- The Washington Times - Friday, May 27, 2005

NEW ORLEANS — It makes perfect, if ironic, sense that former New York Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda would wind up in New Orleans as the radio analyst on broadcasts of the Washington Nationals Class AAA club, the New Orleans Zephyrs.

As far as Baltimore Orioles fans are concerned, Swoboda was a high priest of voodoo long before he set up shop in the Crescent City. How else do you explain the catch — a dagger in the heart of Orioles fans, by, of all people, a Sparrows Point boy?

Then again, how else do you explain the Amazin’ Mets?

If you are a longtime Orioles fan, you know exactly what it means when you hear the words ?Swoboda? and ?catch? in the same sentence.

Game 4 of the 1969 World Series, Mets leading the Orioles two games to one. The Mets are ahead by a score of 1-0 in the top of the ninth at Shea Stadium with one out, Frank Robinson on third base and Boog Powell on first. Brooks Robinson hits a line drive toward right field and Swoboda.

If the Orioles could have picked one outfielder to deal with a shot like this, it would have been Swoboda. He was known for hitting with some power and for his quick wit but not for his glove.

?There was a Baltimore sportscaster who said the only way Swoboda could make a living with his glove was to cook it and eat it,? Swoboda recalled with a laugh while sitting in the broadcast booth at Zephyr Field before a recent game.

Then again, if Baltimore could have picked any of the contending teams coming out of the National League to play in that World Series, it probably would have been the Mets, who on paper, didn’t come close to measuring up to the powerful Orioles.

?I think they were happy to see us,? Swoboda said. ?I think they were licking their chops: ‘Mets? Bring them on.’ I’m sure they did.?

Somehow, though, Swoboda made a diving stab at the ball and caught it backhand in the glove that was only worth cooking and eating. USA Today Baseball Weekly ranked the catch among its ?10 Most Amazing Plays of All Time.?

Frank Robinson tagged up and scored to tie the game at 1-1, but the catch kept the Orioles from taking the lead, and the Mets responded just as they did every step of the way in 1969, scoring the winning run in the bottom of the 10th when Orioles pitcher Pete Richert hit J.C. Martin in the back with the ball after Martin laid down a sacrifice bunt.

There probably was nothing that was going to keep the previously terrible Mets from winning the World Series the same year man walked on the moon.

?We came from nowhere. With a young pitching staff, and a couple of moves, we were able to surprise people,? Swoboda said. ?We evolved very quickly that year as a team. What people saw the first time around wasn’t nearly what we were the second time around, and that was to our advantage. We did sneak up on people. It was an unbelievable year. We were surfing on inspiration. Everything about 1969 was a fairy tale.?

And now, with a little twist in the story 36 years later — thanks to a change in Class AAA affiliation by the Nationals to the New Orleans Zephyrs this season — Swoboda, 61, is calling the play of the minor leaguers who are just one step away from playing for Nationals manager Frank Robinson, who had known the Mets from their lovable loser days during his time in the National League.

?How ironic that the manager of this major league team is Frank Robinson, who was probably the most anxious to play us,? said Swoboda, who went into television in 1974 in New York and has been in television and radio in New Orleans since 1981. ?The who? The Mets??

Swoboda’s Baltimore relatives were certainly happy to see the Mets because it meant good tickets for them to watch their Orioles win.

?They went out there and rooted against us — I know they did,? Swoboda said. ?It was Baltimore and the Orioles. That was OK. I understood.?

Swoboda knew what it meant to be a baseball fan in Baltimore. He was born and raised in the city, a baseball star at Sparrows Point High School who went on to play for the University of Maryland for one year before signing with the Mets in 1963 at 19.

?As a kid, I played in Memorial Stadium one time in an amateur championship game and hit a home run there, a high fly ball right down the left-field line that probably cleared the fence by about four feet,? Swoboda said. ?I got to take the slow trot. I used to play in Patterson Park and Herring Run Park, and the only way you hit a home run there was to hit it far and run like [heck]. There was no home run trot there.?

Swoboda was expected to produce many home run trots as a major leaguer after hitting 19 as a rookie in 1965. But he never produced the numbers that were expected of him, and retired after nine years with a .242 average, 73 home runs and 344 RBI in 928 career games.

His wit and ability to communicate, though, were major league assets that allowed him to become one of New Orleans’ best-known personalities as a broadcaster, public speaker and columnist for New Orleans Magazine. As a hobby, he studies the history and quirkiness of his adopted hometown.

?It just hits you with so many aromas and rhythms and history and character — and characters,? he said. ?New Orleans is so lush with all this interesting stuff. It is so interesting and fascinating, and it hasn’t worn off.?

Maybe New Orleans was where Ron Swoboda was destined to be. And maybe, just maybe, he was destined to be broadcasting games for the Washington Nationals’ minor league affiliate.

In 1971, the Mets traded Swoboda to … the Montreal Expos.

That old black magic.

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