The Rod Kanehls of Springfield, Mo. are a two-car family. They have a cheerful red 1965 Chevrolet station wagon with an orange-and-blue emblem on the windshield. It says: " Mets." They also have a 1951 Ford pickup truck with spiderwebby windows, peeling fenders and a cab congealed with decay. Rod Kanehl likes to pose outside this wreck, an arm draped carelessly over a drooping door, and say, " Casey Stengel gave me my start."
If this sounds like a mixture of fondness and bitterness from one of the few players who was there all the time when the early madness of the New York Mets was being spun out of seemingly sound minds, it is. Rod Kanehl loved the Mets not intellectually but the only way they could be loved—mindlessly, viscerally. Now that he has been discarded, Like some old bed-sheet banner after an eight-hour doubleheader, he thinks about his onetime team with the kind of bittersweetness a middle-aged man feels about his first love.
At the drop of a suggestion he'll play a game of baseball trivia. What other famous utility man can play the harmonica? Who was Marvelous Marv Throneberry's roommate on the Mets? What Met was removed for a pinch hitter in the second inning of their historic 23-inning game? Who got the last pinch hit made in the Polo Grounds before it was torn down? Who was the first man to hit a grand-slam homer for the Mets? The answer to all is Rod Kanehl, and the inside information is that Marvelous Marv smoked in bed and never set himself on fire.
At 32, Kanehl is in the construction business in Springfield, but once or twice a week he plays semipro ball with a few other abandoned major-leaguers. He is also the world's leading teller of stories about the Mets and Casey Stengel, and it takes very little to turn him loose.
"Destiny," Kanehl (pronounced Kaneel) said recently as he lowered his broad-shouldered, thick-necked frame into a chair. "It had to be destiny. Do you know that the very first banner the fans hung up in the Polo Grounds had my name on it? We hadn't played a game there yet, but there it was. It said: 'We love the Mets.' And under that, ' Rod Kanehl.' You know why they had my name up there? Because I was a hero, and I'll tell you how I got to be a hero."
It was still spring training, and the Mets' exhibition game with the Dodgers was being televised back to New York. The Mets were behind by two runs in the last of the ninth, and Sandy Koufax was pitching. There were runners on second and third.
"Don't ask me how they got there," Kanehl said. "I was asleep in the dugout. I'd had a rough night, and it was one of those sleepy days in St. Petersburg."
"Kanehl!" Casey Stengel shouted suddenly, waking him. "You want to win it for me?"
"What could I say? I said, 'Sure.' It's the same thing I said the first time a guy asked me if I could play first base. I'd never played there in my life. That's what utility men have to say. 'Sure.' "
Kanehl picked up a bat, stepped out of the dugout and thought he had been struck blind for his sins. The sun hit his purple eyeballs like a flashing mirror, and he had to feel his way to the plate.