Monday, November 17, 2014

Tom Seaver aka "The Franchise" Is 70 Years Old


"There is actually a good argument that Tom Seaver should be regarded as the greatest pitcher of all time ... Seaver pitched for eight losing teams, several of them really terrible, and four other teams which had losing records except when Seaver was on the mound."  —Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, 2001
Tom Seaver turns 70 years old today.  I'm not sure if that makes him feel old, but it certainly makes me feel old.  He was my favorite player when I was growing up and I treasured pretty much every start, diligently recalculating his E.R.A. after each one.  My favorite memory is being at Shea Stadium on April 22, 1970, when he tied what was then a record of 19 strikeouts in a game and set a record for striking out the last 10 in a row.

Seaver was the greatest Met player of all time and one of the greatest pitchers in Major League history.  His pitching form was a thing of beauty -- both powerful and graceful.  He was called "The Franchise" because of how central he was to the Mets' identity, leading them from a laughingstock to a world championship in 1969.

Even with the miraculous World Series win in 1969, the Mets continued to be a feeble-hitting team (some things never change), and Seaver had to consistently pitch flawlessly to keep his team in games, often losing heartbreakers 2-1 or 1-0.  Typical was 1971, when he led the league in ERA (1.76) and strikeouts (289 in 286 innings), pitched 21 complete games and still lost 10 games, going 20-10. Overall, Seaver made 108 starts for the Mets in which he pitched 9 or more innings and allowed 1 run or less -- he lost 3 of those games and had 12 no decisions.  Had Seaver played with a decent team for the bulk of his career, his remarkable numbers would be off the charts.

Seaver continued to pitch brilliantly for a mostly awful team, and then, on June 15, 1977, came the "Midnight Massacre" -- the worst in a very long list of dismal management decisions.  The penurious Mets refused to renegotiate Seaver's contract and shipped him off to the Cincinnati Reds for a collection of mediocre players -- Pat Zachry, Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn and Dan Norman.  I attended his return to NY as a Red, when he faced another of my favorite pitchers, Jerry Koosman.  Along with the rest of the crowd, I was cheering for Seaver, who beat the Mets that day.   

Seaver continued his great career (looking quite strange in a Reds uniform).  And then came some measure of redemption.  Seaver was traded back to the Mets for the 1983 season.  It was indescribable to see him pitch a shutout on Opening Day.  After that he didn't have a great year -- and neither did the Mets -- but with Seaver wearing his familiar number 41, the Mets seemed like a team on the rise, with promising young pitchers, a Rookie of the Year in Darryl Strawberry, and the acquisition of Keith Hernandez.

But it was not to be. The Mets would have to rise without Seaver.  Incredibly, before the 1984 season began, the Mets left the 40-year old Seaver off the protected list, assuming no other team would want him.  The White Sox quickly scooped him up, leaving Met fans distraught once again.  Seaver won 15 games for the White Sox in 1984 and 16 in 1985, including his 300th.  In 1986, he finished an injury-plagued season with the Red Sox.  (A bad knee prevented him from playing against the Mets in the World Series.)

The Mets tried to atone once more, hoping to bring Seaver back to the Big Apple to finish his storied career where it began.  But after pitching a few exhibition games in June 1987, Seaver realized he had nothing left and announced his retirement. 

3 Cy Young Awards, 311 wins, 61 shutouts, 3,640 strikeouts and a 2.86 E.R.A.  In 1992, he was inducted into the Hall of Fame, and has the only plaque with a New York Mets cap.  A career of remarkable moments and incredible milestones marred only by stupid, short-sighted management decisions.  That's your Franchise.

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