Ed Kranepool is tall, dark and almost handsome, a 30-year-old son of the Bronx who possesses an indoor pool, a tennis court and a Mark IV automobile. He has acquired all this, along with a pretty wife and a 6-year-old son, while playing first base for the New York Mets—when the other team is pitching a righthander. Against lefthanders he mostly sits, because a long time ago someone decided Kranepool was no threat to their welfare. If he were, he might own two indoor pools, two tennis courts and two Mark IVs. As it is, he has only one of each, and a .336 batting average. That is nice part-time work for the nearly original Met, whose team is competing for the division lead in no small part because of his efforts.
Kranepool still grumbles now and then—teammate Joe Torre calls him "Bitch and Hit"—but he is not the "snotty kid" Manager Yogi Berra says he used to be. When Kranepool was a teenager the numbers were good (he got an $85,000 bonus) but the timing was awful, since 1962 marked his last year in high school and the Mets' first in baseball. He reasoned they were his quickest route to the majors, not realizing that he might be unprepared when he got there. On Opening Day, 1964, someone unfurled a banner at Shea Stadium that asked, "Is Ed Kranepool Over The Hill?" He was 19 years old at the time.
Looking back, he believes the club asked too much too soon. "A more established team wouldn't have force-fed me to the big leagues," he says. "I wasn't equipped or mature enough to handle it. Baseball was frustrating in those days. The Amazin' Mets weren't much fun for the players."
When the Mets finished last in 1965, Kranepool was the team's leading hitter, at a modest .253, and a National League All-Star. When they won the World Series four years later he batted .238. The following season he was shipped to the minors.
"It would have been easy to quit," Kranepool says, "but I wasn't ready to retire at 25. I worked my way back up later in the year and I haven't been the same player or person since. I've really had two careers with the Mets, and I'd like to forget the first one. It just took me longer to know myself than it does for most other people. I'm a little smarter now and a little more mature. Baseball is fun again."
But not much fun for the right-handed pitchers who have faced him the last two years. Through two spring trainings, a junket to Japan and almost a season and a half of play, Kranepool has been the toughest out on the team.
Last season, when he batted an even .300, he was particularly successful as a pinch hitter, producing 17 hits in 35 appearances for a major league-leading average of .486. "I stopped sulking about being a pinch hitter," he says. "Now I don't let things like that bother me."
Kranepool became a "regular" against righthanders seven weeks ago when John Milner was injured in an exhibition game. Milner had been slumping, and Kranepool had been above .300 all season. Since May 16, he has raised his average 30 points.
Despite his size (6'3", 210 pounds) and a fluid, mechanically perfect swing, Kranepool is not a power hitter. He uses his long, heavy bat to bounce hits into the corners, and he seldom strikes out.
Defensively, he is more than satisfactory. Though limited in range, he digs low throws out of the dirt well, and on the difficult first-to-second-to-first double play there are few better.
Among those who have seen Kranepool progress from a problem child to capable professional is his former roommate and business partner, Ron Swoboda, now a New York sportscaster. "Eddie quit fighting the system," says Swoboda. "He learned to accept things and not make the mistake of popping off. When I was unhappy I would blast the management. Do that and you're gone. Being sent down was a real shocko for him, but he went and ate his crow. Now he's a very valuable guy to have around."
It is certainly true that the people who operate America's baseball teams do not encourage criticism from their employees. Realizing this, Kranepool says, "I've never rapped the club. The only complaint I ever made was wanting to play more. Talking to the papers doesn't get you anything, but it does make people mad at you."
General Manager Joe McDonald emphatically agrees, saying, "It was super that Ed didn't wage a war with Yogi and demand to be played or traded."
As a result, Kranepool is well compensated. He appeared in fewer than 100 games last year and still won a raise. His $70,000 salary reflects his value, his longevity, his popularity, his Methood. He is, in fact, more a Met than any other man who has worn the uniform, more than the Throneberrys and Kanehls who made them amazin', and the Seavers and Koosmans who made them successful.
"I can't imagine ever trading Ed," McDonald says. "And I expect he will be with us after he retires, too."
A front-office job might be especially suitable; Swoboda calls his former restaurant partner "a cold businessman." Kranepool spent five years as a New York stockbroker, getting out before the economy turned sour. "I wasn't any kind of genius," he says. "I just hated commuting into the city." During those years Kranepool made a few dollars, met the girl he would marry and developed astigmatism from too many hours at the ticker tape. As his average attests, it no longer bothers him at the plate.
Kranepool has been one of the most consistent contributors on a most inconsistent team. The Mets win and lose in bunches, benefiting from a deep bench and an improving offense but suffering from the lack of a reliable fourth starter. Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman and Jon Matlack are 26-14 overall, while the rest of the pitching staff is 10-18.
In mid-June the roller coaster produced a pair of four-game winning streaks that brought New York to within half a game of the division lead. Then the Mets plummeted again, enduring seven straight losses before Koosman and Seaver put the brakes on last week with wins over St. Louis. This pattern may be enough to keep New York in the race, but not much more than that.
Even so, Kranepool says, "This is the best club we've had. I'm just glad I'm helping, because our pennant years, 1969 and 1973, were two of my worst."
No one is following all of this more closely than Kranepool's old friends from the Bronx, who remember him as the slugger who broke Hank Greenberg's home-run record at James Monroe High School. He has only to swing at a bad pitch and Jim Schiaffo, his Little League coach, is on the phone.
Not long ago, three generations of former neighbors visited him outside the Shea clubhouse. Everyone seemed to be squeezing words out the corner of his mouth.
"Ya know, Eddie," an oldtimer said. "Ya don't tawk like ya did when ya wuz in de Bronx."
"I know," said Kranepool. "I'm just not the same kid anymore."