By Dana Brand
I wasn't really expecting the Mets' tribute to Ralph Kiner to be very good, because these things can be very disappointing. You have all of your emotions and there you are at the mercy of stadium sound systems, and athletes and officials and the way they use words. And then you never know what the fans around you are going to do, or what clueless public relations people are going to come up with.
But you know what? The tribute to Ralph Kiner last night was great. The Mets kept it classy, and Ralph just knows how to be there, solid, reliable, and friendly at the center of the stage.
You could see that it might work out when they started assembling the stage to Broadway music from the late '40s and early '50s. This was great. One of the most important things about Ralph is that he connects us with that era, when being the home run king meant that you weren't a big kid in shorts in a house with a million-dollar playstation. You were one of the most glamorous men in the world, an image of masculine power, a classy grown-up getting out of a limo in a tux with a woman like Ava Gardner about to take your arm. You were a friend of Sinatra and Crosby. You were a man of the world.
So, to the music of Kern and Gershwin and Bernstein, they set up the stage in the lengthening shadows as the home-run apple soaked up what remained of the sunlight and a multi-colored snake of people poured steadily down the subway ramp. The stadium was filling up. It was going to be an enormous crowd. It would have 10,000 more people than the crowd that will show up to Gary Cohen's tribute night thirty years from now.
The tribute began as the crowd was asked to look at the Diamond Vision to see some old Kiner's Korners. Not much remained, as these precious records were taped over. Most of the stuff was from the eighties, and not enough of it was in the funky little studio with the book shelves. The haircuts were bad and the faces and plywood paneling were green, and Ralph seemed more energetic than I had remembered him. But it was Kiner's Corner all right and the audience got to see LaSorda and Johnson raise their eyebrows as Ralph observed that they were so "disalike" or as Ralph said that Johnny Bench was definitely going into the hall of fame "after he serves his five years" (what, was he going into the army, into prison?) You couldn't miss the pathos of what you were watching on the Diamond Vision. The cranes and girders of Citi Field hulked behind the screen. We were paying tribute to things that had their long a wonderful run. New things were being built to replace them.
A moment was given to acknowledge that the Mayor had passed a proclamation that it was Ralph Kiner Night in New York, and some wag in the Mayor's office had crafted a comment about Ralph's service to "our city's favorite National League team." Ha ha. The Mayor, on this occasion, sent a deputy to represent him.
Then Howie Rose in a suit began the real ceremony, and a thick and slow-moving band of "friends and contemporaries" began to make their way across the field to some folding chairs near the podium set up in back of second base, where the Beatles had played their concert. The Diamond Vision informed us that this mass included such people as Bob Murphy's widow, Joye, Ed Charles, Ed Kranepool, Buddy Harrelson, Rusty Staub, Jerry Koosman, Keith Hernandez, Bob Feller, Yogi Berra, and Tom Seaver. People were clapping and cheering and whooping and crying to see these beloved people, bent but alive and grey except for Keith, of course.
Then there was a video tribute to Sinatra singing "Summer Wind" as a real warm summer wind swept through the stadium. Lots of wonderful images went by too quickly and then Ralph and his wife rode slowly in along the warning track and then down the right field line in what looked to me like a white Plymouth Belvedere from the early '60s, a gleaming vintage car as old as the Mets.
The crowd, as they say, went wild. The sound rose and held as people stood and clapped and hollered and called out to Ralph by his name. What must it be like to see a sea of 50,000 strangers calling out to you? Each of us felt that he was ours, each of us was overcome by our memories of Ralph's voice on so many summer nights, each of us felt as if Ralph Kiner was one of the things that held our lives together.
The cranes of Citifield seemed taken aback by all of this commotion, all of this loud celebration of so many ancient memories. Ralph got out of his car and walked steadily towards the podium as they played the music to Kiner's Korner (where is it? I want the MP3!) in a continuous loop. The crowd kept on cheering. The Mets announced that they were giving Ralph a cruise of his choice as a present.
Then Tom Seaver, the vintner, looking like Rudy Vallee in an old movie, read a tribute that had something to do with a plaque that was to be displayed in the Diamond Club. The Diamond Club is only going to exist for another year and a half, but I'm sure they'll find someplace equally inaccessible to most fans to put it up in the new stadium.
Then there was the main event, the man himself. Ralph with all of his dignity, his sweet, uncanny friendliness, and his apparently unsophisticated sophistication. He didn't have the clunkiness most old athletes have in situations like this, because he is at home in front of a microphone. He knew that you should just talk into it. And so he does the George Burns line about it being an honor to be anywhere at his age and from Ralph it doesn't sound like a cliché. He tells a story about Stengel bringing down the whole set on the first Kiner's Korner. He makes some gentle jokes about how bad the Mets were in their earliest years and he calls announcing the unforgettable 1969 season the greatest thrill of his broadcasting life. He quotes the most famous speech any athlete ever gave on a baseball field: Lou Gehrig's farewell speech at Yankee stadium, where he called himself "the luckiest man on the face of the earth." Ralph observes that if Lou Gehrig was the luckiest man in the world, he, Ralph was "a close second." This too was pure Ralph Kiner. Everybody knows the context of the Gehrig speech. Gehrig was saying goodbye to his fans and teammates because he had just received the terribly unlucky news that he had only a few months to live, but he was defying death and asserting that the love and loyalty of others had made him lucky. It doesn't really make sense to say that if Gehrig was the luckiest man, he, Kiner was a close second. It's actually a kind of bizarre thing to say. But you know what Ralph meant, and he is who he is. And so if he says it, it's true. It makes sense because he says it. And Ralph, when you think of his life, truly has been the luckiest man in the world.
So then he walks out to "Nobody Does It Better." And the car glides away to the lovely tender beauty of Sinatra singing "Just the Way You Look Tonight." I look through my binoculars at Koosman and Staub walking alongside each other, catching up. I can hardly hold the binoculars steady.
The car disappears behind the left field wall. And then, as if from some hidden, inexhaustible source, the 2007 Mets well up out of the dugout and run out onto the field.