Thursday, April 8, 2021

Part 1: Ron Swoboda On His Book "Here's The Catch" & The Miracle Mets

Ron Swoboda was one of the key parts of the 1969 Mets World Championship team and author of the most famous catch in the franchise's history. 

In the fourth game of the World Series against the Baltimore Orioles, he made a leaping catch in right field on a hit by Brooks Robinson that preserved the Mets' lead, and they went to win that game to take a commanding 3-1 lead on their way to clinching the championship in five games. He had the clinching RBI in that game as well.

Swoboda's autobiography, Here's the Catch: A Memoir of the Miracle Mets and More, is now out in paperback (St. Martin's Press Griffin; $17.99), after being originally released a couple years ago in honor of the 50th anniversary of one of the most beloved teams in New York baseball history.

In this entertaining baseball book, Swoboda takes you on a journey in his time with the Mets, from when they were mired in 100-loss seasons in 1965 to showing significant improvement in 1968, which was Gil Hodges' first year as Mets Manager, before stunning the baseball world the following year.

At the start of that Amazin' 1969 season, the young core of the team, including Swoboda, Tom Seaver, Gary Gentry, Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee, Ed Kranepool, and Jerry Koosman, began to see in themselves a team that could surprise the experts. Swoboda takes the reader through the day-by-day, game-by-game journey of that season. He introduces us to some of the more colorful figures in the game and builds the drama of that season through its peaks and valleys.

Ron Swoboda. Courtesy of St. Martin's Press.

I recently had the chance to catch up with Ron Swoboda, who presently lives in New Orleans. In this first part of our conversation, Ron talks about that memorable season and what made that team special:

Jason Schott: What inspired you to write your memoir?

Ron Swoboda: I wrote the hardback two years ago when it was the 50th anniversary of the '69 team. I felt like if I was going to do it, that's when I had to do it, and now it's coming out in paperback, and we're doing this media stuff, which is fun for me. I love so much going back and digging out those memories and putting them down in a way that I thought was right, letting people go through that up-and-down season with me, the highs and the lows and ultimately an incredible World Series, and a play that still hangs around from Game Four, when I was able to, you know, my reach somewhat exceeded my grasp.

JS: Your recollections of the play completed the picture, including your teammates' reactions to it, such as guys in the bullpen wishing you had backed off on it, that you risked two runs coming in for Baltimore.

RS: That's a legitimate question, but if you look at it from my perspective, that was a line drive to right-center field, where I have to break hard to my right. It was hit pretty hard and your choices were limited, and your time frame was limited. I only ran about three strides before I got to it. The notion that you could take a deeper drop on it and still come up with the ball is questionable in my mind. I had worked so hard with Eddie Yost (Mets third base coach in 1969) in getting a jump on the ball, and he hit me line drives, left and right, over my head, in front of me, and I really tried hard to dispel those notions that I was a bad outfielder. On that particular play, in the furor of the World Series, where I just broke, he, Brooks Robinson, one of my favorite players from growing up in Baltimore, hits this line drive and I just broke, and I knew, once I was on that track, you better stay on it. I didn't have much choice at that point, and laid out, full layout on my backhand, and that thing hit me in the web (of the glove) and I just realized I made a hell of a catch. The fact that we're talking about it more than a half-a-century later is I guess a testament to all of that, but holy crap, I didn't have enough time, and you know, I didn't have enough time to think there was an alternative to what I was doing. I just went for it, and fortunately, the blind squirrel found an acorn.

Ron Swoboda about to make his incredible catch.

JS: Arguably the greatest catch in franchise history because, if Baltimore wins that game, the series is tied, and instead, you guys had a stranglehold on the series.

RS: That was the fulcrum, Jason. If we lose that game, if that ball gets by me, and Boog Powell, he's a big boy, on first base, if he comes around and scores and we go down by one, good chance we lose that game - we lose that game, we let a pretty darned good Baltimore Orioles team back in it. They tie the series at two, and maybe now the momentum shifts a little but as we play the last game we're going to play at Shea Stadium, where we can't win it if they win Game Four, you know what I mean.

JS: They would know they're going back for Game Six in Baltimore for sure.

RS: Oh yeah! When I think about all these ramifications, I get a little queasy, even all this time later, because it didn't have to happen that way, but it did (turn out well for us).

JS: Baltimore was viewed as a super team, and though some felt the Mets could make it a Series, that the Orioles were a dynamo.

RS: You had to feel that way but remember this, and a lot of people forget how much better the National League was in terms of depth in talent. There were more Latinos and African-Americans playing in the National League, and I thought, you know, there was that run where the National League won 19 out of 20 All-Star Games, we were right solidly in that trend, so when we won the National League and beat a team like the Braves to get to the World Series, some would suggest that test was a little tougher than coming out of the American League, and I think, too, there was an element of the Orioles looking at us thinking, yeah, nothing could be better than that young team that hasn't won anything coming into Baltimore and knuckling under the O's.

JS: You split the first two there, right?

RS: We lost the first game, we won the second game - that was key. (Mets Manager Gil) Hodges said to us, and I thought it was the most simple, quiet, matter-of-fact way he said it to us after we lost Game One, 'Fellas, you don't have to be anything but what got you here, and you know, you don't have to be any better than the team that got you there, okay.' It was sobering because the suggestion was so wonderful and clear - don't try to all of a sudden become bigger than life because you lost Game One. You don't have to do that. Play these games the way you played the season. We came down the stretch winning three out of four (against the Chicago Cubs), and we swept the Braves. Because we lose one game in Baltimore doesn't mean we're overmatched, so just relax and be the team that got you here; don't try to be anything but - and that's what happened.

JS: Such a simple approach to go game by game; do you think, in the back of Hodges' mind, he knew that if you took one down there, you coulid clinch it in New York?

RS: I don't know if that was ever the thought; I don't think we ever got any further than the game at hand, and I think that was the best way to approach it. Look, every manager says, 'we're paying one at a time,' all the cliches that you ever heard about how you play baseball. You know, you play 162 games, you play them one at a time, that game in front of you is the most important thing happening, and we had proved down the stretch that we were on a roll in the National League, winning three out of four - once we knocked the Cubs back at the end of August into September - they had a six-game lead on us going into late August, and they hit a flat spot and we blew by them winning three out of four games. We blew by them and never really looked back, and they were done, and so we felt like this was a pretty hot run of six weeks that we were on. You really don't have to look up at anybody if you've done that. We've got Seaver and Koosman and Gentry and Ryan - Nolan Ryan coming out of the bullpen in the only World Series he ever played in. You think about all those elements and the youth on our side, and the O's, you know, it's not to knock anything about them - they came out and won it the next year when we couldn't get to it because the Pirates knocked us out in 1970, in what I felt like was the toughest baseball I ever played in my life. It was so hard because, all of a sudden, we're the frontrunners, we're the team that people load up for, we're the team they point towards. It was hard baseball to play, and we had just been through this magical season when things just happened. We got up and surfed on this amazing run. In 1970, I felt like it was running in sand up to our ankles. It was hard baseball, and we weren't up to it.

JS: So, it's very true what they say, that it's easier to be the hunter instead of the hunted?

RS: I think it's absolutely true. We did crawl out of the weeds and surprised people a bit in '69, I don't think there's any doubt about that. When you become the target, and you're trying to make some things happen, you look back there, we actually scored more runs in 1970 than we did in 1969, but we gave up more runs. All that great pitching we had didn't do it for us, and we couldn't hold them, you know, up and down our pitching rotation like we did in 1969.

JS: One thing you detailed on your journey with the Mets is that, once Hodges arrived in 1968, the team made marked progress for the first time in its existence. What did that set up as the expectations for '69 among the players?

RS: Some guys will tell you they could see it coming; all I saw coming was, looking at that pitching staff, was that we're going to be better. You know, we should be better than the 72 or 73 games we won in 1968 - we gotta be better than that. Really, if you really chart the season, we're bubbling around .500 going end of May into June, and something happened. The California teams came into Shea (Stadium), you know, the Giants, the Dodgers, the Padres; the Padres weren't very good, they were an expansion team. We swept those California teams, and then we went from Shea out to the coast and played the same bunch, and we reeled off 11 straight wins going into June, and the trading deadline was the end of June. We had won 11 straight, and sort of vaulted into this relevance. We're in the hunt and that's sort of when the team made the Donn Clendenon trade with Montreal. We gave four, five players to Montreal for Donn Clendenon, a power-hitting first baseman who was ready to go. Montreal, Gene Mauch, was trying to trade him to Houston to get Rusty Staub. Gene Mauch eventually makes that trade, but Donn Clendenon was not going to Houston, interesting because wonder what he would have brought to them. Houston was the only team that we didn't win the season series against - they beat us ten out of twelve games in 1969 without Donn Clendenon. He comes to us, and gives us a power-hitting, right-handed first baseman to platoon with Eddie Kranepool, which was perfect, perfect, and the rest is history.

JS: You mentioned so many of your teammates there, it makes me think of the bond you had, and continued to have long after your playing days. What made it such a special group?

RS: When we get together, those guys from that team just love being together. I went to West Palm and watched a couple of spring training games. One was (Jacob) deGrom pitching against Max Scherzer of the Nats on the 31st of March, late in the spring, and after it I drove over and stopped in Sarasota and played golf with Wayne Garrett, our third baseman, and you feel a warmth and a connection when you're able to spend some time with those guys from '69 because it was, for most of us, the greatest thing that ever happened to us in our baseball career. Not everybody's career went the same way, but to most of us, it was the greatest thing that ever happened to us. You know, Wayne Garrett was on that '73 team that went back to the World Series and really should have beaten the A's, but that was a pretty dynastic A's team as well. Wayne Garrett's such a wonderful guy to be around, and we played golf as hard as we could, and just love being with one another...That's the way it goes, I talk to Rod Gaspar online, and you know, I see Cleon Jones now and then over in Mobile, Alabama. It's a beautiful thing, those of us who are still around. You know, we've lost guys that were so much a part of what happened in '69, and they're not on this planet anymore, so the ones of us who are, who are fortunate enough, you know, dementia has come into it, Buddy Harrelson's full-on Alzheimer's; Ron Taylor, one of the smartest guys on the team, a relief pitcher and a doctor, a practitioner after he got out of baseball, is suffering a bit of dementia. It's a sad thing, and Seaver was going through that. When I was writing my book. I called him about a couple of things, you know, points in the season and all that. Hodges came out before I made the catch in Game Four of the '69 Series, and he talked to Seaver, and I said, 'Tom, what did you guys talk about?' and Tom said, 'Ron, because of this whole thing,' he said, 'I have no memory of it,' and it crushed me. I went, wow, wow - I don't live in the past, those memories are golden to me, and I thought, holy cow, here's Seaver, and these wonderful memories that you want to keep around you, something gets in there and steals them from you and they're gone forever. That's tragic, you know, that's sad on a level I can't even comprehend, but that was the truth. He couldn't relate it to me, you know, but I read somewhere that Hodges came out there and said to him, 'if the groundball comes right back to you, check that runner at third, don't let him score.' In other words, don't try to go immediately for a double play; make sure that run doesn't score. I think he believed that even if Seaver didn't get the double play from Brooks Robinson, who was coming up, you could get the next guy up.

JS: That showed the confidence Hodges had in him.

RS: Why wouldn't you? And yet, if you ever heard Seaver talk about that game, Tom didn't think he had his great command and great stuff in that game, but you know, a Seaver with less than his best stuff is still a pretty good arm, don't ya think?

JS: It's been a couple years that Here's the Catch has been out, and I was curious what the reaction has been, like if people had things they were surprised by in there.

RS: I think what I love most that people said to me, especially people that knew me, reading your book was like sitting there talking to you on the other side of the table, and I went, 'this is the most beautiful thing you could say to me because I wanted that voice to be in the writing.' I wrote for myself as a TV guy for 20 years, and you try to write dialogue, and I felt like I wanted to write this book the way I would say it to you if we were sitting there talking, like this interview we've had where you just plucked these ideas and run with them, and you know who you're talking to. 

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