I got a kick out of interviewing Mets broadcast legend, and National Baseball Hall of Famer, Ralph Kiner for a Fifth Estater profile in our new issue, and not only because it meant I got to play hooky for a day game out at Shea Citi Field one day in August.
Ralph Kiner, center, joins Ron Darling (left) and Gary Cohen in the “Ralph Kiner Broadcast Booth” at Citi Field.
Kiner, who turns 89 next month, was outspoken as ever, just as he is on the air. Many have complained about the fences being too far back at the new Mets ballpark, but Kiner–who slugged 369 homers in a 10 year career–was having absolutely none of it. The most feared slugger of his era, Kiner spoke about hitting at at mammoth parks like Forbes Field and of course the Polo Grounds. (The latter was hitter friendly down the lines, but was some 483 feet to center, and Willie Mays used all of it for that famous catch. Kiner mentioned short-hopping the centerfield fence there once, and legging out a triple.)
“It’s ridiculous to say Citi Field’s fences are too far back,” he said. “When they talk about big parks today, it’s ridiculous.”
It was interesting, if not all that surprising, to hear that Kiner’s greatness on the field goes unrecognized by the modern players. (To be sure, Ralph only works a few innings every home day game, so he’s not around the club as much as he used to be.) One would think he could offer some hitting tips to the younger players, if only in a casual manner. But they don’t ask.
Kiner said he was the hitting instructor when he was the GM of the San Diego Padres after his playing career ended, and pitched in with a few young players, such as Ken Singleton, when he first joined the Mets’ broadcast booth in the early ’60s.
“Since then, no one seeks me out,” he said. “I think I’m one of the most knowledgeable guys on hitting. I learned from two of the best–Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg. They could’ve taken advantage of me but they never have.”
Kiner did share a story about conversing with the father of Dwight Gooden, who was a phenomenal Mets pitcher before his career derailed due to substance abuse and injuries. Gooden’s dad asked his son if he knew Kiner, who frequently had “Doc” Gooden on his Kiner’s Korner program, was a Hall of Fame player.
“I didn’t know he played baseball!” said Gooden.
Kiner’s boothmates, including Gary Cohen and Ron Darling, said Kiner offers a few traits that aren’t all that common in big-name broadcasters who’ve been around for a long time: He comes meticulously prepared for the game, and he’s generous with the air time.
“I’ve worked with older cats and they try to dictate what’s going to happen in the broadcast,” said Darling. “When Ralph gets here, he wants to share the broadcast. It’s not, this is my day, I only work X amount of days and I want to make sure I maximize it. Ralph just wants to fit seamlessly with what Gary and me and Keith [Hernandez] do. You can’t say that about a lot of people, who want to bust in and do their thing.”
Darling and Cohen both noted how appropriate, and entertaining, Kiner’s old-time baseball stories are to the game in front of them. “When Ralph starts talking, sometimes I forget about the game because I’m totally tapped into what he’s saying,” admitted Darling. “He goes down the road with a new story, and that at-bat for so and so is not as important to me.”