Still Tom Terrific

Reggie Jackson once said that Tom Seaver pitched with heart. But then we always knew that.

When I was 13, one of my father’s drivers – my father owned a limousine service – gave me something he thought was sure to impress. It was an autographed photograph of Tom Seaver, star pitcher for the 1969 “Miracle Mets,” as they were known. But I being 13 – and a Yankees fan – accepted it with mere politesse and filed it away.

My next encounter with Seaver left a far different, indelible impression, for now I was interviewing the man himself. The occasion was the press preview of “Diamonds Are Forever: Artists and Writers on Baseball,” a 1987 Smithsonian Institution and New York State Museum, Albany, traveling exhibition that was “playing” at the New York Public Library’s main branch on Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. It was a memorable day. I interviewed cultural historian David Halberstam on a marble bench in the library’s lobby. Vartan Gregorian, then the library’s president, spoke at a luncheon that featured chocolate truffles in the shape of mini baseballs. We all took turns in a batting cage.

Seaver was among the baseball greats on hand for the event and he immediately captivated me with his ability to analyze art. The exhibit’s works included Harvey Dinnerstein’s “The Wide Swing” (1974), an oil on canvas of legendary Yankees centerfielder Joe DiMaggio at bat that served as the accompanying catalog’s cover image. Seaver discussed how Dinnerstein captured the sinewy tension in the Yankee Clipper’s swing — the drawn-back bat becoming an extension of his arms, paralleling his bent right leg; the catcher and umpire one in crouching anticipation. Seaver said that wherever he was on the road in his baseball career, he always made it his business to visit a local museum. (The Detroit Institute of Arts was a favorite.) That conversation crystallized for me what I suppose I had always known as a baseball fan:  That Seaver belonged to that breed of ballplayer who relied on brains as much as exceptional talent for a Hall of Fame career.

That memory came flooding back with poignant irony as we learned on March 7 that the onetime Greenwich resident, so sharp on the mound and off, was suffering from dementia and retiring from public life. (The former Mets, Yankees and NBC color commentator lives with his wife, Nancy, on their 116-acre Calistoga, California, spread, where he started Seaver Family Vineyards in 2002.)

After the announcement, tributes came pouring in as well. Some two weeks later, Westchester County honored members of the Miracle Mets — including Duffy Dwyer, Cleon Jones, Ed Kranepool, Jim McAndrew, Art Shamsky and Ron Swoboda — at Stew Leonard’s in Yonkers. At the event, Stew Leonard Jr., president and CEO of the supermarket chain, announced that its Wishing Well proceeds would benefit the Alzheimer’s Association in honor of Seaver. (Teammate Buddy Harrelson was diagnosed with dementia in 2016.)

New York City is also saluting the man that the Mets and their fans knew as “The Franchise.” A strip of 126th Street in Queens will be known as Seaver Way, with Citi Field, which succeeded Shea Stadium as the Mets’ home, located at 41 Seaver Way for the number Seaver wore with the team. (The club retired it in 1988.) The renaming
ceremony, which will be held June 27 at Citi Field, is a fitting honor for a man who had a golden career — National League Rookie of the Year (in 1967), three-time NL Cy Young Award winner and 12-time All-Star. In 20 seasons, Seaver had 311 wins, including a 1978 no-hitter, 3,640 strikeouts, 61 shutouts and a 2.86 earned run average.

Pretty good for a Fresno, California, kid considered too slight for baseball. What he lacked initially in size and power Seaver made up for in determination and control, pitching his way through Fresno High School, the United States Marine Corps Reserves, Fresno City College and, ultimately, the University of Southern California, which he attended on scholarship. But for some legal wrangling involving the relationship between collegiate and professional sports, Seaver might’ve wound up with the archrival Atlanta Braves. But the Mets were awarded the signing rights and, after a stint with the Jacksonville Suns in the minors, Seaver proved one of the bright spots for the last-place team in 1967. The following year would offer more of the same — stellar Seaver, lousy Mets — but in 1969, a mere seven years after debuting as a hapless franchise and Big Apple laughingstock, the team would earn their ironic nickname, the Amazins, by running the table and shocking the Baltimore Orioles in the World
Series in five games.

Seaver continued to be a winner for a team that would once again exceed expectations in 1973, only to lose to the Oakland Athletics in a World Series that went down to the seventh game. But then came the so-called “Midnight Massacre” in 1977 when contract negotiations and ugly press about Seaver’s “greed” led the Mets to trade him to the Cincinnati Reds in the 11th hour. Seaver would thrive with the Reds as the Mets foundered —
rejoining the Amazins in 1982 for two years before finishing his career with the Chicago White Sox and then, briefly, the Boston Red Sox, with whom he made his last Major League Baseball appearance on Sept. 19, 1986.

New York, though, never forgets a favorite son. Oddly enough, two of Seaver’s greatest moments would come at the home of the Mets’ crosstown rivals. Shortly after being traded to the Reds, Seaver received a prolonged standing ovation in the 1977 All-Star Game, played at the House That Ruth Built. Then on Aug. 4, 1985, Seaver, now with the White Sox, beat the Bombers 4-1 for his 300th win.

It was the last time I saw Seaver pitch. He was at the end of a glorious career — relying more on brains and guts perhaps than on his fastball but still capable of dazzling — and I thought of the words that I often think of in such situations, those of Alfred Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses”:  

 Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’ 

We are not now that strength which in old days 

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are; 

One equal temper of heroic hearts, 

Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will 

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Yankees slugger Reggie Jackson once said of Seaver that he was so good, blind men came to the park just to hear him pitch. He also said Tom Terrific pitched with his heart.

Oh, Reggie, we always knew that.

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