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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.

Angel Pagan lands on the 15-day disabled list with a strained hamstring

SCOTTSDALE, AZ - FEBRUARY 28:  Angel Pagan #16 of the San Francisco Giants poses for a portrait during spring training photo day at Scottsdale Stadium on February 28, 2016 in Scottsdale, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Giants outfielder Angel Pagan has been placed on the 15-day disabled list, the club announced on Tuesday. He has a strained left hamstring. Outfielder Jarret Parker has been recalled from Triple-A Sacramento.

Pagan strained his hamstring earlier this month and missed nearly two weeks while avoiding a trip to the DL. The club decided to play it safe this time around. Pagan aggravated the injury during Monday’s game against the Padres, exiting in the ninth inning.

Pagan is hitting .275/.338/.383 with a pair of home runs and 13 RBI on the year.

Odubel Herrera was benched for a lack of hustle last night

ATLANTA, GA - MAY 12:  Centerfielder Odubel Herrera #37 of the Philadelphia Phillies runs to third for a triple in the tenth inning during the game against the Atlanta Braves at Turner Field on May 12, 2016 in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Mike Zarrilli/Getty Images)
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Phillies outfielder Odubel Herrera has been described by Kevin Cooney of Calkins Media as “the straw that stirs the Phillies.” He has drawn comparisons to former Phillie Shane Victorino for his high-energy style of play that can motivate a team and give it momentum. So it was a bit shocking to hear that Herrera had been removed from Monday’s game against the Tigers for a lack of hustle.

Herrera started the game with a 14-pitch at-bat against Mike Pelfrey and wound up singling in each of his first three at-bats. In the seventh, Herrera faced lefty reliever Justin Wilson with a runner on second base and no outs. He hit a tapper back to Wilson, who looked Peter Bourjos back to second base, then lobbed to first base for the out. Wilson wasn’t quick to get the ball to first base, but Herrera was only lightly jogging so it didn’t matter. Manager Pete Mackanin removed him from the game and put David Lough in center field.

Here’s video of Herrera’s jog:

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Matt Breen confirmed the reason for Herrera exiting the game. Herrera said after the Phillies’ 5-4 loss, “I know I did wrong,” per CSN Philly’s John Clark. Herrera said, “I was frustrated,” and added, “It won’t happen again.”

After the benching, while the game was still going on, I was also told by several of my Twitter followers who were watching the game that the CSN broadcast showed Herrera pointing to his back while speaking with the team trainer. He did not play on May 18 against the Marlins due to back discomfort, as Matt Gelb of the Inquirer reported.

Making a point to your team about hustle is understandable, particularly for a young team like the Phillies. Jumping on a player with a bad back is not the best way to make that point, however. Herrera might have been slow up the line because his back was bothering him and he might not have said anything about it because baseball culture (and masculinity in general) tells players to play through pain. He might not have wanted to argue with Mackanin about it either, since he is only in his second season as a major leaguer. Mackanin is then essentially telling his team to play through injuries and give max effort even when it might be a detriment.

I’ve argued before about how it’s actually a bad idea to run full throttle on weak pop-ups and ground outs. They’re outs 99 percent of the time. Yes, if you run hard, you might get a single or a double that one time, but it’s also a way to get injured. That’s especially true if a player already has a nagging injury like a bad back.

Work smarter, not harder.

San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus asks for fired DJ to be reinstated

SAN DIEGO - APRIL 06:  The grounds crew works on the field before the start of the game between the Colorado Rockies and the San Diego Padres during Opening Night at Petco Park on April 6, 2007 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Donald Miralle/Getty Images)
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OK, I lied. Earlier I said we had the final word on the National Anthem dustup in San Diego from over the weekend. The final word, it seemed, was the Padres apologizing, the revelation that the screwed up Anthem thing was a mistake by a DJ hired to run the music and the DJ then being fired. Oh, and then the DJ apologizing.

Now a new twist! The San Diego Gay Men’s Chorus said today that they’d like to see the DJ rehired by the Padres! Their statement, in relevant part:

We also would like to publicly accept the sincere apology of DJ ARTFORM and recognize his support for the LGBT community and equality for all people. We do not wish to see him lose his job with the San Diego Padres and kindly ask the Padres to reinstate him. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

That’s quite a shift in the past few days, as all of this was came into the public eye via a Facebook post by a Gay Men’s Chorus official saying that this whole thing was part of a pattern of troublesome homophobia. Now we’ve come full circle. Or maybe around the circle a few times and back again. I don’t know. I’m dizzy.

Whatever the case: everyone’s all happy now, and that’s way better than everyone being all mad.

Great Moments in Dealing with Hecklers: Bartolo Colon edition

SAN DIEGO, CALIFORNIA - MAY 7:  Bartolo Colon #40 of the New York Mets pitches during the first inning of a baseball game against the San Diego Padres at PETCO Park on May 7, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
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Last week the news broke that a lawsuit was filed against Bartolo Colon for back child support for two children he apparently fathered out of wedlock. As we noted repeatedly at the time, the case was sealed and the facts were mostly unknown. Still, the possibility at least exists that Colon has been a deadbeat dad to some degree. And the underlying facts are no doubt a sensitive matter to his family, right? I hope we can all agree on that.

As we’ve all seen in the past, this sort of stuff is what hecklers thrive on. Ask Chipper Jones or any other athlete who have been caught up in scandal, especially sexual scandal, in the past. Fans of the opposition are going to pounce on it. And the fans in Washington for the Mets-Nationals series are no different in that regard:

I wish fans didn’t use stuff about the personal lives of ballplayers like this, especially when it involves their families, but I suppose it’s inevitable. And hey, Colon got him back right? Quickly showed the heckler that he couldn’t be gotten to. The first impulse in reading this is to laugh for just that reason. Indeed, the first impulse in reading a lot of things dealing with Colon these days is to laugh because he’s become a pretty popular and affable figure.

But I also wish Colon, even if this was meant flippantly in order to deflect a jerk, didn’t respond this way in this situation. Why? Because it seems to diminish what, for his family and the woman with whom he fathered a couple of children out of wedlock, is a pretty serious and personal situation. And possibly one with some negative legal consequences in the offing. At the very least Colon’s comment will bring him an extra question or two at a deposition from the lawyer for the mother of his children, putatively to probe him for any other similar situations but, in reality, just to get under his skin. For that reason it was kind of a dumb comment.

More broadly, however, it just doesn’t look great to treat this whole situation flippantly. Maybe Bartolo Colon gets away with this way easier than someone else might because of his current popularity, but how would we feel if another, less popular player were accused of something unseemly and he treated it as a joke like this? I feel like the knives would be out for him in ways they’ll likely never be out for Bartolo Colon based solely on how we feel about the player in question.

It all goes back to what I wrote about all of this last week: we have a sliding scale for behavior for certain athletes and public figures based on their preexisting popularity. We shouldn’t have such a sliding scale. Personally, I think we should be far more hands-off and lenient when it comes to judging these men than we currently are because there is so little we truly know and so little of it is truly the business of fans. But if we do get in the business of judging these guys, we need to be fair about it.

I don’t think we should have the knives out for Colon over this, especially given how little is known about his case and his situation. But I feel like we’d treat someone who was not Bartolo Colon very differently under the same exact facts and that it would do us well to contend with that some.