Swoboda ended up in clover, Orioles in agony

October 31, 1999|By JOHN STEADMAN

Astronauts strolled on the moon, Woodstock played to a love-in, Vietnam protesters infiltrated the streets and the improbable New York Mets won the World Series. Anything was possible in 1969.

Meanwhile, Ron Swoboda broke the hearts of the Baltimore Orioles by streaking across the outfield grass, diving for a line drive in a backhanded try and plowing up part of the turf. He thereby created one of the most incredible of World Series plays.

It was against his hometown team. There was to be no joy in Baltimore, a city and a team done in by a graduate of Sparrows Point High School who had the physical structure of an Adonis and an extraordinary intellect decidedly peculiar to an athlete.

Swoboda had made the catch, clean and spectacularly. The objective question then, and as of now, 30 years later, is did he play it all wrong and have it come out right?

Should he, in a conventional way, have allowed the ball to drop, conceding a run but preventing it from rolling to the fence for what would have been the likely go-head score?

But Swoboda took the chance and made a catch that defied the Orioles and summarily denied them a chance at victory. It was the ninth inning of Game 4, and Tom Seaver had thrown Brooks Robinson a nasty fastball down and away.

"How Brooks hit it, I don't know, but he smoked it," recalled Swoboda. "I reacted by chasing after it. It was difficult to read the ball as it came off the bat. The thought came to me as I pursued it that this ball is going to go by me. Then I dove at it and somehow caught it. The ball stayed inside the web of my glove, a Rawlings model. I still have the glove right here. The leather in those gloves was genuine."

Swoboda, as with a man in battle, didn't have time to think. He went against the book, made the catch and preserved the outcome for the Mets. One run came in as Frank Robinson tagged up innocuously from third base. But Boog Powell had to stay at first.

The Mets held on to win, 2-1, and the next day, with Swoboda supplying the important hit, closed out the highly favored Orioles, 5-3, in a World Series upset of historic importance. His mother and father were at Shea Stadium; so was his wife, the former Cecelia Hanna of Bel Air. A great moment for all of them.

Swoboda is able to reflect on the moments of the miracle year with the Mets, a team that won only 73 games the year before but 27 more in 1969.

As for the play of the Series, he added: "I was either going to catch it or the ball was going to go by me. Simple as that. It was all reaction, but I like to think I prepared for such a situation. I used to get coach Ed Yost to hit me line drives, maybe 100 or more, in practice, from close range, just to be ready for something like that."

Swoboda left baseball at 29, much before his time, to partake of television opportunities. He worked in New York, Milwaukee, Phoenix and New Orleans -- a first-rate announcer. Now, in New Orleans, a city he loves for its history, he writes a monthly column for New Orleans magazine on art, music, literature, food, travel. It's called "Swoboda At Large."

Here he is, an ex-baseball player exerting exceptional intelligence on subjects more cerebral than the infield-fly rule.

The Mets of 30 years ago were pre-ordained for the impossible. So was Swoboda. In a mid-September game against the St. Louis Cardinals, pitcher Steve Carlton struck out 19 Mets, but Swoboda hit two massive home runs.

"I remember we played the Chicago Cubs in New York as the race was between the two of us," he says. "They had all the stars and future Hall of Famers. Then, just like out of Central Casting, this huge black cat suddenly came out from under the stands and ran in front of the Cubs' bench. An ominous omen. The last six weeks of the season, we played .750 baseball. There was something utterly mystical and magical about it."

Swoboda, playing against his hometown team, was a Series standout, batting .400 for the five games. It left the Orioles remembering how much they wanted to sign him, but they believed he was going to remain at the University of Maryland rather than entertain contract offers. The Orioles were wrong in their calculation but realized, much to their woe, that Swoboda was a prospect they had wanted to sign.

He broke their hearts and their spirit. "The catch told me that, yes, in life, all things were possible," he says philosophically. Ron Swoboda, because of what happened, remains for perpetuity among the all-time lineup of World Series heroes.

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