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"The first pitch," Kanehl said, "zap! Strike one. I didn't even see it. The next one was another fast ball, I guess. The umpire said it was a strike. I wouldn't know. Strike two."
Kanehl, telling his story, slumped down in his chair and put his shoes up on a bed. They had holes in the soles. Then he began reciting from Casey at the Bat. He really did.
He signaled to the pitcher,
He grinned and went on. "Now Casey starts hollering from the bench, 'Butcher boy! Butcher boy!' He meant take a short swing, meet the ball, don't strike out. Well, the next pitch I can see. I start going for it, then I realize it's too high, so I pull back. But it turns out to be one of Koufax's big curve balls. I'm pulling back, and the ball is curling down over the plate. It's also curling down into my bat. Damndest thing. It hits the bat and goes between the first baseman and the bag. Two-base hit, tie score."
Koufax, who later said that his biggest problem with Kanehl was getting him to hit the ball well, was so unnerved he allowed the next batter, Felix Mantilla, to hit the first pitch. Kanehl scored the winning run. "And that's how I got to be a hero. Me, Rod Kanehl."
He, Rod Kanehl, laughed and reached again into his cornucopia of recollections. "I don't miss the Mets as much as I thought I would. That's because, hell, I know Casey isn't around. That man really got to me. I remember the first year with the Mets, one of the few times in my life I was hitting .300. I mean, if that isn't destiny, what is? So I went to Casey, and I asked him why I wasn't playing. And he says, 'You're not getting enough money to play regular. The man upstairs [ George Weiss, club president] wants those old guys to play. I'm gonna give him the walking dead until he's sick of it.'
"Goddam," Kanehl said. "I wish the old man was here. Just so he could be talking."
While many of his players have taken every opportunity to denigrate Casey Stengel, Kanehl has worshiped at his altar. "I was his interpreter for the younger players. He never baffled me." Kanehl saw himself as carrying the torch of Stengel's managerial philosophy. He said he would always remember, for example, a basic dispute between Stengel and Rogers Hornsby, whom Weiss had hired in the hope that he would rub some of his hitting Stardust off on the Mets. "Hit the ball up the middle," Hornsby used to say. "Up the middle, your tail," Stengel told the Mets. " Hornsby can hit the ball over a building. You're not good enough to play with the guys up the middle. Who do they put on short, second, in center field? Their best men. Who do they put on third and first, left and right? The donkeys. You guys better play with the donkeys. Play the lines." Kanehl always tried to play the lines, and his best shot was a swinging roller down the third-base line. "It kept me in the game," he says.
Kanehl also admired Stengel's frankness with his players and his willingness to take their side against management. Kanehl was a brash and, he thought, unknown rookie with the Yankees in 1959 while Stengel was managing there. In the middle of spring training it was discovered that he had failed to sign his contract. It was for $600 a month, and he was demanding $900. Stengel sent Ralph Houk, then a coach, to find out what the problem was. Houk reported to Stengel and then returned to Kanehl. "Casey says not to sign until you get what you want," Houk told him. Two days later Kanehl got his $900.
Kanehl treasures the story about Felix Mantilla. When a player went into a slump, the imaginative George Weiss would often deduce that his off-the-field activities were at fault, so he would slap a detective on him. Mantilla slumped, and Weiss called in a detective. Stengel found out about it and promptly told Mantilla. "Better make it two," Mantilla replied. "I'll wear out one detective in no time."