Farewell, Ralph Kiner — and Thank You

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This is the 100th post of Off the Foul Pole — finally. I was stuck at 99 for quite some time and unfortunately, it took the passing of Ralph Kiner to get me to the century mark.

As you may have noticed, I have not published in about six months. And it wasn’t writer’s block this time, although it had all of the clinical symptoms of such.  And not that many noticed because my shrinking legion of followers all but left me for dead after too many extended periods of silence.

Truth is, I got bored of whining about the Mets, my primary inspiration (exasperation?) for this blog. How many different ways can you express frustration, anger, sarcasm, cynicism, and dark humor over a baseball team from Flushing? Well, thousands actually, but I simply ran out of steam. Especially after Matt Harvey went down.  That just convinced me (for the ten thousandth time) that this team is downright spooked. I also got distracted once the NFL season began (thank heavens I don’t blog about the Jets; that would make my obsession with the Mets seem downright giddy). On top of that, whatever time I had at night to write this blog was siphoned off by my new found addiction to Breaking Bad. I’m almost done binge-watching the entire five seasons. Just three episodes to go! Please don’t spoil it for me, although I kind of know what happens.  So unless my addiction to Netflix intensifies and I start intravenously feeding myself on Homeland or House of Cards – which I might – I should have more time to dedicate to this space. That is, if I can conjure up the energy to spew poetically about the Mets once again. Something insidious is bound to happen during the first few weeks in Port St. Lucie to inspire me.

But how could I remain silent about Ralph? He was part of the soundtrack to the first 53 years of my life.  Whether he was struggling to pronounce Andres Galarraga or referring to Gary Carter as Gary Cooper or waxing nostalgically about Forbes Field or Enos Slaughter, he always gave you the feeling that you were sitting on the couch next to your life-of-the-party uncle while watching the game. He was a perfect complement to anyone in the booth, but it was his three-men-and-a-baseball role with Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy that was just pure sports broadcasting bliss. I wish those three could all have stayed together for 50-plus years.

Kiner’s Korner, Ralph’s magnum opus,  was one of the highlights of my childhood. Sadly but seriously. It was as low budget and unpretentious as sports television has ever been, but it was as engaging and entertaining as well. I just loved the idea that many of the game’s biggest stars, from Seaver to Mays to Aaron to Rose to Banks, would walk off the field and still in uniform, their hair matted with sweat, eye black smeared  across their cheeks, and go sit down with Ralph to kibbitz for 15 minutes before hitting the showers.  Imagine that happening today?  Hey A-Rod, Kiner needs you for a few minutes!

After Bell’s palsy left Ralph with slurred speech several years ago, he still took his place in the booth, albeit for fewer games. Initially, I thought, why the heck is he doing this? The guy was never the smoothest talker to begin with, and now we have to listen as he struggles with every word? I realized in time how selfish and inconsiderate that was of me (and many other fans, to be sure). Despite his impairment, Ralph never lost his wit, his insights, his folksiness. The fact that he would schlepp across the country to continue practicing his craft while his speech was so impacted told you one thing: this man loves the game and he wants to share his love with you every chance he got. How could you not admire that? His perseverance – his courage – deserved every ounce of our respect. We were privileged that he continued to visit the booth at Shea Stadium and later Citi Field every year through 2013, even though his health was clearly eroding.

Beginning this season, I think I’ll try something new:  when my blood starts boiling and my brow turns downward over some ill wind blowing through  Queens  — maybe precipitated by Curtis Granderson’s plummeting batting average or Bartolo Colon’s ballooning ERA and waistline —  I’ll pause for  a moment.  And I’ll imagine I‘m watching Kiner’s Korner. It’s 1975 and Ralph is having a good laugh with Tom Seaver and Rusty Staub  after  a big win against the Reds. And I’m laughing with them while washing down some Cheese Doodles with a bottle of yoohoo.

That’ll make me feel good. And maybe I won’t be so poisonous with the pen. I might actually write something optimistic.  And then I’ll go watch another episode of Homeland.

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Summer of ’13: A-Rod, Weiner, and the Cicadas

After a very long and unplanned hiatus, I’ve returned to the keyboard. With less fanfare and more humility than A-Rod, but I’m back nonetheless. It wasn’t a case of writer’s block that kept me at bay this time. I’ve just been real busy, dealing with a lot of distractions, maybe a little ADD going on, continued frustrations with the Mets, an unhealthy preoccupation with the Jets’ QB “battle royale,” etc.

Actually, maybe it was writer’s block, but that’s all past me now. At least for another week or so.

I really have little to say of substance about the Mets. Other than Harvey, who has saved this season from total irrelevance with his mastery on the mound, there’s not much to get revved up about. The pitching overall holds promise for the future – Gee has had a nice turnaround and Wheeler’s raw but you still look forward to seeing him every fifth day or so – but the offense is just a blender full of mismatched ingredients. Yes, they play hard, may finish within ten games of .500 (amazing!) and even grab second place in the surprisingly shitty NL East. But in the middle of another hazy August, I can only get so excited about the likes of Juan Lagares, Omar Quintanilla, Anthony Recker and Josh Satin. Now if Travis D’Arnaud (remember him?) starts tearing it up and reminds us just  a teeny bit of Mike Piazza, and Wilmer Flores shows a bit of Edgardo Alfonzo in his game, I may start feeling more giddy about the future. Assuming, of course, Bobby Parnell (who I’m actually learning to like, kind of) recovers from his neck injury and Sandy Alderson convinces (cons?) us that he really will spend the money that the Wilpons may or may not have in the offseason, and they stick with Terry Collins because the thought of Teufel at the helm bores me and Backman in charge scares me (but in a fun, masochistic sort of way).

Okay, so I had more than a little to say about the Mets. But that’s it. I’ll now offer my obligatory take on A-Rod. And Anthony Weiner. Yes, the two of them together.

Other than physical appearance, these two clowns actually have a lot in common. Their careers circling the drain simultaneously under the bright lights of Broadway, they have hijacked the headlines (and the joke writers) this summer. Both guilty of various indiscretions, both embarrassments to the New York institutions they represent (the Yankees) or foolishly hope to represent (the Mayoralty), and both the very embodiment of hubris. Why can’t these guys just own up to their wrongdoings and cease prancing around expecting everyone to look the other way from their personal train wrecks?

Maybe it’s because they have no clue what it is they’ve dome to offend so many? Yes, maybe.

Earlier this summer, another noisy disruption invaded the New York area in the form of cicada swarms, who like Weiner, can’t keep their overactive libidos out of the public realm. But the cicadas have the good sense to shut up and disappear — for 17 years! — when they’re done doing their thing.

So maybe A-Rod and Weiner should make like cicadas and go underground for a while. A long while.

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Umps in the Dumps

I’ve never been a fan of umpires. To me, they’re a necessary evil of the game. Sure, it’s a tough job. And they take a lot of crap, from players and managers alike – some of it justified, some of it, not so much. But a game rarely passes where they don’t set me off. Maybe it’s a bad call, maybe it’s the chippy attitude that some (many?) of them bring to the park each day.

They also have this veil of protection that game officials in others sports do not have – nor should they. Nothing bothers me more than sitting in a ballpark and being denied access to a replay of a close call. Never happens, thanks to the umpire’s union. Only major team sport where this is the case.

I didn’t think that after 44 years as an avid baseball fan, that my opinion of the blues could sink any lower. I seemed to reach a nadir back in 2009 when Jim Joyce blew the call that denied the Tigers’ Armando Gallaraga a perfect game. Joyce showed nothing but class, dignity and yes, contrition, in publicly admitting his error. I gained a lot of respect for Joyce, but the fact that his response was such an aberration – an umpire publicly admitting he screwed up? – did not soften my view of the game’s arbiters.

So how do you think I feel after what transpired on back-to-back nights last week? On Wednesday, a ninth inning “home run” by Adam Rosales of the A’s was ruled a double despite the umps reviewing a replay and upholding the original call. It was clearly a homer but apparently, ump Angel Hernandez and his crew saw it differently than millions of others. The A’s would lose, prompting manager Bob Melvin to remark, “I’ve never felt so helpless on a baseball field. So helpless and so wronged.” The next night, as the Angels battled the Astros, Houston manager Bo Porter removed a reliever before he faced a single batter. I bet there are plenty of nine year olds who know that is very wrong. Angels’ skipper Mike Scioscia understandably went ballistic and was tossed for his very rational and understandable display of emotion. But amazingly, ump Fieldin Culbreth and his cronies ruled that Porter did not violate their sacred rule book. MLB rightfully suspended Culbreth for his egregious error but they did not go far enough; the entire crew that night should be grounded. They were all complicit in the crime.

You’ll never eliminate the element of human error in umpiring, nor should you. It’s part of the game, as is our right as fans to dislike and distrust the men in blue. But despite the fact that the use of replay is not foolproof – as evidenced by the call on Rosales – it should be extended to include questionable calls of balls fair or foul. This of course would have cost Johan Santana his no-hitter last year but that could have been a good thing. He would not have thrown 130-plus pitches and maybe his shoulder doesn’t give out. Just a thought. And maybe there should be an independent party reviewing replays, just as they do in the NHL. Take critical calls out of the hands of the umps? I’m all for it.

One more thing: stop coddling the umps and start showing controversial calls on the big screens in-stadium. So they get booed if they blew the call. It comes with the territory.

After last week’s debacle, the umps will no doubt be under greater scrutiny – by fans, media, managers, players, and of course, MLB. Maybe this is all a blessing in disguise and will lead to an improvement in training, evaluation, use of replay, and ultimately, the quality of umpiring.

Wishful thinking.

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From Seaver to Harvey

A few miles to the west, the Knicks were getting even with the Pacers while a few miles to the east, the Islanders were in a dogfight with the Penguins. But amidst all this playoff frenzy, eyeballs and Twitter handles were redirected to Citi Field. Matt Harvey was at it again, this time flirting with perfection.

If not for an infield single by the Alex Rios of the White Sox with two outs in the seventh — he beat Ruben Tejada’s terrific throw off a ball deep in the hole by less than half a step — Harvey would have been perfect. At least through nine.* Because what made this game all the more memorable, in typical Mets fashion, was that the home team failed two score until Mike Baxter’s pinch hit sent Ike Davis home in the tenth inning to edge Chicago, 1-0.

So what if Harvey really had been perfect through nine of a scoreless game? Does Terry Collins leave him in for the tenth and risk damage(real or imagined) to his young ace’s arm? Sound familiar? Where’s Johan? Oh, there he is, in street clothes. How’s the shoulder, Johan? Or is it your elbow?

I’m sure that Collins is glad he did not have to face such a quandary, but Mets fans can forever laugh (or cry) themselves silly thinking about it.

For a guy who is basically in his first full season in the majors, Harvey is scary good. Not as electric as Doc Gooden, but more – dare I say it — like a young Tom Seaver. Powerful. Smart. In control. preternaturally poised. A born ace.  Now, I compare nobody to Tom Seaver and Harvey has quite a ways to go before he can authentically be considered in a class with Number 41, but he’s all I really have now to root for with this sorry team. So I won’t hide my excitement and enthusiasm for a guy who, like Tom Terrific, may lead the Mets to greener pastures in a few years.

Wishful thinking perhaps, but what Harvey has shown in just the first five weeks of the season has me hopeful that at least every five days this summer, I’ll have something to look forward to.

Now if only they can score some runs for him. Seaver could relate to that.

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Trying to Forget the Mets at 36,000 Feet

I’m cruising at 36,000 feet on my way to LA. No food – not even an offer to purchase. Good thing I brought a Cliff Bar to munch on. I like Cliff Bar’s, but they block me up. So maybe I shouldn’t have had one on the ground at JFK before the flight.  Oh well. I’ll eat some Kiwi when I land.

I’m also deprived of light. The overheads won’t go on while they’re showing lousy in-flight entertainment. Really? When did they start with this? Are they actually saving on electricity? The airlines will do anything these days to save a few bucks. It appears that American has also cut back on customer service training, judging from the way one nasty flight attendant is deriving pleasure by snapping at a group of senior Asian tourists.  The poor woman next to me was coughing up a lung and asked for water. We were still in our ascent so Nasty Flight Attendant growled, “NO!” Great. I love sitting next to someone who is gagging to death. I gave the woman a cough drop and she settled down. I’m sending American a bill. Considering how overpriced airline food and beverage is (when it’s available to us common folks in coach, that is), I think $5 for the cough drop is fair. Plus another $1.50 for destination charges.  

Thankfully, the little girl in front to me has been very well behaved during the flight. I was expecting a scream-a-thon, but that hasn’t materialized. I credit her parents for keeping her happy and well rested. Maybe they can teach Nasty Flight Attendant a thing or two about in-flight behavior.

The coughing lady next to me is now drinking milk. I have never seen an adult drink milk on an airplane. She also keeps insisting that a flight attendant (the Nice One) pour water in her empty bottle of Starbucks. Not sure why she won’t drink from a plastic cup. The flight attendant vehemently refuses to do so (okay, so she’s not so nice).  Not sure why. I guess it’s some security thing. Or she’s afraid of spilling a few drops on the passengers and getting sued. If anything, the airline should be sued for starving us and depriving us of light. And verbally abusing us.  I should just spring for Business Class next time. I hear they’ll even treat your cough up front with tea and honey.

As I’m writing this, the coughing woman is laughing at the way I type – hunt and peck, hunt and peck. She wouldn’t be laughing if she could read what I’m writing about her. But no worries. The only English she seems to know is “Thank you” and “Sorry.” And maybe Starbucks.

And in case you’re wondering – if you’ve made it this far — I really have little to say about the Mets right now. As long as I have something or someone else to bitch about, I don’t feel compelled to vent about the Mets. Especially at seven miles above Kansas. I feel insulated from them, like they can’t assault my nerve centers up here with their negative vibes. I have barely given any thought to the fact that are now below .500 and likely to stay there for the rest of the season.  Or that their bullpen is even worse than I imagined. Or that beyond Harvey and Niese, the starting pitching is hopeless. Or that Ike Davis still can’t hit his weight. Or that Travis D’Arnaud broke his foot and is starting to look a bit injury prone – not a good sign for a catcher. Or that Zack Wheeler is struggling in AAA.  Or that centerfield is almost comically bad. Actually, it is comically bad.

Oh, why did I get started? Even up here, can’t divorce my thoughts from the Fabulous Flushing Boys. Where’s that Nasty Flight Attendant? I need another source of angst, real fast. At least before we land.

 

 

               

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The Buck Stops Where?

It’s just the Mets luck.

John Buck, who was acquired from Toronto in the R.A. Dickey deal as a placeholder at catcher until prize prospect Travis D’Arnaud was ready to pop out of the oven and into the big leagues, is tearing it up in the early going.  Six homers and 19 ribbies in the first 10 games. Historic numbers, in fact. In the last 92 years, only Lou Gehrig, Chris Davis of the Orioles and some other guy I never heard of have as many as 19 RBI’s this early in the season. Amazingly, Davis accomplished that feat this month as well, which dilutes Buck’s accomplishment a tiny bit, I suppose, but still: Gehrig must be rolling in his grave thinking, “Who the heck are these guys? John Buck? Who the Buck is he??”

I’m thinking the same thing. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to see a guy who, although he was an All-Star not long ago and has displayed some pop in his bat, was clubbing the ball like his life depended on it. But he hit .192 last year, which for  a catcher over 30, is like receiving a diagnosis of an incurable and quickly advancing disease. So it’s hard to figure what’s gotten into John Buck. Hopefully, none of the funny stuff that a few former MVP’s were allegedly shopping for down in Florida. Let’s just say that’s he’s feeling good, and confident, and is one of those few guys who are in peak form this early in the season. He’s likely to turn cold as a penguin’s toes real soon. I don’t expect he will stay on pace for 100 HR’s and 300 RBI’s, however: as long as the specter of Travis D’Arnaud remains, which could be for  the next 2-3 months, Buck may play like his job depends on it. That is quite the motivation for a catcher who only has so many good years left.

So as I said, it’s just the Mets luck. They have a stud prospect at catcher on the way, and they may be in no hurry for his services. Meanwhile, they have three openings available in the outfield (unless you consider Lucas Duda, Marlon Byrd, Colin Cowgill, or Mike Baxter everyday players) and no relief down on the farm.

Now what if Buck continues to hit like Albert Pujols, or even half an Albert Pujols, while D’Arnaud proves he’s ready to punch his ticket to Citi Field?  Well, you can trade Buck at mid-season, but even if he’s still hitting the ball well, what can you pick up for an aging catcher who is a year removed from hitting below his weight? No blue chip prospects, but maybe a decent prospect or  a veteran who can add depth during the stretch run (don’t laugh!). Or perhaps Buck stays in the lineup a few days a week while you ease D’Arnaud in.  Or you move Buck to first and trade Ike Davis (hmmm . . . .), who once again has emerged from spring training looking dazed and confused. Or you move Buck to left field, where he can’t possibly be worse than Luca Duda.

So many possibilities — all of which may be moot if Buck returns to Earth in the next month or so. But it’s still early enough in the season to imagine the possibilities as John Buck  continues his unlikely assault on the triple crown.

Boy does that sound crazy.

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April 14, 2013 · 12:03 am

Hope Springs a Leak in Flushing

sad-mr-metExcuse me if I feel a bit edgy today. It’s just that I’m gearing myself up for six months or so of swift kicks to the groin, crushing blindside tackles, two-by-fours to the back of the head, sand in my eyes, ground glass in my cereal, salt water up my nose, and other forms of torture and abuse that my imagination will likely conjure up by early August.

Yes, it’s Opening Day for the Mets. And I won’t be anybody’s April Fool, so I am tossing aside any semblance of optimism and preparing for the worst in 2013. As my expectations have sunk lower than Nicki Minaj’s neckline,  I will only kvetch so much about a 65-70 win season, which is what we’re in for. Even if the Mets get off to a fast start, and Matt Harvey and Jon Niese are killing it, and Bobby Parnell is lights out, and Colin Cowgill eats up real estate in center field (which is a good thing, in baseball terms), and David Wright and Daniel Murphy are free of their intercostal pains (not to be mistaken with intercoastal pains, which I guess is something you get from a really bad West Coast road trip), and Frank Francisco stays on the DL (a plus), and Terry Collins remains wide-eyed and smiling, and Ike Davis keeps his average above the Mendoza Line while hitting the crap out of the matzoh ball, and Travis D’Arnaud and Zack Wheeler dominate in AAA on their way to June call-ups, and Dillon Gee pitches like a three and not a six, and Marlon Byrd plays like the player we thought he was going to be with the Phillies, and Lucas Duda makes Citi Field his personal sandbox despite striking out every other at bat, and the Nationals and Braves, with all their justified hype, get off to slow starts, and the Phillies look older than ever . . .

Despite all that, I’ll still see a dark cloud hanging over this season, thunder and lightning and hail and frogs and locusts  ready to rain down from the heavens and bury this season in a torrent of Biblical plagues — bear with me, it’s the last day of Passover. I know, I sound overly dramatic, but this is what the last seven years — not  mention a majority of the last 44 seasons that I’ve been intravenously hooked up to this team  — has done to me. Worn, beaten down, frustrated, wasted, depressed. . .

And still loving it. Play ball! Let’s Go Mets!

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