By Jason Keidel
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Believe it or not, there was a dark decade for the New York Yankees.
It was called the 1980s. While the Yankees spent their only decade sans a World Series title, the Mets commandeered the bold ink, the back page, the standings, the sport, and the soul of our city.
And when the Mets were an essential baseball team, Ralph Kiner was an essential member of the Mets.
Many Yankees fans, like yours truly, watched baseball with one eye open, expecting the Bronx Bombers to bomb and the Mets to win. And maybe some of us secretly nudged the dial two clicks to the left, from channel 11 and the slapstick of Phil Rizzuto, to channel 9 and Kiner, where the Mets mused over the baseball world.
And no matter the state of the city’s baseball clubs, the Mets were always a few runs ahead in one area — the broadcast booth.
And Kiner, avuncular voice of the Mets for 50 years, was the only person, in any profound sense, who was with the Metropolitans during their entire existence. Kiner saw the good, bad, and ugly, and somehow remained a beloved face of a team he never played for.
He was the Mets’ iteration of Rizzuto, the former player and Hall-of-Famer who converted us more with his wisdom and charm and anecdotes than his chalkboard banter. Kiner could somehow spin a yarn about Stan Musial and Liz Taylor with equal ease. He was a war hero, baseball legend, ladies man, and a good man. And he was always way too modest to admit any of it.
Maybe it’s not right for a Yankees fan to eulogize the quintessential Met. But other than my more distant admiration for Kiner — whom my father followed in Pittsburgh from the late 1940s through the mid-’50s — I appreciate what Kiner represents.
History, more than any physical or metaphysical quality, is what baseball leans on to burnish its brand, what separates the sport from its younger sporting cousins. While the NFL steamrolls the ratings and revenue, baseball still hangs on its historical prerogative as our pastime, framing famous moments in American history long before football commanded our attention.
And part of that history is the teams’ identifiable and indefatigable announcers. Kiner is clearly among the more monolithic voices of the 20th Century. He may not have the semantic alacrity of Vin Scully or Red Barber, the singular voice of Mel Allen, or the keen strategic analyses of Tim McCarver.
But Kiner is a character, a bona fide huckleberry. Even his malaprops are charming, like saying you love baseball because you have no idea what’s going on. Or calling Gary Cohen “Gary Cooper.”
Kiner is from the generation when baseball was perfect, when the Boys of Summer were the kings of Kings County and the Yankees had their mail forwarded to the Fall Classic. There were three teams in the Big Apple and a dozen local papers to cover them and multiple daily editions. We still read newspapers and listened to radios, long before our faces weren’t buried in the buffet of gadgets we have now, when there was some mystery to baseball, to the five boroughs, and to life.
Mets fans still fawn over “Kiner’s Korner,” the eternal appendage to Mets games for decades, which aired no matter how long the game lasted. Indeed, Cohen waxed amorously about a 25-inning contest with the Cardinals in the ’70s, which ended after 3.a.m, and still segued into Kiner’s Korner, with the sleepy host conducting a soporific interview with Bake McBride.
When someone who lives as long and strong as Kiner did, his passing is a portal to our youth, and his death spawns less devastation then celebration. Any of us would sign up for 91 years, particularly when they were as robust as Kiner’s.
Some of us feel like we were born at the wrong time, either too early or late to meet our mores. Kiner was born at the right time, died at a divine time, and lived the right way. How many of us can say that?
Follow Jason on Twitter at @JasonKeidel
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