The sad news about Ralph Kiner’s passing on Thursday, as with anything about Ralph Kiner, brought to mind one of my very favorite jokes. It happened during a Dodgers-Mets game on May 18, 2001; Eric Karros had just doubled off Al Leiter, and Kiner took to the microphone.
If Eric Karros raced a pregnant girl, he’d finish third.
I remember two things about that joke: first, for whatever reason, it was funny enough at the time that I remember it today; and I’ll tell you the second reason later.
The best jokes, you’ll agree, are the ones that the teller doesn’t seem to find all that funny. They’re offhand and unrehearsed. Even if they’re standup comedy, they don’t feel like part of a show. Ralph Kiner—even more so relative to perhaps every other analyst in baseball—never, ever felt like part of a show.
Maybe his service time, as a pilot in the U.S. Navy during World War II, kept him humble; maybe he had a great set of parents; or maybe everyone born in New Mexico is like that. Whatever it was, it never occurred to him to make a broadcast about himself. Consider how this thought from Kiner reads relative to the typical ballplayer’s “Back in my day…” refrain, which has grown no quieter over the years:
I think one of the most difficult things for anyone who’s played baseball is to accept the fact that maybe the players today are playing just as well as ever.
If anyone had reason to make a broadcast about himself, it was Kiner. He led the National League in home runs in the first seven of his 10 major league seasons, and one could argue that the difference between Kiner and Mickey Mantle was that Kiner lost time due to the war (Mantle’s draft was deferred), had his career cut short by his injury (Mantle recovered and salvaged five more good seasons), and played in Pittsburgh rather than New York. Kiner is an all-time great, of course, but under different circumstances we would remember his career even more fondly.
But most of us are too young to remember seeing Kiner play—which is good, in a way, because that probably isn’t how he should be remembered. Think of your favorite team’s everyday color commentator. Now imagine that commentator dropping that Eric Karros joke. Now let your eyes roll into the back of your head as you hear the hokey, stilted, “I prepared this three hours beforehand or stole it from a clubhouse attendant” delivery, and the forced over-laugh from the beleaguered play-by-play man, and the dead air that follows as he decides whether to acknowledge it further or move on as if nothing had happened.
The second reason I remember this joke after nearly 13 years is that after Kiner said it, there was half a beat of dead air—and then the rest of the booth burst into uncontrollable laughter.
I don’t mean to make more of this than it was; really, it was one funny moment in one game in yet another Mets season that had more comedy than drama anyway, and besides that, it’s my only concrete Kiner anecdote, so I’m milking it. But this is what we don’t have in sports today, and I’m afraid it’s never coming back. No matter his broadcast partners—Howie Rose and Fran Healy that night, I think—Kiner’s greatest trait was that he seemed to genuinely admire the people he worked with.
It was a friendly conversation first and a television production second. Younger fans (and those with short memories) may not understand this distinction, in the way that someone who has only had Pizza Hut may rightly claim to understand pizza but does not fully appreciate it. Just across the East River the YES Network rotates a crew of former players that, on Michael Kay’s nights off especially, appear to have met one another for the first time about 15 minutes before the game. Boston’s Don Orsillo seems to just tolerate Jerry Remy, and they’ve been together over a decade; you can almost hear Orsillo composing himself after Remy’s latest inanity, readying a smooth non sequitur to just get us the hell out of this discussion. Many other booths are populated with slapdash pairings that sacrifice chemistry for inoffensiveness. And, my goodness, I can only imagine what Steve Stone really thinks of Hawk Harrelson.
Contrast that with Kiner. Rose, who lives and breathes Mets and Islanders, revered him. Healy was such a classic (yet oddly endearing) ham, just the kind of guy who’d tell the Karros joke with the subtlety of Gallagher’s mallet, and yet Ralph would come on and suddenly Fran’s shtick was a distant memory, in its wake just two old ballplayers discussing how things are, how things used to be, and—oh, is there a television audience listening? They didn’t seem to notice, or care.
In more recent years, Gary Cohen could hardly contain his enthusiasm for Ralph’s less and less frequent cameos. He made sporadic appearances, usually just for an inning or two during an afternoon home game, through the 2013 season, his 53rd consecutive year in broadcasting. And every time he’d come on, Cohen would bookend seemingly every half inning with an amount of praise that must have seemed like overkill to the uninitiated.
For his part, Cohen regularly deals with both ends of the color man spectrum. Keith Hernandez, like Kiner, doesn’t seem to know that anyone is actually listening. Like Kiner, he will sometimes start sentences without knowing how he’s going to finish them, and also like Kiner, he wraps it in a package so genuine that even if you don’t like him, you’re at least refreshed by his uniqueness. Ron Darling, by contrast, speaks with the self-awareness of a North Korean on trial—combine that with his intelligence and polish, of course, and he’s a producer’s dream. Darling has been doing national work on TBS since 2007. This is not a coincidence.
Together, Gary, Keith, and Ron form what has to be the best broadcast crew in baseball because, as Kiner did, they truly enjoy each other’s company. We know they see the value in that, too, because they gave the go-ahead to keep Kiner on television in his later years. Kiner was a living legend, but they didn’t have to bring him back: this was a 91-year-old man who had battled Bell’s palsy and stroke and was prone to malapropism even at his most lucid. That those three thought enough of him to keep him on the air says more about him than I ever could.
What I can say is that Kiner died yesterday, reportedly of natural causes, at the age of 91—too old for most of us to mourn, really, because he lived a great American life and made us all love baseball that much more. Odd, then, that the narrative surrounding Kiner’s playing career will always be “what might have been.” Let’s instead focus on what ought to be. For one, players ought to continue playing the game as well as it’s ever been played, but Kiner always knew that wouldn’t be a problem. I’m not sure we can say the same about our broadcasters, who all seem to be on a collision course toward total removal of individuality and personality, sounding more and more like the canned commentary of baseball videogames that only mimics real rapport. There will be other players like Kiner, but we may be running out of broadcasters cut from that cloth.
In a statement released Thursday, Bud Selig called Kiner “in many respects, a player ahead of his time.” He seemed to be a broadcaster very much of his time, or at least not of this one. One day, though, I hope to hear two announcers seamlessly weaving in a conversation, having a laugh or two, enjoying the game and one another, and reminiscing about Ralph Kiner; who—as a broadcaster, at least—really did do it better than most of those talking today.
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