Wednesday, September 2, 2020

Remembering Tom Seaver

"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 passed away today.  2020 keeps getting worse.  This piece was written in March 2019, when it was announced that Tom was suffering from dementia.  RIP to my childhood hero.

For Met fans of a certain vintage -- those old enough to have rejoiced in the first of (only) two Met championships -- Tom Seaver will forever hold a special place in our hearts.  We love everyone from that team -- from the key players (Cleon Jones, Tommie Agree, Donn Clendenon, Jerry Koosman) to the more obscure (Rod Gaspar, Duffy Dyer, Jim McAndrew).  But Tom Seaver was on a different level altogether.

He wasn't just a great Met.  He was one of the greatest pitchers in Major League history.  And he was ours.  His pitching form was a thing of beauty -- both powerful and graceful.  He was called "The Franchise" because of how he transformed the Mets' identity, from a joke -- albeit a lovable one -- to World Series winner (until they became a less lovable joke once again).  He did it with his brilliant pitching and with his no-nonsense, brash professionalism. 

I treasured pretty much every start in those years -- watching on a black & white TV or listening on the radio or, occasionally, getting to see him live at Shea.  I would check out the box score in the paper the next day and diligently recalculate his E.R.A. after every game he pitched.

We all have our favorite Tom Seaver memory.  For many it is his near perfect game against the Cubs in 1969 or the 10-inning complete game victory in Game #4 of the 69 Series or any of the over 60 shutouts in which he simply dominated opposing hitters.  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 hapless Padres hitters in a row.  Simply epic.

Yes, he changed the perception of the Mets, but even with the miraculous World Series win in 1969, they remained 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.  (Jake deGrom can relate -- but try doing it for a decade.)  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 remarkable numbers would be off the charts.

And as a recent New York Time article pointed out, in stark contrast to the current game, where starting pitchers rarely go more than six or seven innings, Seaver excelled in finishing what he started, getting even better as the game wore on.  His lifetime ERA in the last three innings was 2.75, and in 1969, he pitched in the ninth inning 17 times without giving up a run.

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.  I attended his return to New York, where, looking positively surreal  in a Reds' uniform, he faced off against his old teammate and fan favorite, 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 as a Red, including the strike-shortened season in 1981, when he led the league with 14 wins and came in second in the Cy Young voting.  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.  But at 38 years old, it didn't seem he had much left.  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 -- and deserving of at least another in 1971, 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 -- including, more recently, the failure to honor Seaver with a statute at Citi Field. 

In devastating news, it was announced yesterday that Tom Seaver is suffering from dementia.  His family announced he will no longer make public appearances.  As the Mets gear up for the 50th anniversary of the 1969 team, his out-sized presence as a Met icon, a baseball legend, and a childhood hero to so many of us will be felt even more deeply and the memories he's given us will be held even more tightly.


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