Tom Seaver was much more than terrific. He took “The Franchise” to another level, making the New York Mets recognizable at first glance on a 12-inch black-and-white Zenith to even a rural Mississippi kid. Seaver was, in many respects, the childhood of 50- and 60-somethings across the land.
The Baseball Hall of Fame announced Wednesday that Seaver, 75, died on Monday. He had complications of Lewy body dementia and COVID-19.
Former teammate Cleon Jones once described the right-hander as “the kind of man you’d want your kids to grow up to be like.” He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1967 and the Amazin’ Mets’ face in ’69. … We all wanted to be “Tom Terrific.” There would be only one.
The two greatest pitchers during my lifetime have been Seaver and Greg Maddux. You can have Pedro, Roger, Randy – pick anyone – and I’ll put my life on the line with Seaver on the bump. His drop-and-drive motion is the epitome of how a pitcher should throw. It is simple, easy on the body, and offers maximum opportunity for doing what a pitcher is supposed to do: throw strikes.
In the 1970s, my guys were Johnny Bench and Thurman Munson. I always kept an eye on Seaver; I knew when it was his turn to take the ball and always followed up with the Daily Journal box score.
The Reds were coming off back-to-back World Series titles in 1977 when they traded for Seaver. Cincy sent Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman, and Pat Zachry to New York. The Midnight Massacre, in baseball lore. Dick Young, ever the shit-stirrer, helped cut the heart out of every Mets fan.
Seaver went 14-3 for the Reds that season and averaged 14 wins across the next four years, including a no-hitter against St. Louis in ’78. In 1981, Seaver finished 14-2 with a 2.54 ERA and runner-up for the Cy Young Award in a strike-shortened season. He won his 300th game in 1985. Seaver became a Hall of Famer in ’92, receiving 98.8% of the vote, the highest percentage in history at that time.
Meanwhile, 100% of anyone who yelled “Let’s go Mets!” from the cheap seats at Shea Stadium or watched on a TV across America respected No. 41. He didn’t do a lot of things – but what he did do, he went about with class and dignity. Gaze into the catcher, a nod of the head, the compact windup with little fanfare, and … whiff.
Seaver’s time on the bump was Michelangelo, Chopin, Astaire rolled into one. How many other pitchers can you name who won two games on the same day? On May 9, 1984, against Milwaukee, Seaver tossed the 25th frame of a game suspended the day before. He picked up the W, then started – and won – the scheduled game against the Brewers.
Beyond that, Seaver made 16 Opening Day starts, was a 12-time All-Star, and led the league in ERA three times. He is the only pitcher to debut after 1920 to win 300 games with a sub-3.00 ERA. Strike ’em out – he finished with 3,640 Ks, sixth all-time – or throw ’em out, Seaver was in a league of his own.
The field where we played Wiffle Ball was unique. It was somewhat flat here, sloped toward a house there, a tree down the third-base line forced us to learn to wait on the ball and drive it up the middle or to right field. But the mound, that’s where the ball was round, and nothing else mattered.
We used the plastic MLB helmets when batting. In the field, we’d put on a cap – sometimes the Braves, when we wanted to be Phil Niekro; sometimes the Orioles, emulating Jim Palmer’s funky windup. I’d pull tight my Mets cap, drop-and-drive, believing I could out-terrific Tom, if only on the trodden sod along Woodcrest Drive.
I went into the storage shed tonight. I still have a collection of each team’s batting helmet. I rubbed the dust off a few of them, remembering when Bench, Yastrzemski, Yount, Winfield were household names. I miss the helmets with the triangle – Padres, Jays, Twins, Brewers, etc. In the box was my sweat-stained Mets cap.
I’m not 10 anymore. I’m 53, and my heroes are dying. I tried to pull on the cap, settled for it sitting on my head as tears rolled into a box of memories. Yesterdays are to be cherished. Yesterday, we didn’t know Tom Seaver was dead.
Today, I wish it was yesterday.