Best: At 87, Kiner is living history

SNY broadcaster Ralph Kiner in the broadcast booth

SNY broadcaster Ralph Kiner in the broadcast booth before the game. New York Mets vs. the St. Louis Cardinals at Citifield. (July 29, 2010) (Credit: Kathy Kmonicek)

Neil Best

Newsday columnist Neil Best Neil Best

Neil Best first worked at Newsday in 1982, then returned

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The stories never stop, a bottomless trove from the long, sharp memory of Ralph Kiner.

An hour before yesterday's Cardinals-Mets game, he was talking to an audience of one about Ty Cobb, the 1952 Pirates, Lou Gehrig, Bob Murphy, Joe Garagiola and Bob Sheppard, among many other things.

Soon he would continue on TV, veering from Gus Zernial (an Athletics slugger of the 1950s) to Terry Moore (a Cardinals outfielder of the '30s) to Rick Ferrell (a Senators catcher of the '30s).

Even Toots Shor and Jackie Gleason made cameo appearances during Kiner's 4½ innings in the SNY booth.

"Two things good about being around a long time,'' he said before the game. "One is you can tell a lot of stories, and the people that might refute the stories are all dead now.''

But something else he said was more serious, and to the point.

As he was comparing the 1952 Pirates, who lost 112 games with Kiner in the lineup, to the '62 Mets, who lost 120 with him in the booth, he interrupted himself and said this:

"It's really one lifelong story.''

So it is. At 87, now 55 years after he retired as a player and 35 since he made the Hall of Fame, Kiner is living history, a guy old enough to have met Babe Ruth and young enough at heart to studiously follow the 2010 Mets and other teams.

The trick is being willing and able at his age to share that knowledge with a television audience more interested in the present.

Kiner does that consistently, tossing loose ends of baseball's past into the air and then tying them together during his 25 or so shifts for SNY each season.

It is a role he takes seriously. "I want to keep the names of the people I knew and the ones I heard about before my time alive,'' he said. "I want that history to be preserved.''

For Mets fans of every age, Kiner is a link to their own memories as part of the broadcast crew since Day One.

That includes play-by-play man Gary Cohen, who said, "It's such an incredible honor to sit next to him and actually get to work with him, I can barely express it.''

Cohen is impressed both by Kiner's preparation and the breadth of his material.

"It fascinates me: A guy who hasn't played a game in the major leagues in 55 years constantly comes up with stuff I've never heard before,'' he said, "and I've been watching him since I was 6.''

Said another of Kiner's broadcast partners, Keith Hernandez: "I always feel Ralph's a bridge to the '40s, the '30s, the '20s, stuff that none of us can go back to and bring up.''

Kiner would like to work more games, but he largely is limited to day games at home to ease the burden physically. And more of a good thing might be too much. As it is, he is a welcome change of pace.

(Early in the season, he commutes to Mets games from his home in Florida, but in the summer, he lives in Greenwich, Conn., easing the travel grind.)

But SNY is looking for more ways to use him. Later this season, it plans to package clips from the old "Kiner's Korner'' postgame show with fresh insights from Kiner on the network's website.

Reviving "Kiner's Korner'' on television is unlikely. "The players are making enough money that they don't need the 50 bucks,'' Kiner said.

What would the then- 39-year-old Kiner have said in 1962 if someone had told him he'd still be working Mets games in 2010, let alone in a booth named in his honor?

"I'd never have believed it,'' he said, adding that for his first several years, he worked on one-year contracts, never sure he'd be back.

Those dreadful early Mets teams provided some of his best stories, Kiner said, as did the woeful '52 Pirates. How did they lose 112? Weren't there any other good players on the team?

"I can't think of any,'' he said, laughing. "No, we did have some.''

Still . . . "After my last time at bat, people would get up and go. They knew we were going to lose it and they were going to beat the traffic.''

Kiner hit 37 home runs that season, his seventh consecutive year leading the National League. It was a very long time ago, but he often finds that teenaged players he speaks to are interested in that era, even if they know little about it.

"I always say to them, 'Do you have a computer?' and they always have one, obviously,'' he said. "I say, 'Look me up on Google and you'll find out all you want to know about me there.' ''