By Ron Swoboda
In Here’s the Catch, right fielder Ron Swoboda tells the story of the Mets’ miraculous 1969 World Series win, the incredible season leading up to that moment, the people he played with and against (sometimes at the same time), and what life was like as an Every Man ballplayer.
If you were surprised to read that in 1965 I was a twenty-year-old rookie major leaguer, I would understand completely. I was kind of surprised myself.
In 1964 I was invited to early spring training at the Mets major league facility in St. Petersburg, where I guess I did well enough to get myself invited to a week or so of regular spring training with the veterans on the squad, and where it became obvious I needed to be sent to Dunedin, Florida, to join the camp of the AAA Buffalo Bisons. Three weeks into the Bisons’ regular season, I was sent to AA, the Eastern League in Williamsport, Pennsylvania.
I drove my 1964 Ford 390 XL Convertible, burgundy with a black top, on all local roads from Buffalo to Williamsport. The manager there was Ernie White, a former left-handed pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals and Boston Braves for seven big league seasons in the 1940s. Ernie’s job was to write my name in the lineup and, occasionally, deal with the immaturities of a nineteen-year-old athlete. Which he did with a calm and steady hand. I felt like I had a solid, productive season hitting just under .280 with 14 home runs.
Being about as naive as one could be in the company of veteran professional players, men from many backgrounds and all walks of life left me wide open. One day early during spring training with the Bisons, I was played by a Venezuelan shortstop named Elio Chacon. Elio had spent parts of three years in the big leagues, had his own baseball card and everything. So when I saw him standing next to an old Jaguar two-seater, I believed it was his. The keys were in the car and he asked me if I wanted to take it for a spin. Our workout was over, so, why not? And off I went bombing around Dunedin for a while, waving at girls and looking cool. When I pulled back into the parking lot, I found this teenager, a high school ballplayer, with a crazed look on his face. Turns out, it was his car, and he thought I’d stolen it. He even called the cops and reported it missing. I calmed him down and things were fine, but Chacon and the other guys busted a gut. These veteran guys were not to be trusted.
I opened the season with Buffalo on the road against the Yankees’ affiliate in Richmond, Virginia, not far from my home in Baltimore. My Mom and Dad and my Uncles George and Bill, the dieners, came along to watch my opening night as a pro. It wasn’t too bad. I went 3-for-5 with a home run but got picked off first base with the hidden ball trick after my first base hit. Actually, a good thing because once you experience that level of embarrassment, it’s likely never going to happen again. And it didn’t. Plus my uncles got a memorable story. After the game, they went to a bar in Richmond and asked the bartender if they had any American beer, which happened to be the name of a popular but local Baltimore brand. “Sure,” the bartender said, “We have all kinds of American beer—Budweiser, Miller—all kinds.”
Thinking this pro game is not so hard after all, I faced Mel Stottlemyre in game two. Mel would go on to win 164 career games with the Yankees and join them in New York before the year was up and where we’d spend some time together in the early 1970s. Between his hard slider and disappearing sinker, I saw every pitch and thought I could hit them all. Net result, four strikeouts and a whole new outlook on this pro game thing. Had I been able to zoom ahead six months, I would see Mel starting three games in the World Series, and I probably wouldn’t have felt so bad. After about a week and a half on the road, the veterans invited me to one of their rooms for a postgame party. The rest is a blur, at least up to the point when I was experiencing the mother of all hangovers. As an initiation, those wankers pumped me full of cheap Carstairs whiskey and dumped me in my room. I woke up the next day and realized I had wet the bed, pooped myself, threw up, and looked like I’d been bleeding through my eyes. I was a freakin’ mess. I felt like I needed to die to get better. Those guys had fun with me, and they weren’t through. Somebody decided that I needed to learn how to chew tobacco. Well, I never had any affinity for tobacco, but I put just a little bit in my mouth and started chewing, trying hard not to swallow. Well, I got so sick, I don’t know what kept me from puking. But somewhere in my tobacco delirium, our manager, Whitey Kurowski, the old Cardinal third baseman, sent me up to pinch hit. I’m seeing double at this point, and I remember thinking I’m seeing a couple of baseballs coming at me, thank goodness I’m holding a couple of bats. I got jammed, but managed to hit the ball off the very short right field fence in Buffalo’s old War Memorial Stadium, the same field they used in the movie The Natural. Feeling pretty unnatural, I was eyeballing my shot and tripped over first base, doing a nosedive into the dirt and scrambling on all fours back to first base, still feeling like death warmed over. Thank God there was no SportsCenter in those days, or they’d still be showing the clip. Everybody on the bench was mighty entertained.
Copyright © 2021 by Ron Swoboda
Ron Swoboda played right field for the Mets from 1965 to 1970, the Expos in 1971 and the Yankees from 1971 to 1973. Afterwards he was a TV sportscaster in New York City, Milwaukee and New Orleans, where he is color commentator for telecasts of the Marlins’ AAA club. In addition to his memoir, Here’s the Catch, Swoboda is the author of The New Orleans Saints.