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Saturday, October 25, 2014

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Hines Sight / Kiner was the 'kornerstone' of longtime Mets fandom

Published 6:32 am, Friday, February 21, 2014
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Ralph Kiner died.

For some people under a certain age, his name means nothing. But to a generation of New York Mets fans, he was the voice of the team, along with Bob Murphy and Lindsey Nelson, in the broadcast booth. All three of them are gone now.

To be a Mets fan in the team's early years was a true sign of dedication. The franchise struggled and didn't have the same caliber of players as some of the established teams, but they persevered.

All of the ups and downs with the team paid off in 1969, when the Mets won their first World Series championship. They repeated the feat in 1986.

In my family, we were -- and still are -- Mets fans. My father grew up in Astoria, N.Y., a fan of the Dodgers or Giants (can't remember which), but when they both moved to California for the 1958 season, Dad refused to root for the Yankees.

So when the Mets took the field for the first time in 1962, Dad and, of course, the rest of us became fans. We knew everything about the team -- its owner, Joan Payson; its managers, especially Casey Stengel and then Gil Hodges; and its players, among them Cleon Jones, Tommy Agee, Bud Harrelson, Jerry Grote, Tug McGraw ("Ya gotta believe!") and Tom Seaver.

The acquisition of Seaver, who was called "The Franchise," made all the difference for the team. Man, could he pitch. And he wasn't bad to look at, either.

Later came Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez and Gary Carter (my favorite).

In the 1960s and early '70s, we spent a lot of time at Shea Stadium in Flushing, N.Y. One of my father's business associates had season tickets, so we took advantage of his generosity every chance we got.

The box seats were right behind the Mets dugout. We were so close we could see the faces of the players as they ran from the field. In those days, players engaged with the fans before the game, chatting it up or signing autographs just outside the dugout. We had a Mets yearbook signed by a bunch of players -- Grote, McGraw, Harrelson, among them -- but I have no idea what happened to it.

There's nothing like being that close to the field for a game. You almost feel like you're part of the action and can hear when the ball smacks against the bat or slams into the glove of a fielder.

I still can see the man who sat in front of us -- a slovenly guy with a runny nose and a beer in his hand. He always turned around to talk to us about a play or a hit, giving us his opinion on whether or not he thought it was good. We teased Mom that he consistently found something to say because he was sweet on her. I'm not sure she agreed.

At home, Dad and I often watched the games together. Thus, why I was saddened by the death of Kiner -- a former Pirates slugger who had a pretty good career himself -- and the rest of his cohorts. The play-by-play threesome was just as entertaining as the game. They often stumbled over their words, misidentified players or skipped some of the action because they were talking too much. And Dad and I rarely missed an episode of Kiner's Korner, his post-game show where the players were interviewed. I'll always remember those hours I spent with my father.

How crazed were we about the team? Well, when my niece was just a toddler, her grandparents bought her a "Mrs. Met" doll. She carried that thing around with her everywhere. And when my nephew was 8 or 9, I took him to a baseball card show in Fairfield so he could find cards for the Mets. I'll never forget the look on his face when he found the card of his favorite player at the time -- Howard Johnson.

I don't follow the team as closely anymore. I'll catch a few games when there's nothing else on TV. But my nephew, now the father of three boys, still is a diehard fan (even though he and his family moved to Tennessee) and he's indoctrinated his sons as well.

It's not easy being a Mets supporter in this region, which is inundated with Yankees or Red Sox fans. But once a Met fan, always a Met fan.

What brings all this up, aside from the passing of Ralph Kiner? First, with the long and cold winter and the more than a dozen snowstorms we've already endured, my mind is racing toward the next season.

Not to mention, spring training is in full swing. The warmer weather can't be too far behind.

Patricia A. Hines can be reached at hinessight@hotmail.com. She also can be followed @patricia_hines on Twitter.