For as long as I can remember, America’s pastime, baseball, has been my thing. I buy into all of the theater and tradition hook, line, and sinker. At the risk of sounding like a big ole’ cornball – it was that thing you did as a kid with your dad, or your grandfather, or both – and looked forward to passing along when you finally found yourself in the “dad” seat. Amazingly, last summer I got to do just that, and it was as amazing as I imagined it would be. What has two thumbs and is nerding-out on baseball right now? THIS GUY!
As the beginning of the 2014 baseball season looms only a week or so away, the rite of passage known as Spring Training winds-down having produced equal helpings of excitement, hope, and also disappointment for those who have taken part in it. Over the next few days, dreams will be realized; others will be shattered; with the balance being placed upon an indefinite shelf to be determined at a later time.
69-year-old retired pro, Ron Swoboda, knows the Spring Training routine very well. He was a Big League ballplayer for the better part of 11 years, and was an integral component of the magical mystery that was the 1969 New York Mets World Series Championship team. He’s responsible for one of the single greatest defensive plays in World Series history; affectionately known as “ the catch.” Ron is one of the good ones. Intelligent, and well-rounded beyond what you’d think a professional athlete, past or present, is capable of. He’s a jazz nut, and still loves him some baseball. We thought it would be cool to grab some insights about the season-before-the-season from Ron, who has weathered every degree of Spring Training experience one possibly could, including one rare spring in particular, where unbeknownst to him or his teammates, they would end the year as unlikely World Series champs!
Mass Appeal: How many spring training camps did you attend over your career, and with how many different teams?
Ron Swoboda: I went to major league spring training camp 11 times, with four different teams – the Mets, the Yankees, the Montreal Expos and the Atlanta Braves. My first camp in 1964 – I was 17, going on 18-years-old, and my last was in 1974 with the Braves. That was the year Hank Aaron went on to break Babe Ruth’s homerun record. I was one of the last players cut, and did not go North with the team.
MA: For the first few years, were you battling for a spot on the roster, or did you think you were unlikely to play in the Majors just yet?
RS: It’s kind of odd… I was actually in big league camp my first year in organized baseball, and only spent a month or so in the minors throughout my career. The Mets invited some of their young guys to a pre-spring training session at the big league facility in St. Petersburg, Florida, and I was invited to that. I was pretty spoiled in that I went to big league camp every year I went to spring training.
The first couple of years, I was pretty sure I would make the team. It was me, outfielder Danny Napoleon, Tug McGraw… you know, ‘Ya Gotta Believe’ Tug McGraw, and Jim Bethke, a right-hand pitcher. We were what you call ‘first year players’ and it became apparent that we were going to be kept in the big leagues. If they sent you to the minors after you had played a year in the league, you could get drafted (by another team) so we were being protected against that. Oddly in ’66, I wasn’t all that sure I was going to make the team out of Spring Training. The feeling was ‘this kid had a pretty good first half in ’65, but struggled in the second half.’ Unfortunately for me, I made the team after all in 1966 [Laughs].
’67, ’68, ’69 – those years I felt confident that I would make the Big League roster. Even when I was traded to the Expos in the spring of 1971, I felt as if I was going to make the team. I felt similarly a couple of years later with the Yankees. I didn’t feel as though anyone was going to beat me out. However, 1974 was very different for me. Steinbrenner had just completed his purchase of the Yankees, and ‘Merry Christmas – you’re a free agent.’ When I went to camp with the Braves, I knew nothing was a gimme, and I was going to have to work really hard. I was struggling, and baseball seemed really different that spring. Obviously, I wound up being released, and that was my baseball career.
MA: Did you enjoy spring training, or was it just stressful?
RS: I had a pretty good run of spring trainings where I felt comfortable. I liked working out hard in the morning, and playing a game that afternoon or that evening. I liked the zen of working out. I loved that part of it. I loved the fact that you had a fairly normal lifestyle, and I had a wife and two kids for most of that, and they would come down to camp with me until my oldest son started school. After the games, most of which were in the afternoon, you could get back to spending family time.
MA: What was the process of getting a uniform with the number you wanted on it while at camp?
RS: When I went to my first camp, #17 was in my locker, and I had it for 1964 and 1965. When we broke camp in ’65, I was given #14. When the Mets acquired Kenny Boyer from the St. Louis Cardinals in 1966, I think what they said to me was, ‘Um – what other number would you like Ron?’ Kenny really wanted #14, which he’d worn throughout his career, so he got to choose. I wound up dropping the “1” and switched to #4. Ultimately, it made no difference at all. It was a big league uniform, and that’s all that mattered to me. I mean, if you were in Dodgers camp that year, there were guys with triple digits on their uniforms, so my situation wasn’t all that bad. There were guys over there, in a major league camp, wearing #108. I think even Don Drysdale wore #73 (it was actually #53), and he made the team with a number you’re not supposed to make the team with.
MA: What was the vibe around Mets spring training in 1969? The Mets went on to win their first World Series that season. Were there expectations placed upon the team early on?
RS: I remember some guys, like Jerry Grote, saying things like, ‘We have enough pitching to do this.’ I was never very good at projecting things like that, but I thought if we could just take the next step… We had won 73 ballgames in ’68, and we felt like we could play with the other teams a little bit now. Seaver had matured; Koosman was there, Nolan Ryan’s on that team, Tug McGraw, Ron Taylor… You had reason to believe the pitching staff was evolving in a very good way. Gentry, McAndrew – guys who could really throw. A good mix of lively young arms, as well as some older guys who could still pitch, so you felt like that was in place. We always questioned our ability to score runs though. I was thinking, ‘Let’s just take the next step. Let’s try to win 80-something games and show people we’re in the hunt.’ At no time did I think we were a phenomenon looking for a place to happen.
MA: Fast forward a year to the spring of 1970, after the team had won the Series. What was spring training like after the miracle run you went on the previous year?
RS: I think the easiest baseball I ever played was in 1969, and the hardest was in 1970. After you had done this thing, you head to spring training where you’d done NOTHING again. But there are cameras rolling on us now, and it’s almost as if they’re looking for us to fail, because we had finally succeeded. The only place you can go is down. It’s like going to the top of the Empire State Building; looking down and thinking, ‘It’s pretty scary up here.’
A team dynamic is a living animal, and it isn’t gonna stand still. It’s not going to be the same, and to some degree, you’ve spoiled it by winning it all. Everyone knows who won it all, and they have you lined-up in their sights. That’s a tough place to be for the first time, especially when you did it with a little mystique… a little magic, the way we did in ’69. It was even more difficult if you weren’t necessarily sure of the floor beneath your feet, if you know what I mean. You tried the best you could, but when you’re trying to make magic happen, it’s a hell of a lot more difficult than when it just happens for the first time…when it’s brand new. The achievement is baggage, and you have to learn how to carry that weight. I’m not sure we knew how to do that. It was a tough spring training. You wanted to do something to prove that you were better than the year before, but it’s hard to follow your own act. It felt like the difference between surfing a wave, and trying to run while up to your knees in sand.
MA: Do you believe there’s a big difference between what spring training is like now, versus years ago?
RS: I absolutely do. I mean I’m watching the Yankees play the Phillies [in a spring training game] right now on the Major League Baseball network. Everything of note that happens in baseball is recorded. Now, your performance is on the record for all to see. Back then, very few games were seen except by those in attendance, if any. There were only radio broadcasts. It seems like everything’s important now. Also, there are more transient players…guys at the other end of the roster, who are destined to go up and down from the minors to the Big Leagues a few times.
There’s more flux, but I also think it’s more obvious now who is going to make the roster out of spring training. You have a good idea who is going to have a permanent position on the team, barring injury, and you know who the guys that need to impress somebody are. If you’re one of those, you better keep your seatbelt on. Just like there’s a disparity in income in America, there’s a greater disparity in baseball than there used to be in terms of economics, and in terms of opportunity. Look at what happens if you break camp with the big club: minimum salary is around $500,000. You get paid at that rate, and you’re making Big League time. Every day you spend in the Bigs now, is accumulated toward your pension for when you’re done playing.
That’s what I mean about everything being important. I don’t know what the breakdown is, but a majority of guys don’t play a lot of years in the majors. Most have to scuffle, and battle, and go up and down, and work like hell to establish themselves as a Big Leaguer. It’s way more fluid than it used to be. Plus, there’s the diversity in the game now. Players aren’t only competing against other talented Americans, as they used to. There are Japanese, Taiwanese, Korean guys…tons of Latino players you’re competing against. It makes it harder to get there and make it stick.
It’s hard enough to make the Big Leagues, and it’s even harder to stay there. Deals get made; another player is having a great minor league season, and your future changes course for better or worse.