent as a hostage of his (Hall of) Fame.
He stopped me in mid-sorry. "I don't mind that at all. It's always flattering," he said. "I haven't played in a long time [Kiner had retired 40 years earlier], and if they still remember me and want my autograph, the least I can do is accommodate them."
He often had done more. Kiner spoke more "Thank yous" that day at those who had sought his autograph.
Understand, it hardly had been a signature circumstance for Kiner. The pursuit of the public has been a constant in his life for more than half a century. His time regularly is interrupted and taken from him. And he doesn't merely tolerate it, he embraces it.
It's part of what makes Kiner one of the finest and foremost gentlemen in the game. Not just now, then and now and for as long as players hit home runs and scribble their names on sweet spots. A genuine gentleman.
His is an endangered species in that regard. Most celebrities within and outside the game regard signing as an irritating surcharge of fame. Kiner happily pays it. Over the years, he and I have seemed to arrive at Shea Stadium simultaneously about 72,000 times. I have marveled at his daily willingness to sign, pose and kibitz -- even in rain, on occasion. I often wonder what request would constitute an imposition to him. "Pardon me, Mr. Kiner,
could you drive me to Buenos Aires?"
He is a wonderful man. It delights me that the Mets honored him on Saturday. Good for them, good for him.
In his remarkable run with them -- from 1962 to now, Kiner has become a civic treasure for this city, like Bob Sheppard in the Bronx. He is a different King of Queens with a longer reign than the character that bears that title.
The word "gentleman" always comes to mind when he's present. He big leagues no one. And he has been a big leaguer almost since the day he first wore a Pirates uniform in 1946. Look at the numbers he amassed in 10 seasons. The more you know of the game, the stronger his Hall of Fame credentials are.
Ralph was inducted before I could vote for him. It would have been a privilege to be in Kiner's Korner.
That his Pirates teams almost always were second-division teams hardly dilutes his grandeur. Kiner led the league in home runs in each of his first seven seasons. Not even the Babe had a streak of seven. Kiner hit 294 in those unenhanced seasons, an average of 42.
It still offends me that that Pirates have saluted Willie Stargell, Roberto Clemente and Honus Wagner -- but not Kiner -- with gigantic statues outside PNC Park. They stuck their significantly smaller tribute to him under a stairway in left field. It is no more than a replica of his hands on a bat. Ralph is too much the gentleman to complain. But at least he mispronounced the name of Pirates owner Kevin McClatchy when the tribute was dedicated.
I have so many fond memories of Ralph, not the least of which is standing outside the Mets' hotel in Pittsburgh late in the morning of 9/11, hearing his passion and pain. By then, I had happily spent hours in his presence, listening. Since then, I have spent more and treasured them. He has more stories than he had RBIs (1,015), and he's a better storyteller than he was a slugger.
How I used to look forward to trips to the West Coast! Newsday deadlines often had passed by the end of night games in California. With no need to write, came opportunities to join Ralph, his compadre, Bob Murphy, and my compadre Danny Castellano (Newark Star-Ledger) at the hotel bars. The stories flowed too. Kiner remains encyclopedic. And I can't hear enough about Ruth and Stengel and Greenberg and Marvelous Marv and '62 and '69.
It struck me when, six or seven years ago, when Danny was off the beat and Ralph worked fewer games and the postgame rendezvous became infrequent that Ralph said he missed them too. His need to talk baseball never has diminished.
His affection for the game and knowledge of it are extraordinary. He has stayed current through the years. He knows the current personnel. He knows the past. He doesn't miss a Hall of Fame induction weekend. He is immersed in the game, and the game is better off for that.