To most younger Mets fans with a sense of history, Ron Swoboda will always be remembered for his great catch and clutch hits that helped the Mets win the 1969 World Series against Baltimore. But for those of us who remember when he first came up in spring training of 1964, Swoboda represented great hope. Prodigious power, loaded with potential, hard working, bursting with charisma, and yet in need of a lot of experience.
Signed to a $30,000 bonus contract out of the University of Maryland, Swoboda first attracted manager Stengel’s attention by hitting some monumental home runs in intra-squad games in spring training in 1964. “Suhboda hits the ball over buildings”, Stengel said and was further (likely mis-)quoted as saying that the young slugger could be to the Mets what Mickey Mantle was to the Yankees. Of course, this was rather unrealistic, because aside from his power, Swoboda had none of the skills that Mantle possessed. But it didn’t seem improbable that Swoboda could become say, another Ralph Kiner, good for 40 or more home runs and 100 rbi’s a season, even if his defense was barely acceptable.
Swoboda, as a 19-year old with no professional experience, started his pro career at AAA Buffalo in 1964 and was later sent down to AA Williamsport. His numbers weren’t spectacular, but a combined 17 home runs and 72 rbi’s at the minors’ highest levels for someone so green was impressive. Back then, for some reason I never understood, after a player had spent his first year in the minor leagues, the major league team had to carry him on their 25-man roster the following season, or risk losing him to amother organization that could send him out. This rule accounted for the major league status of such otherwise unqualified Mets players as Ron Locke, Jim Bethke, and Danny Napoleon, among others. Occasionally, there was a player who had to be carried under this rule who proved he was ready for the big leagues. Tony Conigliaro was perhaps the best example of this. Larry Dierker was another.
Anyway, the point is, that the Mets knew that Swoboda would be part of the big club in 1965 even though his fielding was still brutal and his judgment of the strike zone, on defense and on the base paths could have all benefited from further minor league seasoning.
And so it was, in 1965, Swoboda, playing a full season with the Mets, although batting just .228, hit 19 home runs, many of them prodigious shots into the left field parking lot. If Swoboda, who appeared to be a truly dedicated player could improve his defense and learn the pitchers around the league, the possibility of stardom was definitely there. Worst case scenario it seemed would be a shaky rightfielder who’d still be good for 25 homeruns and 80 + rbi’s and couldn’t the Mets build around someone like that ?
For whatever reason (but likely the pitchers around the league adjusted to him a lot better than he adjusted to them), Swoboda never even approached the 19 homeruns he hit as a rookie. In his second season, he hit just 8. Then, he’d hit between 9 and 13 a year. And although he worked hard to improve his defense, he was always capable of breaking your heart. I still remember crying myself to sleep the night Swoboda muffed a flyball against the Cardinals with 2 outs in the ninth inning, causing 3 runs to score, and turning a sure win into a crushing defeat.
In 1969, of course, things sort of came together for Swoboda, leading to his memorable performance in the World Series. His regular season numbers were nothing special, 9 homeruns and a .235 average, but he did have some big games, notably aginst Steve Carlton, and of course, he was an instrumental piece of the Miracle.
Swoboda played one more season with the Mets before the organization gave up on him, sending him to the Expos even-up for Don Hahn, who was no more than a defensive replacement type. Mets fans half-expected Ron’s career to blossom after he was dealt away, but instead, Swoboda played sparingly without doing much of anything. In the end, his career numbers were sadly disappointing.
But there was 1969, and for that, Met fans will always be grateful. Shortly after his active career concluded, Swoboda surfaced as a sports anchor on CBS Channel 2 in New York. He was very raw at the time and didn’t last long, but he’s since moved to New Orleans where he’s been a popular on-air sports personality for many years. When the Mets’ AAA club was located in New Orleans, Swoboda served as color commentator for Zephyrs games resuming at the time his association with the Mets and that was nice to hear.