Swoboda set to bid adieu to PCL booth

Miracle Mets outfielder broadcasting through Cakes' final year

Ron Swoboda (l) has developed a close friendship with broadcast partner Tim Grubbs over the last 17 years. (New Orleans Baby Cakes)

By Shlomo Sprung / MiLB.com | August 29, 2019 10:40 AM

If Ron Swoboda was remembered only for his integral role on the 1969 Miracle Mets and his amazin' catch that robbed the Orioles' Brooks Robinson of extra bases in Game 4 of that year's World Series, his legacy in the game would be well secured. But the 75-year-old has also put together a second baseball life in New Orleans, a tenure as a color commentator that's lasted a quarter century but will likely soon come to an end.

The Triple-A Baby Cakes of the Pacific Coast League are set to move to Wichita, Kansas, next year. Unless New Orleans lands a team in the Double-A Southern League, Swoboda's days directly associated with baseball will be over. But what a run it's been for the Baltimore native, who embraced the music, arts, culture and everything the Crescent City had to offer. It became far more than just a second home.

"I will always be known primarily as a Met and associated with that 1969 World Series team and for the catch in Game 4 of the World Series. That's an identity I happily hang around my neck," Swoboda said. "It's nice to be known for the most graceful thing you ever did as an athlete, if you have a choice. But the gift of my 60s and 70s has been working as a color commentator on these Triple-A broadcasts."

The story of Swoboda's Louisiana journey began with his last days under contract with the other New York franchise, around Christmas 1973, and George Steinbrenner played the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. With Steinbrenner and new ownership in place, the Yankees released the outfielder after he'd spent 2 1/2 seasons in pinstripes.

"Steinbrenner had just taken over the team and he was going to remake it," Swoboda said. "He wanted to turn it into a winner, and I wasn't a part of that. I can understand why."

Swoboda had recently been interviewed for a story by journalist Dave Marash (now a close friend), who introduced him to Ed Joyce, then the president and news director of CBS News. Swoboda signed with the Braves, but when they released him during Spring Training in 1974, he knew his baseball career was finished.

"I ended up without a job, wondering what the hell I was going to do with my life," Swoboda said. "Marash had broached the idea with WCBS that I might be interesting to bring on board as a sports guy."

And that's how Swoboda began a 20-year career as a TV sports anchor.

"I end up getting hired right off the street with zero preparation," he said.

After 4 1/2 years doing sports in New York City, Swoboda headed to Milwaukee for two unremarkable years at WISN. He'd only been to New Orleans once in his life, but in 1981, the Miracle Mets icon moved with his wife and two sons to the city he'd soon call home.

"There was something about New Orleans that was completely unique," Swoboda said. "It is one of those places that people say you either love it or you need to get the hell out of here. I fell in love with it."

He quickly became enamored with the arts and music scene there, frequenting jazz clubs after working on the 6 and 10 p.m. newscasts on WVUE. After the late sets at clubs and lounges like Vaughan's or Tyler's Beer Garden, the musicians -- who were Saints and LSU fans -- would recognize Swoboda from the news and everybody would share stories. He'd get to know luminaries like Red Tyler and James Rivers, George Porter, Art Neville and Zigaboo Modeliste of The Meters; Tony Dagradi, David Torkanowsky, Johnny Vidacovich, James Singleton and Astral Project; and the Marsalis family of jazz talents.

"There's something about the joie de vivre here that just intrigued me," Swoboda, who also has a taste for French impressionist art, said. "And I was able to embrace the whole of it."

Yet he did leave WVUE in the mid-1980s to try his hand at local news in Arizona.

"I took a job out there that doubled my salary," he said, "but I was not a success in conservative Phoenix."

So Swoboda moved back to Louisiana and has never left. But he did depart from TV news in 1994.

"I wasn't enjoying it anymore," Swoboda said. "It wasn't the most intelligent decision I ever made, but I basically fell out of love with it and didn't want to do it anymore. And it looked like it on the air."

When the Colorado Rockies came into Major League Baseball as an expansion team in 1993, the Denver Zephyrs moved southeast to New Orleans as the Milwaukee Brewers' Triple-A franchise. And in Swoboda's words, he "started hanging out" with the city's new American Association club as the color commentator alongside Kenny Trahan. A new ballpark -- the one the Baby Cakes call home as the Shrine on Airline -- arrived in 1997.

"Zephyr Field was a really big boost for the franchise," Swoboda said.

The American Association disbanded after the 1997 season, the Zephyrs' first as a Houston Astros affiliate. But the team took the Pacific Coast League by storm in 1998. That '98 New Orleans club, which included future MLB All-Stars Lance Berkman, Freddy Garcia, Carlos Guillen and Hall Of Famer Lee Smith, earned a special place in Swoboda's heart.

"It was a bunch of fellas, baseball lifers, that had really played the game," he said. "Most of them had spent a little bit of time in the big leagues or a fair amount. Casey Candaele was on that team, one of my favorite guys."

New Orleans won the PCL title and went to Las Vegas for the first of a three-year experiment known as the Triple-A World Series. The Zephyrs defeated Buffalo, three games to one, at old Cashman Field.

"Here comes the celebration, and there are more players out on the field shooting champagne on one another than there are fans in the stands," Swoboda said, remembering he and Trahan going down to the field to bask in the festivities. "It was a weird ambiance, because we were making all the noise."

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Trahan left the club in 2000, so Swoboda spent 2001 doing play-by-play for one season before Tim Grubbs came aboard as his broadcast partner, which he's been ever since.

"I really was completely over my head as a radio play-by-play guy for baseball, but I did it," Swoboda said. "I made it through a whole season."

He learned a lot from that experience, including lessons that helped him grow as a writer and an analyst.

"You do that every night, and your word-finding ability has to get better because you're constantly trying to vitalize it and not repeat yourself too much," he said. "And that's a good exercise."

Still, he's grateful that the good exercise was partially replaced by a broadcast partner, as Grubbs and Swoboda have forged a bond that will last a lifetime.

"He's younger than my sons, I'm older than his father and yet we have this straight-ahead kind of relationship," Swoboda said. "It's extemporaneous. You're sort of talking and listening like jazz players are playing and listening to one another and trying to make room for one another and not step on one another."

New Orleans spent 2005-06 as a Nationals affiliate and 2007-08 as the Mets' Triple-A club before serving the last decade as the Marlins' entrant in the PCL, with the team changing from the Zephyrs to the Baby Cakes in 2017. Throughout all that, Swoboda and Grubbs have managed to make their broadcasts sing for quite some time.

"Honestly, I'll miss his friendship and the broadcasts that we were able to do together," Swoboda said. "I'll miss that a lot. I'll miss that more than I probably know right now."

Swoboda received the key to New York from Mayor de Blasio in June. (Frank Franklin II, AP)

It's been quite an interesting last few months for the New Orleans renaissance man. Swoboda went back to New York City to celebrate the 50th anniversary of those 1969 Mets and to do publicity for his memoir, "Here's The Catch," which was released on June 11. After celebrating his 75th birthday on June 30 in New York, he went back down to New Orleans for a week of calling games before going on the road for more book appearances.

"At the end of that whole run," he said, "I had an incident at night that turned out to be a low heartbeat and I passed out and went to the emergency room."

After being released from the ER and experiencing a couple of dizzy spells, he had a coronary angiogram that revealed a major blockage.

"You could've been a cement worker and diagnosed my angiogram. You'd look at the blockage and go, 'Holy crap,'" Swoboda said. "I'm lucky enough that I'm in a book club with a bunch of doctors, who got me hooked up with an incredible heart surgeon."

Swoboda is now a little over a month removed from triple bypass surgery and is feeling good, even looking toward a future without working in baseball as part of his daily life. He's proud that he was able to have the best of both worlds: a career as World Series champion, and another in New Orleans as a color commentator.

"I've loved every day, every game, every inning, every out," Swoboda said. "It's one of those extraordinary things that's never been work. I know that sounds completely Pollyanna, but it is exactly how I feel about it. And as it ends, my gratitude at being able to do it, I think, is what leavens the whole bittersweet end of it."

As the New Orleans Baby Cakes move on to Wichita, Swoboda said he'll always care about the franchise and Grubbs will fill him in along the way. Following the heart surgery, Swoboda vowed to get his 75-year-old body into better shape and live life to the fullest.

"I expect to play at least five years of golf where I can get better," he said. "I expect to get better and I want to shoot lower than my age. And then just enjoy what life I have left with my wife and kids and grandkids. That's good enough for me."

Shlomo Sprung is a contributor to MiLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @sprungonsports. This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.

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