This is the the first of what I hope will be a series of interviews with current and former Mets.
Ron Swoboda came up with the Mets in 1965, and endured four losing seasons before they put it all together to become the Miracle Mets of 1969. Swoboda, of course, will always hold a special place in Mets history, and in the hearts of fans, for his defensive heroics in Game 4 of that World Series. In an exchange of emails, Swoboda talks about his famous catch, what it was like to play for Casey Stengel and Gil Hodges, as well as a session with an unlikely “coach” that led to one of the greatest offensive games of his career.
Blogging Mets: You are of course beloved by Mets fans for “The Catch” in the 1969 World Series. What are you doing to mark the 40h anniversary of The Catch?
Ron Swoboda: On the 40th anniversary of THE CATCH I helped organize a memorabilia piece. It’s a limited edition photo of the full layout shot from the Daily News, signed by me and Brooks Robinson and accessible at www.nydailynews.com/catch.
It’s been called one of the greatest catches in Mets and baseball history. How do you think it ranks up?
As far as where it ranks amongst all the great World Series plays? I wouldn’t hazard a guess. I know that full layout on the backhand with the ball nuzzling into the web of my glove is about all the play I could make on that particular ball.
You are also part of Mets lore for hitting two two-run homers against Steve Carlton in a game in which he struck out 19 Mets, but lost 4-3, during the amazing 1969 run. What are your recollections of that game?
I know that I didn’t hit Carlton particularly well. And I was struggling, as happened often in my career. But St. Louis had one of the few batting cages out beyond the leftfield wall and I asked Ralph Kiner, the Hall of Famer and Met broadcaster if he would come out there before a game and feed me some balls through the pitching machine and simply look at me and see if he could fix something. And that’s what we did. It was just a good session and I came away feeling much better about myself, at least in the short term.
And that’s how I faced Carlton — with him striking me out the first time while the Cardinals took a 1-0 lead. The second time up, I had two strikes on me when I hit a fastball into the upper stands in left with Tommie Agee on to give us a 2-1 lead. The Cards went up 3-2 and Carlton K’ed me again as part of what would be a major league record 19 strikeouts. But I hit a slider in with two strikes on me just over the leftfield wall with Agee aboard again and we won it 4-3.
I think I had three base hits off Carlton in my entire career. And yet we beat him in this most important game in one of the best starts of his career with the Cards. I think later when Steve started practicing Taikwondo while with the Phillies, he didn’t let guys like me, who shouldn’t really be a problem, beat him.
You played for and with some legends of the game — Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan. What are your memories of them?
Of all the people I’ve been around in baseball, Casey Stengel was the most amazing. He was a living legend. His mind was incredible. He could quote numbers and situations from 50 years ago that were right on the money. He seemed to hold all of baseball within his brain. He gave me my first opportunity to go out and play. He always said, “You can’t learn how to hit those guys sitting on the bench.” He knew because he was a rightfielder who just needed a chance when he came up in 1912.
Gil Hodges should be in the Hall of Fame. It does seem that his playing stats and his managerial stats each fall a bit short of what people thing are Hall of Fame quality, but together — and that’s important to understand — as a player/ manager he’s a no brainer for the Hall. He had the most interesting mind — sharp, fast and sure. He would do novel things that you understood immediately. As good a manager as there was, ever.
Tom Seaver came into the majors with Hall of Fame stuff and just needed to accumulate Hall of Fame stats. He had it all — velocity, movement, command and a real solid idea how to use all his stuff. Look it up — the man did not have an ERA over 3.00 for the first ten years of his career and never missed a start.
Nolan Ryan had the kind of big stuff, monster fastball and heart breaking curve that were eventually going to win for him. I think moving to the AL helped him because the strike zone was higher there back then because the umps still used the outside blowup chest protector and worked looking straight over the catchers head. So their perspective on the zone was higher and so were their strikes. Nolan was better early on with a higher zone as a high fastball pitcher. Later, he could pitch to any zone.
You played at Shea Stadium when it was brand new, when it was a far cry from the building it aged into 40+ years later. What was it like back then, and were you sorry to see it torn down?
I will always miss Shea Stadium for lots of reasons. But architecture is not one of them. The architecture of Shea was the fans. And if I need to revisit the place I have games 4 and 5 of the 69 World Series on DVD and can crank them up when I want to see Shea as it was in the old days before every visible surface was used for advertising. Plus, I knew Bill Shea, who it was named for. He was a very powerful attorney who was a prime mover in helping NL baseball get back to NY. He was also a wonderful guy and a great baseball fan and fun to sit at a game with, which I was privileged to do a couple of times.
Do you get to many Mets games nowadays?
I get to NY as often as possible and love the new Citi Field. But it’s dimensions are way too large and they need to shorten the outfield fences a bit. The rest of it is incredible.
What kind of fan reaction do you get?
When fans recognize me they are generally pretty kind. If you notice behind the “right field” sign for that entrance to Citi Field (left) is the black silhouette of someone diving to their left, in full layout position. It is THE CATCH. I am deeply proud of that.
You finished off your career with the Yankees. Did you have mixed feelings about playing with the crosstown rivals?
I played for the Yankees two and a half seasons and today have no real connection to the team. My history is as a Met and always will be. I was with the Yanks at one of their low points and did nothing to change that. I loved playing in old Yankee Stadium. It reeked of memory with the monuments in center field. But I added nothing to their glorious history.
Other than “The Catch” (presumably), what is your favorite Mets memory?
The cumulative memories of coming to the Mets and playing for Casey Stengel and losing many games and lasting long enough to walk away knowing that I had contributed something useful to a World Series Championship is the journey I would wish to every young kid good enough to get their shot as a professional player. Period, end of story.
Visit the official Ron Swoboda website for more information and memorabilia.