By Arnie Leshin
He played for other teams, but Tom Seaver will always be recognized as a New York Met. When he passed away recently at the age of 75, it saddened everyone involved with the franchise, young fans, old fans, the entire country that supports the blue and orange.
He threw his only no-hitter with the Cincinnati Reds, he won his 300th game with the Chicago White Sox, but the fate of the Flushing Meadow organization in the borough of Queens grew brighter when he turned up in 1967. Before that, the original 1962 team was hapless, a comedy club managed by Casey Stengal, and Met fans shared the laughter but were also frustrated.
Now Seaver wasn’t one of those who had combined his high school and college years to rate high in the Major League Baseball draft. But he was good enough for his high school team in his hometown of Calistoga, California that he decided to sign up with a big-league franchise.
It was in a 1965 lottery that the Braves originally signed him, but he changed his mind, asked the Los Angeles Dodgers’ for $70,000, but they passed and then decided to attend and maybe hurl for Fresno City College, which he did before transferred to the University of Southern California.
Sounded good, but after some impressive starts his first year, in his sophomore year, he was suddenly ruled ineligible for signing the professional contract with the Braves back in 1965, and learned this after posting a 10-2 record.
So now he had no choice, first he signed up for a the US Marine Corps reserves, a monthly stop, and also put his name back in for the 1966 Major League draft. Again, it was a lottery and involved the Cleveland Indians, Philadelphia Phillies and the Mets. The Mets offered the most and that was who Seaver signed with.
He must have been good because why would the Mets call him up after just one season in the minors. The word was that he was crafty, smart and relied on his blazing fastball, curve ball, change-up, and slide
The late Gil Hodges was the manager of the Mets in 1967, and after getting a look at Seaver in spring training in Florida, Hodges said: “He joined us as a rookie, no college experience to brag about, but he pitched like a 35-year-old. He has great stuff and a great head on his shoulders.”
That is true, for when Seaver walked into the locker room that year, it became a different team. He was joined by left-hander Jerry Koosman, and a month later, Gary Gentry was called up. Also on the pitching staff was Nolan Ryan, but his control problem left him back in the minors the following year.
I did cover some of the early Mets game played at the ancient Polo Grounds, but when Shea Stadium became their new home, it became my beat, at least for the home games.
It was obvious that the right-hander wearing No. 41 was of a different breed. He was serious most of the time, but did have a sense of humor. He had married the former Nancy Lynn McIntyre in 1966, and she wanted to get a dog. Tom wasn’t that eager, but gave in. They got a brown puddle and needed to name it.
So he asked me after one game as Nancy waited for him outside Shea Stadium, wanted to know if I could think of a name for their dog. I suggested Slider or Sinker, and he laughed and said how about fastball? But Nancy liked Slider the best and it stuck. That was my first get together with the Seavers other than interviewing him.
He did well in 1967. He and Koosman were the aces of a young staff, right-hander Gentry was also a factor, and Ryan threw bullets, but had trouble finding the plate.
In 1968, without Ryan, the Mets began winning with their pitching and a roster of young and old, but it was obvious they were moving up.
Then came the Amazin’ Mets named by Stengal. It was 1969, Seaver won 25 times and lost seven. He put forth and earned run average at 2.21, and was named the Cy Young winner, which he later won in the National League pennant year of 1973 when Yogi Berra became the manager after Hodges collapsed on the golf course in Florida and later died.
Seaver was very saddened by this. He referred to Hodges as a wonderful person, a family man, a great manager, leader, and like a father to him. He dedicated this Cy Young award to Hodges in a season he went 19-10 with a 2:08 ERA. In 1975, he won for a third time, and was 22-9 alongside a 2:38 ERA.
But it was remarkable how stellar he was for the 1969 team that, as an underdog, defeated the American League champion Baltimore Orioles in five game. Seaver lost game one in Baltimore, 2-1, but came back in game four at Shea Stadium with 14 strikeouts, went the route, and won 6-1 to give the Mets a 3-1 lead in the series.
That campaign, he had nine-straight starts with 200 strikeouts. From there as a Met, he made 647 starts, 231 complete starts and came away with 61 shutouts.
In 1973, when the Mets came from six games behind in the final 10 days to beat the Phils for the Eastern Division title, then defeated the hard-hitting Cincinnati Reds for the pennant, before losing the World Series to the favored Oakland Athletics in seven games, and before flying out, Seaver and Grote were talking about making plans for Oakland and informed me it was private stuff.
In 1974, he came upon some poor starts. Catcher Jerry Grote told him his fastball wasn’t finding corners and he was hurrying his deliveries. But Seaver had his own answer when I asked him about it.
“Don’t worry,” he answered, “I have to start eating more Sunkist Rasins. No joke, I have to buy some more of those, Jerry (Koosman) made me aware of them.”
When a reporter asked Koosman how he felt being overshadowed by Seaver, he laughed. “Are you kidding,” he said, “he’s the man, he overshadows everybody, he’s our leader, our spokesman, and he and I are like family, like brothers, the best thing that could have happened to us.”
It was said that Seaver compensated for his lack of size by developing great control on the mound. Born in Fresno, Calif., In high school, he was quite a basketball player, made All-City, but always hoped for a baseball career. He intended to finish college and took courses in the off season to do so, much to the satisfaction of his wife Nancy.
For the Mets, he was the franchise, the one who two years after he arrived, rode down Broadway on the caravan of vehicles and displays and graffiti falling down to celebrate the amazing ride to their first World Series, and with all of the route packed.
I was there In ’69 when he walked into the locker room and the guys were celebrating getting to .500 for the first time, and when he was told that, he said that’s not good enough, we need to win the World Series. And they did. In one stretch of 105 starts of 9-plus innings, he allowed one run or fewer and posted a remarkable 0:38 earned run average. His statistics could fill a book and they do.
It was in 2016 that Nancy Seaver let the Metsknow that Tom is suffering from Dementia, another form of Alzheimer’s, and he can no longer communicate with the outside world, that he is having sleep disorders, nausea and chemical imbalance. She then handed the phone to daughters Sarah and Annie.
Right outside Citi Field, you can easily see TOM SEAVER WAY posted. He and Mike Pizza are the only ones to wear their Metsbaseball caps when enshrined in 1992 into the Baseball Hall of Fame, and he is also the franchise’s Hall of Fame. His number 41 has been retired, and there’s an annual TomSeaver‘s Day.
With the Mets, he won 222 games, his ERA was 3:36, and he had 2,586 strikeouts. He lost three no-hitters when with the Mets, one when he took a perfect game into the eighth frame against the Chicago Cubs. He toiled 19 seasons in the majors, and was a two-time All-Star.
Now the number 41 uniform top hangs in theMets‘ dugout, and the players wear the number 41 patch for the remainder of the season. And before the game versus the Miami Marlins at Citi Field, the Mets all stood on one knee in respect for “Tom Terrific.”
Mike Schmidt: “He was a pro’s pro, a class act, not only on the field, but also as a family man. He was the best pitcher in baseball for a decade, from the late 60s to the late 70s. He had sheer pitching savvy and great stuff.”
Jerry Koosman: “He was our leader, our spokesman, we were like a family, like brothers. He was a headliner with a wonderful wife and two lovely daughters. We will miss him, I will never forget him.”
Lou Brock, who just passed away: “Someone told me of how great a pitcher Tom is, and I said you should have seen him in ’69.”
Hank Aaron: “Best pitcher I ever faced. He had super stuff, and it was wonderful having a nice relationship with him.”
Jerry Grote: “Tom hated to lose. He was such a competitor, I loved catching him. He was a master on the mound.”
Ed Kranepool: “Yes, we were a different team when he walked into our locker room in 1967, and that was only spring training. He was 6 days older than me and we always joked about it.”