Friday, May 25, 2007

Old Time Mets - Rod Kanehl

With all the posts I've done on the early days of the Mets, I never once mentioned the name of Rod Kanehl, who in his way symbolized the 1962-64 Mets as much as anyone. If Marv Throneberry and Choo Choo Coleman represented Mets' ineptitude, then Kanehl was the embodiment of the everyman quality that helped to popularize the Mets.

For those of you too young to remember Kanehl, he was the all-purpose utility man for the early Mets, who played every position except pitcher and catcher, and no doubt, would have played those, too, if only he was asked. How good a ballplayer was Rod ? Well, let's just say if he was a better hitter, a better fielder with a better arm, and a better base runner, he might have been Joe McEwing. That might be a little unfair, because Kanehl was actually a pretty good base runner. But so are a lot of guys who never get the chance to play pro ball.

Rod's "best" position was second base. Unfortunately, he never mastered the double play pivot, which is fairly important for a second baseman. He also played a lot in the outfield where he would pursue flyballs with reckless abandon. In fact, that's what made Casey Stengel notice him in the first place.

Kanehl spent several seasons in the Yankees' organization, mostly at the lower levels, but one year in training camp, he impressed Casey with his constant hustle. So, it was on Stengel's recommendation that the Mets drafted Kanehl for their AAA team prior to the 1962 season. Every knowledgeable baseball man, including Mets' President George Weiss saw Kanehl as no more than minor league fodder, but he hustled his way on to the roster with Casey's support and hung around for three seasons.

What endeared Kanehl to Mets' fans was his genuine "regular guy" quality. Today, with even utility infielders making a million dollars a year, it's tough for the average fan to identify with any big league player. But Kanehl, who was probably making no more than the average school teacher, cop, or truck driver, was truly the ordinary guy who happened to be playing in the big leagues. Kanehl would ride the New York subways and buses, and converse with fans on a man-to-man basis without any condescension whatsoever. Rod would hang out with fans all the time. He appreciated their support and they appreciated his hard work, hustle, and desire, even if you got the feeling that maybe the fellow who played shortstop on your weekend softball team was just as good a ballplayer as Rod Kanehl and maybe he was.

Kanehl was certainly grateful for the opportunity to play in the big leagues. Had Stengel not brought him north, he no doubt would have been doomed to a lifetime in the bushes. In appreciation, Kanehl attended Casey Stengel's funeral, reportedly the only ex-Met player to do so. In spite of his limited ability, Kanehl will always have a place in Mets' lore.

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Remembering The Mets

On yesterday's SNY broadcast of the Mets-Marlins games, as an extension to a trivia question, Keith Hernandez and Gary Cohen discussed how the long history of the Mets should be celebrated at the new CitiField. Keith said how he'd like to see pictures of Bobby Klaus (who, it was pointed out, had the longest hitless streak at Shea Stadium) and Choo Choo Coleman (who was just legendary for no apparent reason) as well as many of the other Mets who were there and played a part in the early Mets' history. I was happy to hear Keith mention names like Joe Christopher and Jerry Buchek.

For those of you who visit this site frequently, you can see why I was so glad to hear those comments. I have tried to paint a picture of the early pre-'69 Mets always struggling to build a team by promoting players who had a big year in the minor leagues, always trying to trade for young players who could develop into stars, mostly without success, and just generally taking chances on players who had failed elsewhere in the hope that by giving enough players the chance to succeed, the cream would rise to the top and eventually the Mets would develop into contenders.

It didn't quite work out that way of course, as the Mets went from ninth place to a World Championship in one year, 1969, a year that would change the course of Mets' history forever.

We have heard how CitiField will memorialize and pay tribute to Jackie Robinson and how parts of its structure pay homage to Ebbets Field, probably because Fred Wilpon was a Dodger fan as a kid. But this is not the new Dodger Stadium, it is not a multi-purpose structure for all New York teams, it will be the new home of the Mets, and I would hope that an area can be devoted to celebrating the history of the Mets, which doesn't jump directly from Casey Stengel to Tom Seaver. I'm sure I'm not the only life-long Mets fan who didn't care a bit about the Brooklyn Dodgers, especially considering the first Mets teams were led by ex-Yankees Weiss and Stengel, the team's roots were hardly sprung from the Dodgers. I have no nostalgia for Brooklyn, but plenty for Queens.

Sometimes when I write about players like Dennis Musgraves, Darell Sutherland, Danny Napoleon or Greg Goossen, I wonder if anyone really cares. But they were an important part of Mets' history. They were among the great prospects that were going to lead this team to glory, and in their day, they were among the reasons to believe that this downtrodden team would begin a road to success. I am just trying to keep their memories alive, but it would be so much more impressive if Mets' ownership would make an attempt to do the same, with a gallery devoted to every year in Mets' history on display when CitiField opens its doors.

Yes, do not forget Bill Shea and Casey Stengel. But why not consider installing video display terminals that would let fans view pictures and statistics of EVERY Met player, manager, and coach by season, or alphabetically, with more elaborate video entries for 100 or so of the most prominent ones, including not only latter-day stars like Hernandez, Piazza, and Strawberry, but early ones like Thomas, Hunt, and Jackson ? That would make CitiField worth the trip for me.