Let us pause here for just a moment and L give thanks to some of those great New York Mets of the past who have helped make it possible for Ron Swoboda to become the most exciting Met of all time. Here's to B. G. Smith and Sammy Drake. To Herb Moford and Harry Chiti. Ray Daviault and Larry Elliot. Hobie Landrith and Rick Herrscher.
Ever since 1962, when the Mets first fought their way to 120 defeats, the people of New York have been restlessly tapping their toes, rubbing their eyes, praying and even crying for a Met who would be unlike all other Mets. This Met had to be different from Marvelous Marv Throneberry, Elio Chacon, Jay Hook, Al Moran, Joe Ginsberg and Choo Choo Coleman. An excellent fielder? Nah! Base stealer? Hardly. A 20-game winner? Maybe, but a pitcher isn't enough. The Met of everyone's dreams had to be a bomber, a long-ball hitter, a slugger. For three seasons now the Mets' "official" song (several thousand records of the song have been purchased by hopeful Met fans) has blared out each day: "The Mets are really socking the ball, Knocking those home runs over the wall." Except for the Mets maiden season, when Frank Thomas hit 34 home runs, the song expresses hope rather than fact, but the dream persists. The ideal Met, then, would combine the power of Thomas with, say, the appealing gaucherie of Marvelous Marv. In short, the desired Met had to be an all-purpose folk hero. Ron Swoboda, who is only 20 and comes from Sparrows Point, Md. and has a Chinese step-grandfather, is that man.
His first hit in the major leagues, as a pinch hitter in the 11th inning, was a home run. His second hit, again as a pinch hitter, was another homer. He hit home runs into the bleachers at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, over the bullpen at Shea Stadium in New York, onto the road back of Crosley Field in Cincinnati, into the old seats in Connie Mack Stadium in Philadelphia and into the empty ones in Milwaukee. He hit 11 homers in the first two months of the season, one for every 12 times at bat. Harmon Killebrew of the Minnesota Twins has a lifetime home-run frequency of one for every 13.2 times at bat. Babe Ruth averaged one every 11.8 times at the plate. "Swoboda hits a baseball farther than anyone who has ever played," said Ralph Kiner, who hit 369 of them himself.
Along with his majesty at the plate Swoboda has also made some majestically Metsian plays in the field. He fell while running up the incline in center field in Cincinnati, he called a teammate off a ball in New York and then failed to make the catch himself, and he lost an easy fly ball in the sun with the bases loaded in St. Louis, which helped the Mets dissipate a 7-0 lead. He walked off third base one night in Philadelphia, thinking he had been tagged out when he had not been. After he was tagged out for real somebody asked him where he was going. "I was going out to lunch," he replied.
The result of all this? Adulation. On Memorial Day in Chicago's Wrigley Field a large banner was raised in the bleachers by a group of teen-agers; it read, RON SWOBODA IS REALLY CLARK KENT. In Pittsburgh two youngsters came to Forbes Field wearing identical T shirts with the immaculately lettered message, HEY RON, HIT NO. 12. In Shea Stadium in New York, a girl in her late teens strolled through the lower box seats with No. 14 ("His number!") sewn on the back of an expensive blouse. Two weeks ago Swoboda went to early Mass in Flushing, N.Y. with his parents. "It's a strange parish to me," he said. "I don't know anyone in it." As the Swobodas left an usher tugged Ron's sleeve and handed him a piece of paper. "Ron," he said, "would you please sign this?"
His mother said later, "Little old ladies came over to touch him and wish him well. His father and I were amazed that people even knew him. We just stood back and watched, and my eyes filled. He's only 20, and I wonder to myself how he's going to take all this. Three years ago he was chosen for the Hearst Sandlot game in New York, and he brought his uniform home in a box and took it upstairs. When he came down he had the uniform on and he was flipping a baseball up in the air. 'Mom,' he said, 'tell me the truth. Do I look like a big-league baseball player?' When I told him he did he got a nice smile on his face, and he was proud. I said to myself, 'You know, he really does look like a major league ballplayer, and he believes he is going to be one.' Millions of boys think that, but how many think it as hard as Ron?"
The fielding lapses, the mental errors, the big home runs, the anecdotes and thinking hard combine to build up the pressures on Swoboda. He lost his temper at one of his own mistakes recently and crushed his batting helmet to a pulp, and Casey Stengel promptly pulled him out of the lineup. Stengel decided he would play his young star only against certain types of pitchers, basically lefthanders and basically fast-ball pitchers. Stengel had Swoboda sit next to him on the bench, and he talked baseball to him and pointed things out—things that 20-year-olds do not see as well as 75-year-olds. Swoboda, unlike many others, seemed to understand the old man.
"My whole trouble," he explained, "is that I have to bear down all the time or things happen. I haven't had this kind of trouble fielding ever before, and now I'm working to bear down." Last Friday evening in Pittsburgh he came out of the clubhouse at Forbes Field before any of his teammates. He threw balls at the big green scoreboard in left field and caught them as they bounced back. He chased flies hit by the Pirate batting practice hitters, and he asked Met Coach Yogi Berra to hit him fly balls, "again and again and again." He chased so many that he developed cramps in his legs.
At breakfast the next morning he said, seriously, "It should be easier to play in the majors because everything is made easier for you. People tell funny stories about me, but that's part of baseball. I remember in spring training two years ago I hit a pop foul and I watched the catcher waiting for it to come down. I stood right there even though he was right next to me. Ball hit me right on the head."
That story helped the hero image, but then Swoboda asked me what time it was. When he was told it was 10:45 he said he had to run for the team bus. The bus was not scheduled to leave for the ball park until 11 and most of the other Mets were lounging around, waiting until the last minute. Not Swoboda. He rushed. "I'm the guy who can't afford to be late," he explained.