Thursday, June 15, 2017

The Midnight Massacre: A Date Which Will Live In Infamy

"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
On June 15, 1977, the New York Mets traded Tom Seaver.  It has been 40 years, but remains a painful memory for Met fans of a certain generation who treasured each and every time "The Franchise" took the mound.  It was a wakeup call for those of us who, until then, refused to think of baseball as a cold-hearted business.

Only 32 years old at the time of the trade, Seaver was the greatest player the Mets ever had 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, 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. Had Seaver played with a decent team for the bulk of his career, his still-remarkable numbers would be off the charts.

Seaver continued to pitch brilliantly for a mostly awful team, and then he was gone.  To make a long story short, the penurious owners had no understanding of how the game was changing and refused to renegotiate Seaver's contract.  Instead they shipped him off to the Cincinnati Reds for a collection of mediocre players -- Pat Zachry, Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn and Dan Norman.

I attended Seaver's return to Shea Stadium.  It was disorienting seeing him in a Reds uniform and it was even more disorienting to find myself rooting against the Mets.  But, along with the rest of the crowd, I was wholeheartedly cheering for Seaver, who beat the Mets that day.   

After some excellent years with the Reds, Seaver was traded back to the Mets for the 1983 season.  It was indescribable to see him back in orange and blue, pitching 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 us 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.  A career of remarkable moments and incredible milestones marred only by stupid, short-sighted management decisions.  That's your Franchise.


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