That’s how I’m going to remember Tom Seaver. Celebrating a championship with Jerry Koosman at his side.
Today’s news from the Seaver Family that the 74-year-old Hall of Famer is suffering from dementia and will be retiring from public life was certainly sad. Too young for sure, and made all the more painful as the New York Mets prepare to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their 1969 Miracle Mets World Series title. A championship that would never have been possible if not for Seaver’s 25-7, Cy Young Award season that set the tone that winning time had arrived at Shea Stadium at long last.
He was our ace, The Franchise and Tom Terrific.
The first “official” Mets shirt I ever wore (a stylish, gray number I received for my 6th birthday), bore Seaver’s number 41 on its back. He was our answer to Gibson and Carlton. To Jenkins and Sutton. The high leg kick with the oh so deep follow through, resulting in his signature dirt stain on his uniform pant leg, as his knee scraped the mound pitch after pitch.
Like most of the classic strike out pitchers of the day, Seaver generated his power from those thick legs, driving his perfect mechanics (a Mets staple back in the day — you can see those sound fundamentals when watching old tape of Koosman, Nolan Ryan and Jon Matlack, too), culminating in a perfectly balanced landing, ready to field his position. He was flawless.
We knew his wife Nancy, and we hung on his articulate, postgame insights on Kiner’s Korner. He enjoyed taking his hacks at the plate, too, often helping his own cause with a key base hit, and good for a couple of dingers every year, which were certain to send Mets fans everywhere into delirium. Heck, the guy would even steal a base or two. Not to show off, but because he was a baseball player first. An athlete. And most importantly to Mets fans, he was ours.
He would go on to win another two Cy Youngs (and all Mets fans would argue Fergie Jenkins stole a fourth from him in 1971), make 12 All Star teams, and lead the National League in strikeouts five times.
Seaver set a baseball record for the ages back in 1970, when on April 22nd he concluded a shutout win over the Padres by striking out the final ten batters he faced. That brought his total for the day to 19, tying a record that Kerry Wood and Roger Clemens would one day break.
He was our first Hall of Famer, gaining induction on the first ballot with a whopping 98.8% of the vote, befitting his 311 wins spread out over 20 seasons. The woebegone Mets front office even managed to get one right, when they retired his number 41, placing it alongside Casey Stengel, Gil Hodges and Mrs. Payson above the Citi Field grandstand.
But there are three things I will always remember most about Tom Seaver — the two near-misses and the trade.
He was soooo close. I was too young to witness this one myself, but every Mets fan worth his salt knows about Seaver’s dance with perfection on July 9th of 1969. The Mets were finally a good club in ’69, but still trailed the first place Cubs by a fair distance at this juncture in the season. Given the laughingstock nature of the Mets history up to that point, it was understandable that no one was ready to take them seriously as contenders. Seaver, the ultimate competitor, was determined to change the Mets’ losing culture.
In front of 59,088 screaming Mets fans, The Franchise faced and retired the first 26 Cubs who took a turn at bat against him that day. Ernie Banks, Ron Santo and Billy Williams all had no chance. Shea Stadium was pulsating with anticipation when rookie Jimmy Qualls pinch hit for the Cubbies with two outs in the ninth. It should have been a mismatch.
Qualls was a .250 hitter, and following his rookie year would only see 12 more major league at bats. But this was his moment, and the kid stroked a soft single into shallow left-center, ruining Seaver’s perfecto. Nancy Seaver had tears in her eyes after Tom concluded the one-hitter for a 4-0 Mets win. Our ace consoled her, reminding her that he’d just pitched a one-hit shutout over the division leader. The standing ovation lasted three full minutes.
And Qualls? It is written that the next time Seaver saw him on the field, he yelled, “Hey, you little shit, you cost me a million bucks!” The Franchise.
What is it about backup outfielders mucking up Tom’s moments?
Nearly three years to the day after Jimmy Qualls had blooped a single that would stick with Mets fans forever, Seaver took another no-hitter into the ninth against San Diego. It was the 4th of July, 1972, and I was enjoying the summer between first and second grade when my dad called me in from outside because something important was happening.
He and my mom were watching the Mets game, and Dad explained to me what a “no-hitter” was. I was instantly enthralled by this new baseball information, particularly since Seaver was the pitcher about to make history. With one out Leron Lee strode to the plate. I knew exactly who Lee was, since I collected baseball cards, and proudly spouted off a slew of statistical information on the Padres outfielder to Mom and Dad as Lee settled into the batter’s box.
Lee had started his career in St. Louis as Lou Brock’s caddy, often complaining about how it seemed Brock only ever got “tired” and turned left field over to Lee on those days when the temperatures soared past 100 degrees and you had Seaver or Ryan on the hill for the opposition.
Seaver fooled Lee with a slider down and away, but Lee got just enough of his bat on it, pushing a single through the middle. End of no-hitter (although I learned shortly thereafter that there was also such a thing as a one-hitter). Seaver would earn that distinction when he induced a game ending double play out of the next hitter. Another close call for our ace, and maybe the biggest moment in the career of Leron Lee.
It turned out that 1972 would be Lee’s best year in the bigs, as he hit .300 with 12 HR’s for the Pads, but it was his at bat against Seaver that earned him headlines the following day. I’ll always remember pulling out the Newark Star-Ledger’s sports section that morning of July 5th, and seeing the headline, “Hey Tom, he hit a good pitch.”
That was Seaver to me as a kid. So much bigger than life that he was even on a first name basis with the newspaper!
The Mets had surprised a lot of folks in 1976 by going 86-76 under new manager Joe Frazier, and entered 1977 with talk of challenging for the division crown. But like the 2018 version of the Mets, the ’77 team quickly disappointed, and soon the only thing worth paying attention to was Seaver.
And unlike previous years when the team would sink to its accustomed also ran slot in the NL East and the summer months would be spent trying to project how many wins and K’s Tom Terrific would finish with by season’s end, in 1977 the unthinkable was making its way into the daily papers.
The Mets were considering trading The Franchise.
My family had returned to New Jersey from California the previous summer, so 1977 was going to be my first full year of being able to watch Mets baseball on Channel 9 every night since the early-’70’s. However only two months into this much-anticipated season, everything changed, and not in a way any of us Mets fans had anticipated or hoped.
I was too young to understand the feud between Seaver and villainous Mets President M. Donald Grant, or the newspaper politics within the New York tabloids that greased the skids for Seaver’s trade. All I knew at the time was that the only reason we had to watch the 1977 New York Mets had just been shipped to Cincinnati on June 10th for the equivalent of three boxes of batting practice baseballs and a dozen cases of scoreboard lightbulbs.
Or so it seemed.
Yeah, we all tried. I mean, we rooted for the blue and orange after all, but never in my life as a Mets fan had I been faced with cheering for a Seaver-less Mets squad. And now here we were. The Dark Ages immediately descended upon us.
The Reds sent us four young “stars” in return for the greatest pitcher in Mets history. Pat Zachry was supposed to be the future ace and Seaver replacement. Big shoes to fill, you might say. He actually showed some early promise, but then one day in a fit of anger after a poor outing, he kicked a dugout step, broke his foot, and was never the same.
Steve Henderson was billed as a future superstar and immediately inserted into the lineup as our starting left fielder. He had an odd batting stance that seemed cool at first, with his left leg jutting out in the direction of first base as he settled into an awkward crouch. “Hendu” hit .300 in his initial spin around the league and even clubbed a few long home runs, but then the league figured out that he couldn’t unscrew out of that weird stance of his with any hope of hitting a breaking ball. Hendu would go on to become a career backup outfielder (which was only appropriate given the connection between Seaver and backup outfielders noted above).
Doug Flynn was a sure handed utility infielder who would be given every opportunity to win the starting second base job. His glove was as good as advertised, but he barely hit his weight, and became a staple of the last place teams the Mets rolled out onto the Shea field for the balance of the ’70’s.
The fourth and final prospect included in the deal was young Dan Norman. He was a stocky, power-hitting outfielder, and came to town touted as the next George Foster. We all anxiously awaited his ascension to the bigs where he would undoubtedly replicate Foster’s prolific power. Unfortunately, despite the annual spring training articles from the Star-Ledger about how this was going to be the year Norman broke through, he never did. It hadn’t occurred to 12-year-old me that if Norman was really the next Foster, the Reds probably wouldn’t have included him in the deal.
(SportsAttic note: of course we all know that the Mets rectified the Norman/Foster comparisons a few years later by signing the “real” George Foster, who would disappoint us immensely until finally being jettisoned early on in the ’86 championship season.)
Tom Terrific would go on to earn that elusive no-hitter as a Cincinnati Red (just like we all knew he would). And I couldn’t help but root for him as a Red, even celebrating when I would pull a Seaver baseball card out of a pack of Topps, the Tom Terrific smile staring back at me from underneath that unnatural, red Cincy cap. But unfortunately for Seaver, he’d missed the Big Red Machine years, and wouldn’t win another title with the Reds, or anywhere else, before he retired.
He wasn’t done with the Mets either, as we know all too well. We brought The Franchise back in momentous fashion for the 1983 season, as Mets brass tried to distract us fans from another last place squad. Of course, in typical Mets fashion, we lost Seaver again the following spring, the latest in a long line of colossal front office blunders. I don’t have the time, or stomach, to revisit that gaffe right now (just know it was bad, and led to Seaver wearing a White Sox uniform, of all things!).
Seaver closed out his illustrious career with the Red Sox in 1986. It would have been cool if he’d have faced his original club in that classic ’86 World Series, but real life doesn’t work that way, and besides, that was our moment. None of us would have liked to see Tom Terrific on the losing end of one our team’s greatest achievements.
So prayers and best wishes to the Seaver Family as they deal with the inevitability of life and our heroes growing old. The announcement said Tom will continue to spend time in his beloved California vineyard, and like number 41’s career itself, the family handled the message and their sadness with great class and dignity.
Tom Terrific won’t be on the field for the 50th anniversary celebration of the Miracle Mets 1969 title, and that’s too bad. But there would be no celebration at all if not for the pure excellence of The Franchise. We were lucky to have him and the memories of those years are indelible.