The unforgettable two lives of Ralph Kiner

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There are countless Mets fans who probably have no idea just how good a hitter Ralph Kiner was in his prime. In a way, there can be no greater tribute. Ralph Kiner died on Thursday. He was 91 years old. He was a broadcaster for the New York Mets for 53 years. And he rarely let on that there was a time when he was one of the great sluggers in the history of baseball.

Kiner lived two lives, which is one more than most of us get to live. He got to be the great ballplayer who drove Cadillacs because, as he is often quoted saying, “Home run hitters drive Cadillacs; singles hitters drive Fords.” And he got to be a broadcaster who was so beloved that these malapropisms were not only endured but celebrated.

“On Father’s Day,” he said, “we wish you all a happy birthday!”

Funny, I remember listening that day and I recall him saying, “It’s Father’s Day, so to you all you fathers out there, happy birthday!” The point’s the same. Ralph Kiner’s mistakes as a broadcaster made him more delightful, not less.

“That’s the great thing about baseball,” he said. “You never know what’s going on.”

He was a contentious baseball player, one of the most argued about of his time. Branch Rickey was probably the big reason. Rickey became the Pittsburgh Pirates general manager in 1950 and thoroughly despised Kiner. He would always say it was because of Kiner’s multiple flaws as a player — he couldn’t run, he had no arm, he couldn’t field and so on. Still, Rickey’s enmity toward Kiner had to be based on things more personal, because he was unrelenting.

“Kiner has so many other weaknesses,” Rickey once said, “that if you had eight Ralph Kiners on an American Association team, it would finish last.”

This is even nastier than Rickey’s more famous “We finished last with you, we can finish last without you*” barb when Kiner dared ask for a raise after leading the league in home runs again. Rickey was saying that a team of Ralph Kiners would finish last in the minor leagues. The minor leagues! This is the Ralph Kiner, understand, who from 1946 to 1952 hit 100 more home runs than any other player in baseball and drove in more runs as well, the list of trailers obviously including Ted William and Stan Musial and Joe DiMaggio and other Hall of Famers.

*During his stretch with Pittsburgh, the Pirates finished last twice. Both years, Kiner led the league in home runs and walked at least 110 times. In both seasons, the Pirates’ pitching staff had an ERA a half-run worse than any other team in the league.

Kiner’s insistence on getting paid probably has something to do with Rickey’s spitefulness — Rickey never did look too kindly on ballplayers who wanted to get paid for their services — and it’s likely that Kiner was also a scapegoat for Rickey’s inability to turn around Pittsburgh’s fortunes. Still, it was a nasty little fight, and it seeped into other places. As Bill James has written, “a lot of people didn’t like Kiner.” He led the league in home run seven straight years, something even Babe Ruth never did. He was utterly brilliant at getting on base — his lifetime .398 on-base percentage is the same as Joe DiMaggio’s. Still, it took Kiner 15 years to get elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame.

So that was his first life.

His second was as the New York Mets’ announcer. He began when the team began in 1962 — he would always say that the Mets hired him because they looked at his resume and saw that he had plenty of losing experience. The Mets lost 120 that first year and Kiner was part of the broadcast team that brought home the news. As an announcer, he was funny and charming and a little bit befuddled and every now and again he would say something beautiful.

“Two thirds of the earth is covered in water,” he once said after a great catch by Phillies center fielder Garry Maddox. “The other third is covered by (Garry) Maddox.”

We spend a lot of time with the baseball announcers of our favorite baseball teams. We check in with them daily to find out the score, to learn the news, to check out the weather. My best friend in high school was a huge Mets fan, and he had the first satellite dish I’d ever seen, and nightly we’d find Mets games and Ralph Kiner. We heard more Ralph Kiner than we heard any teacher. We’d always stick around for his postgame show, Kiner’s Korner, (both with Ks) because it could be priceless television. You probably have heard the famous Kiner’s Korner interview with the Mets’ catcher, Choo Choo Coleman.

“What’s your wife’s name, and what is she like?” Kiner asked.

“Mrs Coleman,” Choo Choo growled. “And she likes me, bub.”

We would watch Kiner’s Korner nightly in the hope of seeing something equally hilarious. Often we did. In my mind, I heard the Father’s Day line, and I recall Kiner saying, “If Casey Stengel was alive today he’d be spinning in his grave,” and I even seem to remember him advising us that “solo home runs usually come with no men on base.” Maybe I did hear those calls. Maybe my memory just wants me to think I did. I remember falling back on that carpet in front of my buddy’s television and laughing so hard I literally was rolling on the floor laughing.

What I don’t remember was Kiner even hinting that he once hit the longest home runs in baseball, that he was Killebrew before Killebrew, McGwire before McGwire, Thome before Thome. He would call New York Mets’ home runs like they were amazing to him, like he could not even believe that someone had the power to do such a thing.

You might know, the year Pittsburgh traded Ralph Kiner in 1953, they did indeed finish last without him. What you might not know is that Pittsburgh fans organized a boycott in protest. Ralph Kiner never did talk about how much they loved him.

And That Happened: Saturday’s Scores and Highlights

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Saturday’s slate featured all the components of great (read: entertaining) baseball, from Aaron Judge‘s double-deck moonshot and Jacob May‘s first major league hit to the worst squeeze bunt attempt of Chase Anderson‘s career. Here are the rest of the day’s scores and highlights:

Cubs 12, Reds 8: The Cubs didn’t have to mount another rally to clinch their tenth win of the season. Jake Arrieta led the charge through six innings, allowing five runs, striking out eight batters and putting up his fourth career triple on a changeup from Lisalverto Bonilla:

The rest of the Cubs feasted on home runs, from Anthony Rizzo’s two-run blast in the first inning to Jason Hayward’s three-run shot and Wilson Contreras’ first major league grand slam. The Reds got in a few knocks of their own, with Eugenio Suarez putting up a solo homer in the first and Joey Votto coming just a triple shy of the cyclebut 12 runs ended up being more than enough to see the Cubs through to another win.

Tigers 5, Twins 4: A benches-clearing confrontation, two ejections and a disastrous hit by pitch isn’t exactly what the doctor ordered, but at the end of the day, the Tigers stood atop a 5-4 win for their ninth victory of the season. A better reward? Knowing that while JaCoby Jones needed nine stitches in his lip after taking a 90 m.p.h. fastball to the face, he isn’t expected to miss significant time on the disabled list this year.

Athletics 4, Mariners 3: First place in the AL West may be an unattainable goal for the Athletics right now, but it sure looks like they’re starting to gel. Adam Rosales and Jed Lowrie wasted no time getting on the board in the first inning with a pair of home runs, and Khris Davis added an RBI groundout in the third to give the A’s a much-needed edge. The Mariners, on the other hand, will need to work fast to solve their problems on the road, since they still have another seven games to play before they return to Seattle on May 2.

Nationals 3, Mets 1: Every start Gio Gonzalez has made in 2017 has looked near-flawless, but Saturday showcased some of his best work. The Nationals’ left-hander carried a no-hitter through five frames, retiring 15 of 18 batters, striking out three and issuing three walks before Juan Lagares broke up the no-no in the sixth. Two at-bats later, Asdrubal Cabrera singled home the Mets’ first run of the night, but Gonzalez settled down to strike out the side and the Nats’ bullpen took care of the rest, cementing the lefty’s second win of the year.

Yankees 11, Pirates 5: In the words of the inimitable George Orwell: All home runs are equal, but some home runs are more equal than others. Specifically, this home run — a ninth-inning, 2-2 fastball obliterated 457 feet into the second deck of PNC Park — was created to stand above the rest.

Rays 6, Astros 3: Fun fact: George Springer currently leads all active MLB players with 205 consecutive major league appearances. Not-so-fun fact: That streak likely came to an end on Saturday, when Springer exited in the fifth inning with left hamstring discomfort. Astros’ manager A.J. Hinch told reporters that the outfielder is expected to sit out of Sunday’s finale against the Rays.

Phillies 4, Braves 3 (10 innings): The dramatic finish to Saturday’s 10-inning marathon was less the product of individual heroics and more of a group effort, due in part to some defensive miscues that perfectly positioned the Phillies for a walk-off win. Third baseman Maikel Franco had the honor of driving in the winning run with a two-run, bases-loaded single, his first game-winning knock since August 3, 2016.

Orioles 4, Red Sox 2: No retaliatory measures were taken against the Orioles on Saturday after Dustin Pedroia was injured on a takeout slide during Friday’s 2-0 loss, but Boston manager John Farrell is still pretty upset about the whole ordeal. Baltimore prevailed a second time, turning in a four-run fourth inning on back-to-back home runs from Trey Mancini and Jonathan Schoop and an RBI single from Adam Jones.

Indians 7, White Sox 0: Jacob May probably slept a lot easier on Saturday night after recording his first major league hit during the White Sox’ 7-0 loss. The 25-year-old center fielder subbed in for an injured Melky Cabrera in the seventh inning and promptly singled off of the Indians’ Carlos Carrasco, ending his streak at 26 hitless at-bats.

The crowd gave the rookie a standing ovation for his feat, though the team would go on to lose 7-0 after Carrasco and Zach McAllister joined forces for the club’s second consecutive shutout of the year.

Cardinals 4, Brewers 1: Bunts are tricky animals, nearly impossible to wrangle unless you get the timing and circumstances just right. Neither the timing nor the circumstances were aligned for Brewers’ right-hander Chase Anderson, who attempted a squeeze bunt in the fifth inning of Saturday’s 4-1 loss and watched the play unravel in the worst way:

Rangers 2, Royals 1: Heading into Saturday’s game, the Royals’ rotation held a combined 2.36 ERA, good for lowest in the league. Their 2-1 loss to the Rangers did little to move the needle there, though their offense still leaves much to be desired. Mike Moustakas drove in the Royals’ only run of the night, making Saturday’s loss the sixth consecutive game in which they’ve mustered two or fewer runs.

Diamondbacks 11, Dodgers 5: Dodgers’ skipper Dave Roberts is weighing his rotation options, which should come as little surprise after Kenta Maeda was shelled in Saturday’s loss. The right-hander, who self-diagnosed his problem as being more “results-oriented” than “process-oriented,” gave up nine hits, five runs and four homers in five innings against the Diamondbacks. It was a significant boost for the D-backs, whose double-digit win helped tighten their grip on the NL West with a 12-7 record, just half a game shy of tying the Rockies for the division lead.

Rockies 12, Giants 3: Speaking of NL West competitors, it’ll take some effort to unseat the Rockies after they bulldozed the Giants in a 12-run finish on Saturday. It wasn’t an entirely fair match, however, as the Giants have lost several players to injuries over the past week and were forced to remove outfielder Denard Span in the second inning after he sprained his right shoulder on a catch at the wall.

Marlins 6, Padres 3 (11 innings): Giancarlo Stanton‘s home runs bookended the Marlins’ first extra-inning victory of the year, but the win wasn’t all about flashy home runs and game-winning knocks. Martin Prado snared a would-be walk-off hit in the 10th inning, preserving the tie and giving Stanton — and the rest of the Marlins — another chance for redemption in the 11th.

Angels 5, Blue Jays 4: There have been quite a few grand slams circulating in the majors this weekend, and the most recent one belongs to Andrelton Simmons. Simmons’ slam off of Casey Lawrence in the third inning proved the deciding factor in the Angels’ 5-4 win, providing Anaheim with just enough of a buffer as Toronto attempted a comeback in the ninth.

It’s a nice break for the Angels, who snapped a three-game losing streak and currently sit fourth in the AL West. The same can’t be said for the Blue Jays, whose 4-13 record is the worst across both leagues.

Angels move Garrett Richards to 60-day disabled list

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Angels’ right-hander Garrett Richards has been moved to the 60-day disabled list, according to a team announcement on Saturday. Richards was originally placed on the 10-day disabled list in early April after sustaining a right biceps cramp during his first start of the season. No timetable has been given for his return to the mound, though Pedro Moura of the Los Angeles Times speculates that his return date could be pushed back to June.

While the Angels report that Richards is making some progress in his recovery, he’s still experiencing some “irritation of the cutaneous nerve,” which could be preventing him from working back up to full strength. The veteran righty already missed 154 days of the 2016 season after suffering a UCL injury, and opted for biometrics surgery to repair the ligament rather than undergoing a more intensive Tommy John procedure.

This is Richards’ seventh season with the Angels. He last pitched a full, healthy season in 2015, delivering a 3.65 ERA, 3.3 BB/9 and 7.6 SO/9 over 207 1/3 innings. He’s currently one of eight Angels pitchers serving time on the disabled list, including left-hander Andrew Heaney and right-handers Cam Bedrosian, Andrew Bailey, Vicente Campos, Huston Street, Mike Morin and Nick Tropeano.