November 22, 2006

Ron Swoboda, You Made My Life

The author with his idol, former Mets' great Ron Swoboda. (click for larger version)
Late last night I cried myself to sleep, but it wasn't because my wife of 21 years left me for my daughter's karate sensei, one of my four children was seen on MSNBC's "To Catch A Predator," or my Beatles' collection ended up in the Town of East Hampton's Non-Recyclable container.

It was much deeper.

My poor night's sleep was caused by a dream and a hope I've carried for nearly 40 years, a dream I cherished more than that pay-one-price wrist band at Rockaway's Playland or of dating that strawberry blonde from religion class in the 4th grade. It was a dream I thought would never be realized until last night: playing baseball with my childhood idol, Ron Swoboda.

Who? Ron "Rocky" Swoboda, #4, right fielder for the '69 World Champion New York Mets, who from 1965-1970 hit 69 homeruns and made probably the greatest catch of all time during the 5th game of the World Series.

While most of my friends envied Eric Clapton's guitar riffs, Joe Willie Namath's bomb, and Pistol Pete Maravich's behind the back passes, I dreamed of shagging flies alongside Ron Swoboda.

Growing up in the shadow of Shea Stadium in Astoria, Queens during the 60s and 70s, and spending most of my youth on a dusty baseball field in Astoria Park, hopes of playing professional baseball were nearly realized. As the starting catcher for Long Island City High School's baseball team in Queens in the early '70s, I couldn't get enough baseball, so I also enjoyed weekend play as a centerfielder for Immaculate Conception's CYO travel team, earning Gold Glove awards in 1970 and 1971 by regularly throwing out guys at first base from the outfield! Wearing #4, I tried my best to emulate that quiet, confident right fielder from Baltimore, Ron Swoboda. Ron's swagger in the outfield epitomized a true, old-fashioned ballplayer: tap your mitt, flip down your sunglasses and saunter under the ball, making a simple catch look just that, simple. Nothing more, nothing less. Even if ESPN's SportsCenter existed, Ron would never have made its highlights, except for that one catch during the '69 World Series against the Baltimore Orioles at Shea Stadium, when a low line drive by Brooks Robinson was miraculously swallowed up by a diving, fully extended Ron Swoboda.

Soon to graduate high school, a scout from the Kansas City Royals dabbled a $500 per month carrot in front of me to relocate to Florida, but another offer from Sterns warehouse of $125per week loading mattresses into trucks quickly extinguished the Royals measly proposal. Dumb! A move to Los Angeles to play for UCLA ended abruptly when I missed Astoria too much. Five years later, a tryout for the Yankees at Yankee Stadium offered nothing more than a flat tire on the Triboro Bridge and an article in Baseball Digest.

Forty years and a million miles have come and gone since the days dreaming of playing alongside Ron Swoboda in the outfield at Shea Stadium. A successful videobusiness, four children and a new home in East Hampton now consume my every moment. Shagging flies in centerfield at Shea with Ron to my left have dissolved like sugar in hot tea as my hours are spent taking my ten year-old daughter Elizabeth to piano and violin lessons and driving my three sons to baseball and basketball games. My 13 year-old son Anthony looks promising on the mound as he averages two Ks per inning.

At age 51 though, baseball still remains an integral part of my embodiment, donning my catching gear for 40 games a season in an over 28 hardball league with guys nearly half my age, sometimes traveling 85 miles from my homes in East Hampton and Levittown. My 2/3rd acre property in East Hampton even has provisions for a 90mph, full working JUGGS batting cage with netting in the backyard.  My wife would prefer an Infinity pool, but she can always take her bicycle to Maidstone Beach, less than a mile away.

Fast-forward: August 2006, Great Neck South High School, Service Road, LIE.

Arriving for a game at Great Neck South High School around 5 p.m., I was amused to see the other team's uniforms: authentic NY Mets. The orange and blue trim, the thick blue, dropped shadow numbers and names on the back brought me right back to the days of cutting out 20 Borden milk coupons for a chance to see, through small binoculars, my hero Ron Swoboda in right field. What memories.

"Play Ball!" shouted the home plate umpire as he handed me a brand new Rawlings R200 raised seamed baseball.

Before settling in behind home plate on this steamy, 94-degree night, I left a water bottle near the backstop for frequent thirst breaks. During one of those breaks, I noticed the name on the back of the on-deck batter:  SWOBODA #4.

That's when my mouth dropped to my shin guards.

It couldn't be him, I thought as he approached the batter's box and dug his back right foot into the soft auburn clay. The salt and pepper goatee wasn't there during his tenure with the Mets, but his boyish grin and calm demeanor piqued my memory. "Just another guy with a Ron Swoboda fetish," I mumbled to myself crouching into my catcher'sposition.

With 40 years of catching prowess under my Mizuno chest protector, my greatest asset is my ability to read a batter's body language, so as #4 stood furthest away from the plate in the batter's box, I called for a fastball low and away.

"Strike!" the ump shouted into my right ear as the Rawlings kissed the outside corner.

Just another guy with an expensive Mets' Jersey, I thought.

"Strike Two!" screamed the ump again as another outside fastball nicked the plate.

This can't be the REAL Ron Swoboda. He would never have let that pitch go!

Standing up to throw the ball back to the pitcher, #4 turned back to me, nodded and smiled. Peering through my facemask, our eyes locked for a second and his face, his face! pierced my cornea and resurrected forty years of Topps baseball cards, wall posters, Mets' Yearbooks, Channel 9 broadcasts and Kiner's Korner interviews. In a split second, my entire childhood flashed before me. A sense of euphoria flooded my body, my being, my soul, just like when I was handed each of my four children after being born. There I was again, clear as day, a fourteen year-old Biafran-like kid chasing fungos in Astoria Park imagining I was Ron Swoboda, all for this moment, all for this connection, all for this time, to finally play with my hero, and there he was, in MY batter's box with an 0 and 2 count. My hands trembled and my knees buckled as I asked the ump for "Time" so I could turn away to wipe that damn speck of sand from my eyes.

It really wasn't sand. I needed to wipe away the tears. . .

Crouching again behind home plate, I flashed "one" for fastball, breaking baseball's cardinal rule of never ever ever calling a fastball with an 0 and 2 count. My 33-year-old pitcher sneered and shrugged me off, wanting an obvious outside curveball instead, but again I stiffened my index finger demanding a fastball . . .down the middle!

Oh somewhere, oh somewhere,

kids will pray,

To meet their favorite player someday.

The crack of his bat,

he swung with all his might.

Moon shot to left,

still a Met tonight.

A home in East Hampton,

four kids, a wife,

Thank you, Ron Swoboda,

you made my life.

Frank Vespe has written for Newsday, Baseball Digest, USA Today and many other publications.

  1. print email
    March 15, 2012 | 01:51 PM

    I really have a hard time believing that you left UCLA because you were home sick. I don't think you ever even came close to playing there. Nice story but I think you made half of it up. Nice of you to throw the game and demand a fastball down the middle. Your a disgrace!

    Bill T
  2. print email
    Nice Story
    February 22, 2013 | 01:55 PM

    Frank-Ron Swoboda was also my idol as I was growing up playing baseball in Queens. I wore #4 through my Rochdale Village Little League days, high school days and even my college intramural days. I even wore #4 playing "punch ball" on the concrete parks in the 70's (I am now 51). To this day it is still my lucky number. As a 9 year old I would practice "The Catch" in my living room by diving to my mom's worry.
    Tell us more about your meeting with Ron after that game. I have never had the pleasure of actually meeting him.

    Mark K
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