The kindness of 'Kiner's Korner'

Way back when, we could only wish we had what New York Mets fans had, those of us who grew up following the Yankees and admiring "Kiner's Korner" from across frenemy lines.

Why didn't we have "Mantle's Matinee," or "Mantle's Market," or "Mantle's Something" to cap off an otherwise enjoyable Sunday afternoon of baseball on Channel 11? Why did the local franchise with so little history have so much going for it on Channel 9 with a Hall of Famer who, like Will Rogers, never met a man he didn't like?

Listening to Ralph Kiner call a ballgame was like listening to your grandfather call a ballgame, and so a place in front of a living room TV showing "Kiner's Korner" always felt like the most comfortable seat in the world for a kid who cherished the game and the people who talked it.

Kiner, who died Thursday at 91, wasn't just an iconic broadcaster for the Mets and a Hall of Fame slugger for the Pittsburgh Pirates. He was a welcomed family member in millions of homes, a kindly man who waved you into his ballpark, bought you a box of Cracker Jacks, and made sure the home run hero of the day didn't forget to sign your scorecard, too.

"Ralph was one of the most beloved people in Mets history," said team owner Fred Wilpon, "an original Met and extraordinary gentleman. ... His knowledge of the game, wit, and charm entertained generations of Mets fans. Like his stories, he was one of a kind."

Of course, team owners in these situations are expected to release statements praising the likes of Kiner, who in 1962 joined Lindsey Nelson and Bob Murphy in the broadcast booth for the Mets' first season, and never left. But Wilpon's voice was appropriate for another reason:

The dignified endgame he gave Kiner at a time when not every boss would've been so understanding.

In his final years, as Kiner suffered from Bell's palsy and the lingering effects of a stroke, his slurred speech made him, at times, an uncomfortable listen. Sometimes, a really uncomfortable listen.

Only Wilpon understood that Kiner had built a bridge to generations of fans that could not be torn down under any circumstances. Gary Cohen, Keith Hernandez and Ron Darling showed Kiner nothing but the respect and affection he'd earned through years of excellence in the booth, defined more by his insight into hitting, into the mechanics of the game, than by his lovable, Yogi-like way of running the English language into the outfield wall.

Truth is, Cohen, Hernandez and Darling would've voted for another 10 years of Kiner as a partner, and a full-time one at that.

But as the franchise overlord, Wilpon, was the guy who kept Kiner in the game, and kept him there on Kiner's rules. If Ralph showed up at Shea Stadium or at Citi Field on an assigned night of work, and suddenly didn't feel up to calling a few innings of the game, it was his call. It was always Ralph's call.

Wilpon set the organizational tone when it came to one of the Mets' few real treasures, and Kiner responded to that support. Even in a state of decline he remained a workaholic, an announcer who took his craft as seriously as any. Every January he'd call Jay Horwitz, the Mets' longtime publicist, and ask if Horwitz would finally send him the proofs for the media guide so he could get an early jump on his prep work.

"Ralph was always very serious about his job and never took anything for granted, and ownership understood that," Horwitz said. "Ralph kept notebooks on stuff that happened 40 years ago, and he was looking forward to working again this year.

"In 1980, when I was a young kid out of Fairleigh Dickinson, Ralph took me around to meet different managers, made suggestions about my press notes, just helped me any way he could. He never let on that he was a Hall of Famer. I mean, I don't know anyone who's ever said a cross word about him."

The same cannot be said of his longtime employer. Wilpon has been rightfully ripped up, down and sideways in this market for his failure to consistently field a winning club, for failing to spend on free agents at a Steinbrennerian rate, and for all but making Bernie Madoff his de facto GM.

But in Ralph Kiner, institution, Wilpon showed strength and humanity as a leader. He knew that "Kiner's Korner" was baseball's answer to "The Tonight Show," and that Ralph was equal parts Johnny Carson and Ed McMahon. He suspected that, on some level, the game and the booth and the fans were keeping Kiner going. Keeping him motivated.

Maybe even keeping him alive.

So Wilpon never engraved Kiner a gold watch, never ordered up an official farewell banquet, and never told everyone's favorite grandfather that it was time for him to watch all 162 games at home on TV. And that's why Kiner was planning another one of his part-time comebacks in 2014 before he died in his California home.

A little common decency can go a long way.

No, Fred Wilpon hasn't always been a good owner. He was a good man here.