By Joe Rini
To Ron Swoboda, “just a guy,” baseball’s parlance for an average player, made his iconic catch in the 9th inning of pivotal Game 4 of the 1969 World Series. While Swoboda’s career statistics might support the just a guy designation, Ron Swoboda the man is anything but average and this week I had the privilege of interviewing Ron about his baseball career and his newly published memoir, “Here’s the Catch.”
Being just a guy isn’t derogatory and along with stars like Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Cleon Jones, Ron said manager Gil Hodges, “Figured out how to make it work with his platooning” of players and bring a championship to Shea Stadium.
“Here’s the Catch” is a book with funny moments (eg. colorful uncles who worked at the morgue and his Chinese step-grandfather “Uncle Arthur”), poignant moments (eg. portraying the humanity of his friend Joe Foy, mostly remembered as a disappointing Met but whose career and life were derailed by substance abuse) but most impressive is Ron’s honesty, humility, and gratitude. Ron shares his World Series triumph along with his struggles in the field that saw him lead the league in errors.
In recalling his iconic catch (literally a leap into baseball immortality), Ron describes it in his memoir as “white space where time, thought, and sound disappear.” Yet, it was the result of a lot of hard work.
Speaking of his quest to become a better rightfielder, Ron said he hated being taken out for late-inning defense. “I wanted to be out there,” despite the difficulty of picking up balls in Shea Stadium’s three tier background.
He continued, “I figured out something as an outfielder that I didn’t as a hitter,” so he had Mets coach Eddie Yost hit fungoes to him for 10-15 minutes before every game.
“I didn’t take flyballs, as such…they were line drives, ground balls, left or right, over my head, in front of me.”
“It was a practice I invented myself…I played it at speed. I went after the ball. If I had to dive, I dove, so you play it like a game and I played it with intensity.”
As for the catch itself, “I worked so darn hard at connecting with the ball with Eddie Yost hitting thousands of balls to me.”
“You’re in the World Series. Man, you’re in a different realm of baseball where everything is more intense and your focus is something you can’t believe. When that happens and you’re off and I ran 3-4 strides and having to make a decision to lay out for this thing.”
“In that memory that you can construct in your mind, it goes just kind of quiet, and it’s just a series of still shots and you’re not aware of anything until that thing comes down in your web and you realize it’s not going anywhere.”
He said it was as though the crowd took a deep breath at his leap before an explosion of cheers. “It was pretty amazing. I experienced it in that one moment, in that mad dash to get it.”
The Mets will be honoring Ron and his teammates on the weekend of June 28-30 at Citi Field. He sees his former teammates Ed Kranepool, Cleon Jones, and Art Shamsky and he’s looking forward to reconnecting with his former teammates that he sees less frequently.
Of course, there’s a twinge of bittersweetness with the passing of former teammates/friends like Tug McGraw and Ed Charles, and the absence of Tom Seaver due to his battle with dementia.
Speaking of Seaver, “He was good right out of the box as good as he was 2-3 years down the road. Looking back, you saw Hall of Fame stuff, Hall of Fame confidence, Hall of Fame attitude and intelligence. You saw it all Day One. There wasn’t a break-in period for Tom Seaver. He showed up and he was Tom Seaver.”
He spoke regretfully of his failure to always get along with Hodges. Blaming himself for sometimes chafing under authority, Ron said, “Gil wanted you to act like a grown-up and be the best baseball player you could be and help the team win. I could do some of those things some of the time but not all of those things all of the time. Gil was as decent a man who walked the planet.” Years after Hodges’ death, he learned that Hodges and his father both served on the island of Tinian in March 1945 during World War II. “Maybe it would have opened the door to a better relationship. I don’t know.”
Speaking of the upcoming 50th Anniversary celebrations and the effect the 1969 team had on Mets fans, he said, “It thrills me that stuff we were doing as players still sticks in people’s minds as a fun part of their youth…what a privilege to feel this job you worked was doing things that illuminated people’s lives in a little bit of a good way.
Ron Swoboda will be in the New York area for about a week around the 50th Anniversary festivities and with book signings. I highly recommend “Here’s the Catch” as it captures the spirit of the Miracle Mets and the drama of 1960s and 1970s American cultural history.