Ralph Kiner never met the dog I named after him. It probably wasn’t a loss for either of them but it saddens me.
Twice in my life, I crossed paths with the baseball Hall of Famer, who died yesterday at the age of 91.
The first time was a fluke, sometime in earlier 1980s on the inner edge of the Shea Stadium parking lot. My parents, sister and I had arrived early to catch batting practice, of which the New York Mets could not get enough of in those years. As we headed toward the gate that would take us to the mezzanine, Ralph Kiner passed us on his way to the entrance to press box, the place where he would broadcast the game as he did in every season of the team’s 52 years in existence.
We didn’t speak. I couldn’t. My prepubescent tongue, usually so nimble with snapping off bubblegum-card minutia, wouldn’t move. When he had gone well out of earshot, I managed to weakly whisper to my sister, “That. That was Ralph Kiner.”
The second, and last, time came in 1992. Several members of the Mets organization were playing in a charity golf tournament in the town where I worked as a reporter. My loyalty to the orange-and-blue, an affliction I had carried since about age 6, earned me the news assignment even though it was not a plum one from a fan’s standpoint. That season start one of the darkest eras in Mets’ history, the season of the so-called “Worst Team Money Could Buy” of overpaid, underperforming prima donnas like Bobby Bonilla and Vince Coleman. At the golf course that day, only two people involved with the team would talk to me when I introduced myself as a reporter: bespectacled country boy utility player Jeff McKnight, who was just thankful to be in the big leagues, and Ralph Kiner.
Ralph Kiner towered over me, in actual height and presence, chewing on a cigar, smiling and chatting freely. The only thing I remember asking him was whether it was harder to watch this team struggle or those bumbling inaugural Metsies, as Manager Casey Stengel called his baby ballplayers, who still own the modern day record for ineptitude – 120 losses in 160 games (two other games were merciful canceled). Kiner answered that this year’s crew was far harder to stomach because even though the 1962 team lacked talent and skills and often a clue, they had heart and at least devised new and entertaining ways to blow ball games.
In 1998, my wife told me we needed to move to Texas for her job. I agreed, not that I really could refuse since she earned more in two months as a corporate executive than I did in a year as a newspaperman. But I had three conditions: our new house would have a pool to cool us from the heat, satellite TV so I could still watch my Mets, and a dog – the furry best friend I had longed for almost as long as I had maintained this unrequited love affair with the team from Flushing, Queens. Within two months, I had all three.
My Kiner, the four-legged one, was supposed to be a girl dog named Scully after Gillian Anderson’s flame-haired FBI agent on The X-Files. However, female Labrador retrievers were in short supply around the Dallas-Fort Worth area that spring. Instead, a yellow ball of fluff and tongue and, oh yeah – penis, rode home with us from the breeder. I don’t remember my “Eureka moment” in naming him, but I do remember the logic clearly. The Scully TV character, I knew, was named after Vin Scully, the longtime broadcaster for the Los Angeles Dodgers. Since I was a Mets fan, why not name my new pal after one of its two longtime booth guys. And so Kiner, the dog, joined our family.
(Note: Eight years later, after Kiner the canine died, I named our next dog after the other legendary Mets broadcaster, play-by-play man Bob Murphy.)
Kiner proved to be the perfect name. Like the former seven-time homerun champion I had meet years before, Kiner the dog grew exceptional tall and powerful, capable of knocking toddlers down with a single mighty swipe of his ever-wagging tail. Whereas the on-air Kiner entertained millions with his humorous stories and malapropisms, my kibble-huffing Kiner regularly made me smile with his charging out from under our bed the instant he heard the rattle of his collar, signaling a walk around the block, and his inability to distinguish between the command “come” and the desire to lick his own hindquarters.
Big, happy and goofy. Like Hall of Famer, like man’s best friend.
I often thought about writing Ralph Kiner to tell him about our beloved canine who bore his name, and how both were sources of happiness to me, especially in the worst of times like during the Mets inevitable September collapses. I even imagined they might one day meet, as the former ballplayer lived only a town over from us when we moved back to Connecticut.
But I kept hesitating. What if Ralph Kiner considered having a dog named after him an insult? What if he was allergic to dander? Dear Lord, what if he preferred cats?
Well, life is a series of “what ifs” and “never weres.” In 2006, lymphoma took my Kiner at the tender age of 8.
And, now this news.
I’m not a religious man, but I certainly hold out hope for an afterlife. If one exists, I’m sure there is a certain gangly Labrador retriever charging the gate right now, looking for a belly scratch from the other Kiner who gave the world, and his master, so much joy.