Tom Seaver, RIP: Gravitas

The Franchise.

When Tom Seaver’s family announced his withdrawal from public life in March 2019, thanks to his battle with dementia, I wrote that it would not be untoward for those who love baseball to pray that The Franchise received any kind of miracle. He’d helped fashion one that inspired one of the classic lines in 1970s film comedy.

“Oh, every now and then I work a little miracle just to keep My hand in,” George Burns as God told a skeptical John Denver in Oh, God! “My last miracle was the 1969 Mets. Before that, I think you have to go back to the Red Sea. Aaaaah, that was a beauty.”

I saw Oh, God! in a Long Island movie house when it was released originally, and that line got the heartiest laughs of the entire film. Loud enough that you had to sit through it again to hear the part about the Red Sea. Somewhere in the middle of the racket I remembered Seaver’s fellow Hall of Fame pitcher Sandy Koufax, covering the 1969 World Series for NBC, interviewing Seaver during the set.

“Tom,” Koufax began, “do you think God is a Met fan?” Seaver didn’t miss. “I don’t know, Sandy,” he replied, “but I think He rented an apartment in New York this week.”

Now the miracle may be that Seaver suffers no longer, shepherded to the Elysian Fields by the God who embraces such of His works as elegantly, intelligently competitive pitchers. The first genuine Mets superhero, after their infancy chock full of super anti-heroes, Seaver died in his sleep Sunday at 75, following a battle against dementia incurred through Lyme disease for which COVID-19 is reported to have delivered the final pitch.

Met fans thought their team hit the lottery when Seaver arrived in 1967. How literally true it was, after the Atlanta Braves made a huge mistake signing him out of USC. The Braves ran afoul of the rule that college pitchers couldn’t be signed after their season began. Seaver also ran afoul of the NCAA, which ruled him ineligible for USC despite his not having taken so much as a nickel into his pocket yet.

Commissioner William (The Unknown Soldier) Eckert voided the deal. Then, he offered Seaver to any team willing to beat the Braves’ $40,000 bonus offer. Three teams offered. (The Mets, the Indians, and the Phillies.) Eckert put their names into a hat. He just so happened to draw the Mets. They’d soon learn that coming up with Seaver out of a hat was like reaching into a bowl of marbles and pulling up the Hope Diamond. So would at least one of his would-have-been Braves teammates.

When Seaver made his first All-Star team, as the National League’s Rookie of the Year-to-be in 1967, he couldn’t wait to introduce himself to Hall of Famer Henry Aaron. “Kid,” Aaron replied, “I know who you are. And before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will, too.” Thus spoke the Hall of Famer half of whose hits against Seaver were extra-base jobs—eight out of sixteen lifetime hits in 89 plate appearances.

Examing Seaver statistically is child’s play, even discovering that he’s one of only two major league pitchers ever to strike out more than three thousand batters and retire with a lifetime earned-run average below 3.00. (The other: Hall of Famer Walter Johnson.) Or, the only man in baseball history to strike out ten straight. Examining him as the mound artist with unlikely and uncommon endurance (only nine post-1920 pitchers have more complete games than his 231) is likewise.

After Gil Hodges settled in as the Mets’ manager in 1968, he and his pitching coach Rube Walker saw they had a host of talented young pitchers and a concurrent need to nurture them properly.

“[T]o protect Seaver and [Jerry] Koosman, as well as up-and-comers Nolan Ryan and Gary Gentry,” wrote Sports Illustrated‘s Tom Verducci in 2019, “Hodges and Walker used their young starters in a groundbreaking five-man rotation in ’68 and again for most of ’69. Moreover, the coach instituted Walker’s Law: No Mets pitcher was allowed to throw a baseball at any time, even for a game of catch, without Walker’s permission.”

They enforced such rules all 1969 until the crucial stretch drive. Then they turned those arms all the way loose. Chicago Cubs manager Leo Durocher burned his key pitchers starting and bullpen alike, plus most of his regulars, and the National League East title they once looked to have in the bank. (He also said it was almost everyone else’s fault at the time.) Hodges and Walker worked their pitchers with care and brains and had them still fresh for crunch time.

Now, marry that to the manager’s insistence upon using his entire roster deftly, keeping veterans and young sprouts alike prepared to step in with perhaps minus two seconds’ notice, not to mention some staggering defense and unlikely clutch hitting. That’s how the Miracle Mets won the East, dumped the Braves sweeping the maiden National League Championship Series, and won four straight (including Seaver’s ten-inning Game Four triumph) after losing Game One of the Series to the behemoth Orioles.

Unless, of course, you asked legendarily flaky Mets relief pitcher Tug McGraw. (“I’ll tell you one thing,” Seaver once said. “I want him right here in my foxhole, I’ll tell you that!”) “When those astronauts walked on the moon,” McGraw would say in due course, “I knew we had a chance. Anything was possible.”

Seaver’s pitching greatness is in the records. Baseball Reference ranks him the number eight starting pitcher in baseball history. He won three National League Cy Young Awards and probably should have won two more. He pitched his best baseball despite anchoring teams that could barely get him an average 3.6 runs to work with lifetime.

But there was something else always about Seaver that left impressions. On the one hand, his prankishness and wit (he almost got away with posing as a lefthander for his first non-rookie baseball card, his wicked grin the giveaway, but the card was pulled fast) are as legendary as his greatest pitching performances. On the other hand, he had the gravitas that made the ordinary and the extraordinary alike comfortable with and around him.

When absolutely necessary, Seaver knew how to deflate the self-inflated. Verducci remembered that Seaver wandered into the legendary Toots Shor restaurant later in the off-season evening on which he was presented his Rookie of the Year award. He bumped into Yankee manager Ralph Houk, whose team was well enough along in its own Lost Decade (1965-75). The time just so happened to be 1:30 a.m.

“You’ll never be a big league pitcher keeping hours like this,” Houk barked, with all the righteous Yankeehood he could muster despite his team’s deflation, at the fresh young Met. Seaver summoned his own bark: “If you had 25 players like me, you wouldn’t finish 10th.”

That wasn’t braggadoccio cutting the harrumphing Houk back down to size. It was self-assurance that stopped about ten city blocks short of arrogance. The son of a top amateur golfer who spent a little time in the Marines in his early baseball seasons, Seaver knew only too well that the line between knowing yourself and inflating yourself was a line too fine for many to walk and too simple to forget existed in the first place.

Long before A. Bartlett Giamatti became a baseball executive, he discovered how well Seaver walked that line. Giamatti chanced to attend a gathering at the Connecticut home of a literary light who’d invited Seaver and his wife, Nancy, to the gathering. “Seaver had . . . dignitas, all the more for never thinking for a moment that he had it at all,” Giamatti wrote, after the Mets threw New York into a soul-wrenching depression by trading Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds in 1977.

A dignity that manifested itself in an air of utter self-possession without any self-regard, it was a quality born of a radical equilibrium. Seaver could never be off balance because he knew what he was doing and why it was valuable . . . With consummate effortlessness, his was the talent that summed up baseball tradition; his was the respect that embodied baseball’s craving for law; his was the personality, intensely competitive, basically decent, with the artisan’s dignity, that amidst the brave but feckless Mets, in a boom time of leisure soured by division and drugs, seemed to recall a cluster of virtues no longer valued . . .

About that trade—which climaxed a bitter feud between Seaver and the Mets’ patrician to a fare-thee-well chairman M. Donald Grant, who thought Seaver forgot his place when the pitcher criticised the Mets for failing to both rebuild the farm system and enter the freshly-minted free agency market reasonably—Giamatti was just as unequivocal:

Of course Tom Seaver wanted money, and wanted money spent; he wanted it for itself, but he wanted it because, finally, Tom Seaver felt about the Mets the way the guy from Astoria felt about Seaver—he loved them for what they stood for and he wanted merit rewarded and quality improved. The irony is that Tom Seaver had in abundance precisely the quality that M. Donald Grant thinks he values most—institutional loyalty, the capacity to be faithful to an idea as well as to individuals. Grant ought to have had the wit to see a more spacious, generous version of what he prizes so highly in himself. Certainly the guy who had watched Seaver all those years knew it, knew Seaver was holding out for something, a principle that made sense in one who played baseball but that grew from somewhere within him untouched by baseball, from a conviction about what a man has earned and what is due him and what is right. The fan understood this and was devastated when his understanding, and Seaver’s principle, were not honoured. The anguish surrounding Seaver’s departure stemmed from the realisation that the chairman of the board and certain newspaper columnists thought money was more important than loyalty, and the fury stemmed from the realization that the chairman and certain writers thought everybody else agreed with them, or ought to agree with them.

Seaver and his wife sustained a solid, loving marriage through and beyond the baseball years, raising two daughters successfully. Verducci repeats the tale so often told when the subject is Seaver: Seaver’s brother-in-law asked him what he’d do when he finally left baseball permanently. (He worked as a Met and Yankee broadcaster for a time after his pitching days.)

“I’ll move back to California,” Seaver replied, “and grow grapes.”

The Fresno native bought 116 acres worth of arid, embracing land in the west Napa Valley, discovered it was perfect for growing Cabernet grapes and bringing a man to peace, and spent the rest of his life tending and growing those grapes and a large winery. It was there that a group of 1969 Mets visited him for what they feared and did prove the final time, in 2017.

Outfielder Art Shamsky arranged and led the trek, which also included Koosman, shortstop Bud Harrelson (himself battling Alzheimer’s disease, alas), and outfielder Ron Swoboda, and wrote about it lyrically (with Erik Sherman) in last year’s After the Miracle. Shamsky recorded a poignant moment when he had a spell alone among the vines with Seaver, and Seaver admitted his bout with Lyme disease left him prone to heavy anxiety attacks.

Eighteen months ago, Seaver’s family announced the dementia that arrived as a Lyme after-effect meant he would no longer appear in public, costing him the formal anniversary celebrations of the 1969 Mets and his usual trip to the annual Hall of Fame inductions. “Tom will continue to work in his beloved vineyard at his California home,” the family statement said, “but has chosen to completely retire from public life.”

Now we see Seaver one more time, the boyish-looking young man wise beyond his years but unafraid to keep enough boy in him. We see him winding up into that long-familiar downward, leg-driving delivery. We see him surveying the aftermath with Gentry, their uniforms askew, walking around what remained of Shea Stadium’s field, after delerious fans mauled it celebrating that surreal World Series triumph.

Now we see Seaver at the end of his brilliant career, still looking boy enough as the hair started to turn and the body began losing its taper, accepting one final bath of love from Mets fans as he said goodbye by bowing to all sides of the park from the mound. Until such hours as when he became the first Met player whose uniform number (41) was retired, or when he joined his fellows and those who followed saying goodbye to Shea Stadium over a decade ago.

Now we see Seaver’s second act, the vintner at peace with his family and their tall, shading, rich vines; the pitching icon who relaxed every July at the Hall of Fame, the single greatest Met at ease and at peace with his person, his meaning, his life.

When he was traded to the Reds, a heartsick fan in Shea Stadium hung an iambic banner:

I WAS A
BELIEVER
BUT NOW WE’VE
LOST
SEAVER

“I construe that text, and particularly its telling rhyme,” Giamatti wrote, “to mean not that the author has lost faith in the Mets’ ability to understand a simple, crucial fact: that among all the men who play baseball there is, very occasionally, a man of such qualities of heart and mind and body that he transcends even the great and glorious game, and that such a man is to be cherished, not sold.”

So he was—cherished, that is—by fans and the game’s intelligentsia alike, both of whom know baseball is as spiritual as it is viscerally embracing, both of whom joined former teammates and competitors crowding the Twitterverse and other social media with messages of gratitude and grief alike at almost the split second the news of his death arrived.

None cherished The Franchise greater than his beloved Nancy, their daughters Sarah and Anne, and their grandsons Thomas, William, Henry, and Tobin. We should thank the Lord for blessing baseball with him and welcoming him home gently to the Elysian Fields; and, them, for allowing us to share even a piece of a man who transcended even the great and glorious game.

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