Monday, February 10, 2014

Everything To Its Own Season

To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven
- The Byrds

You may have missed it.  If you did, it is entirely understandable.  In his prime - slugging his way into the Baseball Hall-of-Fame as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, he was never flashy.  In his post-playing years, including the decades he spent in the broadcast booth calling games for the New York Mets and his final few years, after he had been forced to retire as a full-time broadcaster earlier than he would have liked due to Bell's Palsy, his preference for substance over form never wavered.  As a broadcaster, he told the story.  He never, ever was the story. 

Ralph Kiner died on Thursday.  He was ninety-one years old.  In ten seasons in the big leagues, he hit 369 home runs, had 1,105 RBI and a career batting average of .279.  He was an All-Star six times - all of them with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Kiner broke into the big leagues in 1946, after having served this country as a pilot in the United States Navy.  He was assigned to the Pacific and tasked with the responsibility of searching for Japanese submarines.  He did not see combat.  He apparently also never saw a single Japanese submarine, telling a reporter from the New York Times in 1947 that he had not seen so much as a whale during his patrols. 

Unfortunately for pitchers in the National League, Kiner had a far better eye for spotting pitches he could hit - hard and far - than he did for spotting enemy submarines.  From his rookie season of 1946 through 1952, he led the National League in home runs each and every season.  He hit a career-best 54 home runs in 1949.  In the five-season period beginning in 1947 and concluding in 1951, he hit at least forty home runs and drove in at least one hundred runs each and every season.  A brutally bad back forced Kiner to retire after only ten years in the Major Leagues.   

I suspect that among the "modern-era" players for whom he had the greatest amount of empathy was Don Mattingly.  Mattingly, like Kiner, had the otherwise readily-attainable dizzying expectations for his career betrayed by his own chronically bad back.   Neither man ever played in a World Series although through the advent of the Wild-Card, Mattingly was able to do something that Kiner was not, which was play in the postseason - albeit only for one round. 

Kiner was elected into Cooperstown in 1975.  He was a broadcaster for the New York Mets from their inception in 1962 until his Bell's Palsy made it impossible for him to continue on a full-time basis.  In 1984, the Mets voted him into their Hall-of-Fame.  In 1987, the Pittsburgh Pirates retired his number.   

He sometimes did rather injurious things to the English language.  Then again, who has not?  He told one hell of a good story though.  I recall a number of years ago when the "new thing" in the big leagues were players who were disciples of a certain approach to hitting, which if memory serves me correctly was championed by a rather excellent hitting coach, Walt Hriniak.  Hriniak's philosophy was - to Kiner's way of thinking - anathemetic to the philosophy espoused by Kiner's contemporary and friend, Ted Williams.  Kiner and whoever he was then working with in the Mets booth got into a rather spirited discussion regarding Hriniak's principles - with Kiner fervently supporting Williams - and his colleague supporting Hriniak with equal fervor.  When his colleague finally pressed him as to a reason he rejected Hriniak and embraced Williams, Kiner responded that only one of the two had ever batted .406 in the Major Leagues - and it was not Hriniak.  Thus endeth the debate.   

Ralph Kiner was a man about whom I do not think I have ever read or heard a bad word uttered.  "One wonderful man," Tim McCarver once said. "Any group of people is better off if Ralph joins."  Kiner died in his sleep, of natural causes, surrounded by his family and at home.  I reckon that perhaps all of that is indicative of the fact that McCarver was not the only one who held him in such high regard.

Kiner's death came in the early morning hours of what was the first official day of the 2014 Major League Baseball season - the day that pitchers and catchers reported to the Arizona Diamondbacks Spring Training facility.  As he was gracefully exiting the field one last time, a whole new generation of players were getting ready to set foot on it. 

Proof perhaps that to everything there is indeed a season. 


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