Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Books: Ron Swoboda's "Here's The Catch"

Here's The Catch: A Memoir of the Miracle Mets and More
By Rob Swoboda
Thomas Dunne Books/St. Martin's Press; hardcover; 256 pages, includes eight pages of black and white photos; $27.99

Ron Swoboda joined the Mets in 1965 when they were still in the franchise's early stages and not having much success on the field. Four years later, the Miracle Mets were on top of the world when they won the 1969 World Series over the mighty Baltimore Orioles.

Swoboda was a solid player, but never a star, and became the epitome of the working class player, the "Every Man" on the field. His passion for the game, which his teammates had as well, is what made the Mets grow into champions. 

In the new memoir, Here's The Catch, Swoboda recaptured the moments and memories of the Amazin's in a delightfully self-deprecating style. 
When Swoboda joined the Mets, a winning streak of three games would have been a miracle. The team averaged 100+ losses per season in their first six seasons, but things changed in 1968 when legendary Brooklyn Dodger Gil Hodges took over as manager.
Wins became more frequent, and there were expectations heading into 1969 as the core of the young team, which included Swoboda, Tom Seaver, Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee, Ed Kranepool, and Jerry Koosman, began to see in themselves a team that could be a big surprise.
Swoboda has created a day-to-day and game-by-game journey through that memorable season, with all its peaks and valleys, and introduces us to some of the more colorful characters in the game. 
The life of a baseball player was quite different then, and the stories could be an eye-opener to younger readers used to players making millions of dollars. This generation of players had to work second jobs in the off season and teams that were more of a family, with players' wives and kids helping each other with daily life events.
On a larger point, Swoboda writes how the the underdog Mets reflected America's psyche in the late 1960s. Between the tragic assassinations of Maritn Luther King, Jr., and Robert F. Kennedy, and street protests against the Vietnam war, the country needed a feel-good story to rally around.
Swoboda writes of that time, "I cannot imagine a more compelling time to be young in America if you had money, a good job, and a draft deferment. I had all three. My job was chasing fly balls for the New York Mets at $34,000 a year, more than four times the salary of the average American. My deferment was named Cecilia, still my wife after almost fifty-four years,  who blessed me with an enduring marriage and two sons, Ron Jr. and Brian. Like Swoboda is freedom in Polish, in America, in 1969, I had the freedom to at least try to be the best baseball player I could be. 
"In the chill of a Long Island January, the new year rolled around and with it a more urgent sense of drive. I would be twenty-five years old in the coming season, the Mets had won 73 games the year before, and I led them with 59 RBIs. It felt like I was at the peak of my potential ability to perform, and it was time to get serious about conditioning, to mix in some sprints and jogging around my Long Island neighborhood of Syosset, increase those push-ups, pull-ups, and sit-ups I'd been doing in the basement. All that, plus swinging a bat at a tire hanging from a rope in my backyard (I never missed it), was the extent of my workouts. I never used weights and never went to a gym to work out, ever. Now, I chunk around all kinds of weights to help my golf swing. As a former physical education major, I should have known better.
"I loved the spring. Who doesn't love spring? (Penguins and snowmen get no vote here.) The clocks move forward every spring, but my mind moves backward toward golden memories as a kid growing up in Sparrows Point. When nature blessed us in April, my Mom's tulips started poking their noses up out of the beds around the house, completing with our forsythia bushes busy exploding with yellow blossoms.
"Caring about the spring, knowing it was special, led me, in an almost seamless single file, into bring paid to play a game whose annual renewal is called spring training. Hard to appreciate at the time, but that burst of energy, that quickening of the pulse, that sense of rebirth, wanting to believe that you could make the coming year better than the last was deeply ingrained in me. It's such a beguiling, beneficent delusion, encouraging artists, composers, and poets to overpraise that time of year. As Emily Dickinson wrote, 'A little Madness in the Spring is wholesome even for the King.' Listen online to Aaron Copland's Appalachian Spring, and tell me if it doesn't sound like what I'm trying to say.
"Copland's Appalachian Spring, certainly, could have been the soundtrack to several Februarys in the late 1960s, as Cecilia and I packed our two boys and out big black dog, Waggles, into a large Buick station wagon for the road trip south to Florida. We loaded our roof rack with two large Samsonite suitcases and a bunch of our other junk crammed into every square inch up top. That gave us ample space inside the car as we rumbled down the road looking remarkably like the Wagon Queen Family Truckster vehicle created for those very funny Chevy Chase National Lampoon vacation movies in the 1980s. With the roof rack full, Waggles had the backseat to himself, and the two boys could stretch out into what we called the way back, watching the highway out the tailgate window."

The Mets stormed past the Chicago Cubs to win the National League East, followed by beating the Atlanta Braves in the N.L. Championship Series, and then the World Series against the Orioles Swoboda had his magical moments. He made the greatest catch in Mets history to help them win Game 4, a play that is immortalized by a steel silhouette that greets visitors at the right field entrance of Citi Field.
Here's the Catch is the latest in a long line of wonderful books about the 1969 Mets, told by one of the most revered member of this team in a way that makes your feel like you're having an amazin' conversation with Swoboda.

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