When Ron Swoboda looked at the gnarled, road-map face of Casey Stengel he saw Mount Rushmore -- before the job was completed. As an inquisitive 19-year-old rookie, placed on a first-name basis with the storied old manager, there was a chance to study the mystic of the man and listen to his raspy voice either playfully destroy or distort the language.
Swoboda, upon reporting to the New York Mets, offered his undivided attention because it offered an opportunity for a baseball education . . . and otherwise. It says much for the intellect and inquisitiveness of Swoboda that he recognized an American Original or, to use his words, "one of the all-time authentic characters in our history."
Now that the years have passed, Swoboda, a still youthful-looking 45, is able to put a firm perspective on the reflective focus he offers of Stengel. His memory is held dear -- of the wisdom, wrapped in whimsy, he imparted in those rambling monologues.
"Sure, Case nodded occasionally on the bench during a game," says Swoboda, "but if you managed a team as bad as the Mets were when I got there then sleep was an easier alternative than going off a bridge."
Swoboda returned to his native Baltimore this weekend as master of ceremonies for the "Tops In Sport" banquet and acquitted himself with eloquence and charm. He has been a television sportscaster for 16 years in New York, Phoenix, Milwaukee and his present address, New Orleans, so he's as comfortable behind a microphone as in the batter's box.
For a recollection or two about Stengel, his all-time hero, he said, "Case was nobody's fool. He played the role of a clown. But he always had a message. He'd stay up almost all night with the sportswriters, drinkin' and telling stories, but he'd be the first one in the lobby the next morning. He spent a lot of time with me. I was green and anxious and wanted to do things properly. I was a rightfielder. So was he and he tried to help me.
"I'd hear him talking to the reporters and he'd see me listening-in and some of what he had to say was intended for me. Case talked in parables, almost like in the Bible. He'd let you sort it out but, try to understand, he was always endeavoring to tell you something."
There was a dinner party Mrs. Joan Payson, then the club owner, held for the Mets in spring training, and Casey got up to offer some remarks. Swoboda and the players smiled as he fractured the English but yet he left them with a basic, thoughtful conclusion: "If you go out after a game for a few beers," he said, "don't go in a group of five or six but go in twos. Then when you buy a round, you won't get drunk."
Ah, yes, the voice of experience. One time Swoboda asked Stengel about the fact he had once studied to be a lefthanded dentist. "Know what he told me? He said had he completed dental school he would have become an orthodonist because parents always pay for things for their children what they wouldn't buy for themselves."
The 1969 World Series between the Mets and the favored Orioles, his hometown team, was a highlight in his nine-year career. Swoboda batted .400 in the five games and made a diving, back-handed catch on a Brooks Robinson liner that might have been a mistake to even try yet he succeeded. He gambled on the out, rather than conceding a single. Had he missed, not only the tying but winning run would have scored.
"Everything worked for us. Even when Frank Robinson got hit with a pitch, the umpire missed it and he didn't get first base. Then he struck out. Tommy Agee made two great catches with two outs and five men on bases. I would define our feeling as a 'clear white frame of mind.' It was as if we were passengers on some kind of magical mystery tour. Maybe once in a lifetime and dTC perhaps not even that. I would love to have bottled that state of mind."
Another mighty moment occurred in 1969 when Steve Carlton of the Cardinals struck out 19 Mets, including Swoboda twice, but then Ron hit two two-run home runs to beat him, 4-3. How does he explain it? "I can't," he answers. "Carlton was as confused as I was."
An admirable quality of Swoboda is he doesn't take himself too seriously. There's respect for athletes but he says, "I am in awe of musicians. Imagine those extensive lessons and they create such magnificence for all to savor."
Swoboda's sensitivities and vocabulary set him apart. He's at the top of the batting in almost any intellectual league.