In time for the 50th anniversary of the Mets' miraculous 1969 World Series win, right fielder Ron Swoboda tells the story of that amazing season, the people he played with and against (sometimes at the same time), and what life was like as an Every Man ballplayer.
Ron Swoboda wasn't the greatest player the Mets ever had, but he made the greatest catch in Met history, saving a game in the 1969 World Series, and his RBI clinched the final game. By Met standards that makes him legend. The Mets even use a steel silhouette of the catch as a backing for the right field entrance sign at Citi Field.
In this smart, funny, insightful memoir, which is as self-deprecating as a lifetime .249 hitter has to be, he tells the story of that magical year nearly game by game, revealing his struggles, his triumphs, and what life was like for an every day, Every Man player, even when he was being platooned. He shows what it took to make one of the worst teams in baseball and what it was like to leave one of the best. And when he talks about the guys he played with and against, it's like you're sitting next to him on the team bus, drinking Rheingold. This is a book anyone who loves the game will love as much.
|Publisher:||Tantor Media, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 7.50(h) x 0.60(d)|
About the Author
Ron Swoboda played right field for the Mets from 1965 to 1970, for the Expos in 1971, and for the Yankees from 1971 to 1973. Afterwards he was a TV sportscaster in New York City, Milwaukee, and New Orleans, where he provided color commentary for telecasts of the Marlins' AAA club and now lives.
Read an Excerpt
A Pretty Lucky Man
"Grandad, why is everything always a story?" This quote comes straight from Kaylin, my now-seventeen-year-old granddaughter. She's a swimmer, and like all her classmates and buddies, she is hardly ever out of eye contact with her smartphone texting in a world that moves way faster than mine. To her soon to be seventy-five-year- old grandfather, everything is a story. That's how I remember everything.
I consider myself a pretty lucky man. I've been married to Cecilia, the most amazing of female creatures for fifty-four years. We have two grown sons, and their families color our charmed lives in forever surprising ways. With zero preparation, I've been able to work most of my adult life in a job that most people would love to have, working in TV sports as an anchor and a reporter. Not bad for a guy with a flat average IQ. Most people know me, if they know me at all, for the nine years I played Major League Baseball, mostly for the New York Mets, including the Miracle Mets team that won the 1969 World Championship, but also with the New York Yankees, and briefly with the Expos and Braves in the spring of 1974. A study in the August 2007 issue of Population Research and Policy Review looked at the 5,989 position players who began their careers between 1902 and 1993 — that would include me — and found that the average length of a major league player's career during that time was 5.6 years. With nine years' service, I was a journeyman who beat the odds. If there is one characteristic that ties all those experiences together, it's that almost all of my life has been spent around people more capable and more disciplined than myself, all to my benefit. As I say, I'm a pretty lucky man.
Three things happened to me as a kid that could have changed everything. Once, riding my bike when I was about five in the neighborhood where I grew up, Sparrows Point, Maryland, I came out of a blind alleyway just five feet ahead of a point where I would have meshed with the grille of a Buick Roadmaster.
Later, when I was about fourteen years old, a couple buddies and I were destroying the inside of this abandoned house, you know, busting out the windows, tearing up anything we could. But climbing down off the roof required dangling your legs from an overhang and placing your feet on the rungs of a ladder you couldn't see and could barely feel with your toes extended. Well, my feet went through the rungs and I fell backward onto the ladder from about ten feet high. Fortunately, and totally accidentally, I hooked a rung of the ladder with my knees flexed, breaking my fall. My momentum pulled the ladder from the house down on top of me, and I landed in a shaken but safe heap on the ground.
A few years later, when I was older but not wiser, I took my Daisy Pump BB gun into the piece of woods that stood right across the street from where I lived. I considered myself the scourge of the starling and grackle population around my yard. I hunted them hard, sitting quietly below the mulberry trees where they came to feed. Some neighborhood guys, however, wanted to up the stakes, and proposed a BB gunfight. Diving into sides, we squared off in the woods about 150 feet apart. We'd pop up and shoot at the other guys with only a rough idea of who we were shooting at. Smart, no? You know where this is heading. At some point during the fray, a BB hit me in the forehead about an inch and a half above my right eye, which is what it took for me to grasp the stupidity of what we were doing. So, I ran home, never to do that again.
It is only looking back that you understand, with complete clarity, that any one of these three things could have changed my life completely. It was just luck. I do not believe there are angels lurking about saving kids ready to fall to their deaths from high places, or ride their bikes in front of cars, or take a BB in the eye. It was luck, and all the stories that follow have depended on nothing but luck.
I grew up in Maryland in a community called Sparrows Point outside Baltimore, hard by a Bethlehem Steel plant, once the first and largest integrated tidewater steel manufacturing plant in America. Sparrows Point is tidewater because it's located on a stretch of land where the Chesapeake Bay gives way to the Patapsco River, which carries oceangoing ships to and from the port of Baltimore, four or five miles to the north. The deep water access allowed the plant to receive by boat the first iron ore from outside the continental USA, specifically, from Cuba, following the Spanish-American War. We'd see those huge vessels coming up to Bethlehem Steel, a massive operation that came into being around the turn of the twentieth century and that, at its peak, produced 610,000 tons of steel and employed 35,000 people round-the-clock. Now, after more than a hundred springs, it's all gone, and the property is being repurposed.
I was the younger of two boys: a rambunctious, inquisitive kid. My neighborhood was best described as the scruffy suburbs, where the lady with the perfect perm and meticulously tended rosebushes could live next door to a shirtless guy who had an old Ford sitting on cinder blocks in his backyard. We had one, thanks to my older brother, Jack. But it was the kind of place where you felt completely secure, safe riding your bike to school or the playground. During the hot months, we went to what we called summer school, where a teacher operated a day camp with crafts and softball games. Early evenings were dedicated to Little League. Once we learned to swim, we were on our own, at all the available swimming sites in Back River. Everybody knew one another. It was idyllic — a perfect upbringing.
My Mom and Dad were working people. They bought a house on Lakeview Avenue that they lived in most of their lives until it burned down years later when my son was living in the upstairs apartment. We didn't live in luxury, but we never lacked for love or the sense that our parents cared for us, although they surely expected us to be responsible for our end of the deal. Between my parents and my wife, Cecilia, I know that I've been loved every day of my life. No small statement. For years my Mom could walk across the dual highway at the top of our street to her work as a secretary at Arcrods Corporation. They manufactured welding rods, coated with asbestos, likely the source of the mesothelioma my Mom was diagnosed with after her retirement. Mom had an artistic streak and loved to arrange flowers. She actually studied it and tried to work for a florist, but the pressure to perform was too much at her age. She also made an excellent crab soup, the Maryland staple. My Dad had been a waist-gunner on a B- 29 stationed on Tinian, in the Marianas, during the last five months of the war. When he came back to civilian life, he sold insurance, worked as an automobile mechanic, then a service salesman, and, eventually, a service manager at several auto dealerships in Baltimore. After taking some night courses, he took his last and most fulfilling job, as an auto-mechanics teacher at Eastern Vo-Tech High School in the nearby community of Dundalk.
Jack, my only sibling, was born thirteen months before me, and we were opposites in just about every way possible. Jack liked a little danger; I did not. If you pissed him off, he might take you on a tour of fist city; I resisted that sort of confrontation. Jack had a small physical frame; I would grow to just over six feet and broad-shouldered. He would take great care making plastic models of custom cars with beautiful paint jobs. (I still have one of his creations.) I would throw together the plastic models of ships and airplanes and take them behind our house and shoot them up with my BB gun. When we were kids, I never messed with him. He scared the hell out of me. But then, one day, around the age of twelve or thirteen, we were hanging out with some neighborhood kids in the woods across from our house. I don't recall what started it, but Jack and I tangled. By then I was as big or slightly bigger than he was, and this time I didn't give in or run away. Part wrestling, part fistfighting, I stayed at it until Jack called off the jam. I don't know what it meant to him. To me, it was a rite of passage.
In high school at Sparrows Point, Jack played lacrosse, and I played baseball. In Baltimore County, they were both spring sports season, so I only got to see him play once. He was crease attack and feisty as hell. I remember he spent some time in the penalty box for using his stick more as a weapon. He loved to beat the crap out of people.
My Chinese Granddad
I had a fairly typical upbringing, which is to say, like everybody, there were elements that were unique. Mom's mother, Agnes, was a tall handsome brunette, a divorcée who liked her men. For years she worked as a waitress in a Chinese restaurant and in 1949 married one of the cooks. That's how Arthur Wong completed his journey from Canton, China, to our family in Sparrows Point. (Ironically, just a couple miles north on the Patapsco River from Sparrows Point is a Baltimore neighborhood called Canton. With just a slight adjustment in his trajectory, Arthur could have gone halfway around the world and still have never left Canton.)
Not everybody was thrilled with the marriage. Arthur was younger than Agnes and had never been married, which triggered Mom's alarms. She thought he was a playboy. But when Agnes floated the idea of the marriage past her son, my Uncle John Cramblitt, she got a different reaction. John was eighteen at the time, into motorcycles and hot rods, and engaged to a woman named Sue, who became one of my very favorite aunts. "If that's what makes her happy, it's good," he pronounced. "She has spent half her life with some miserable people."
And it was true. Agnes had experienced the male animal, but had yet to make any good choices, until she went with Arthur to the justice of the peace. Mom called Dad: "Guess what your mother-in-law just did?" "What?" Mom, aghast, "She married a Chinaman."
"She's old enough to know better," summed up Dad's feelings. That was the inauspicious beginning of the marriage that lasted the rest of their lives. I was confused with a Chinaman in the family whom I was told to call Uncle Arthur. That worked fine until I was old enough to wonder, "How can he be my uncle if he's married to my grandmother?" Kids never got the complete explanation of anything.
He had another name, An King Ben, and the suggestion that he came to America through New York under that moniker at the age of fourteen with his father. His Chinese friends called him Wong Fuk. He served in the U.S. Army, which led to his citizenship. All we really knew was that suddenly we were eating a lot of Chinese food. He showed me how to use chopsticks before I was twelve, and to this day I only eat Chinese food with chopsticks. We loved to visit Frank Chu's restaurant, where Arthur met Agnes. Plucked chickens soon to be in the moo goo gai pan and chunks of roast pork hung in a screened-in enclosure above the prep tables. When my brother, Jack, and I walked into the kitchen, Mr. Chu grinned, calling, "Oh, Jackie-Ronnie, good to see you!" We made his day. He never forgot us. Mr. Chu imported a Chinese wife. She wanted to be called Doctor, because she claimed to be a midwife. We called her the Dragon Lady behind her back. She informed us kids at dinner that in China it was good manners to slurp your soup and burp loudly. Mom said, "Save that for when you visit China." Uncle Arthur treated Grandma Wong like a queen, and our family learned to love him as he evolved into Grandpop Wong.
After working his ass off for other people, he opened his own Cantonese restaurants in Maryland: one that failed in Silver Spring in the suburbs north of Washington, D.C., and a carry-out shop in Turner Station, a black neighborhood not far from my home. I helped him run the register and take orders. I watched him work the Chinese stove where everything was cooked in a wok. I didn't care for egg foo yung, but I liked watching him make it. He'd grab three eggs in one hand, breaking them one at a time into a sauce pan, scooping in diced onion and pork, for exactly the right number of patties cooked in hot oil. Then, as he cleaned out the wok and got ready for the next dish, he passed me the carton of egg foo yung. He did all of this while smoking a Viceroy cigarette with an extended ash that defied gravity. Today, where we live in New Orleans, there is a small Chinese restaurant that makes several Cantonese dishes, including egg roll and pork fried rice exactly the way Grandpop Wong made them.
He was a marvel at multitasking whose dexterity should have enabled him to drive a Ferrari at Le Mans. But he was the worst driver to hit the road. Uncle John Cramblitt fixed Grandpop up with a mid- sized Pontiac. It accumulated scrapes and dents like Pig-Pen accumulated dirt. Grandpop's story was that he was always getting hit by somebody in the parking lot. Unfortunately, there were witnesses. My cousin Steve was a passenger one time with Grandpop at the wheel. Steve called it the most frightening time of his life, including his hitch as an MP in Vietnam. Red lights meant nothing to Grandpop. I don't know if he was color-blind.
At the stove, Grandpop always sipped from a small glass. He said it was tea. His tea turned out to be VO. Maybe he was boxed when he left work. Outside the restaurant, Uncle John asked if he was okay to get behind the wheel. Grandpop said, "I drive like snake in grass." He backed squarely into the side of a car and pulled off down the road, never looking back. How he avoided a fatal wreck, killing himself or some innocent soul, is a miracle.
Grandpop was a city boy who preferred running with his Chinese buddies, playing mahjong, and gambling. When he came up to the woods I'd bought in Maryland with my World Series share, seventy acres of black, white, and red oaks, he was terrified. He swore that there were tigers lurking in the quiet woods, a lesson from his boyhood in China. He called them "cotton foots" because they walked so softly. You couldn't make him believe there weren't tigers. We had white- tailed deer but no cotton foots. It brings to mind that wacky scene in Apocalypse Now, the tiger chasing the saucier through the jungle: it's the cook, in danger of becoming a meal, who escapes the tiger.
Agnes grew up on a tobacco farm in Annapolis. (Irony: cigarettes, cigars, snuff, chewing tobacco ... I hated the stuff.) In her mid- seventies, with Grandpop Wong cowering at the campsite, Grandma would hike through the woods alone, up and down the steep trails that crisscrossed the property. She lived into her late eighties, outlasting her husband by a dozen years.
Mom and Agnes collected Chinese art, watercolors, vases, painted porcelain figures, and wood carvings of Shou Lao, the God of Longevity — things I still have.
According to Grandpop Wong, the usual fate of Chinese cooks in America was to stand in front of a stove until their legs gave way. When they could no longer work, they were put in a room to die. Our family saved my Grandpop from that end, and he more than returned the favor. He brought a new world into our white-bread American family. And that occurred because Agnes was a liberated woman, before they invented the phrase.
Babe Ruth was a Baltimore boy who wore the Yankee pinstripes and played right field. So was I. Near the end of my two and a half seasons with the Yankees, struggling to find something that worked, I ordered a half dozen R43 bats, Ruth's model. Grandpop Wong had seen the Babe play in the original Yankee Stadium. He came to my games and loved to tell me, "You hit the ball like Baby Ruth." Once in a great while it was true.
Uncles at the Morgue
Grandpop Wong was the wild card on my mother's side; my uncles played that role on my Dad's.
My Dad grew up with three brothers and two sisters near Lexington Market, an open-air fresh food market in downtown Baltimore. My brother, Jack, and I heard Aunt Frances dying from lung cancer in the days before they quieted that up with drugs. She was in bed moaning her way out of the world. That scared the crap out of us kids. At ten years old, I had no concept of death. That changed during the funeral. She was in an open casket, and I kept thinking how uncomfortably quiet she looked lying there with a soft, shiny pillow under her head. I went to bed with that thought, and it troubled my sleep.
Dad's oldest brother, Robert, a welder and union shop steward at the Bethlehem Steel plant, lived across the street from us. For some reason, or reasons, I was never comfortable around the fellow. Dad had to remind him not to walk into our house without knocking. His son flashed my mother from his bedroom window. Do people who make you uncomfortable feel uncomfortable around people? I suppose they do.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Here's the Catch"
Copyright © 2019 Ronald Swoboda.
Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Prologue: Breaking for the Ball,
1. A Pretty Lucky Man,
5. Last Licks,
Epilogue: Reflecting on a Miracle,
About the Author,