Blind people come to the park just to hear him pitch.
-- Reggie Jackson
Tom Seaver, the greatest New York Met ever and one of the greatest pitchers who ever lived, died this week from what's being reported as complications arising from Lewy Body dementia and Covid-19.
The dementia had been reported previously and Seaver had withdrawn from public life. Tom Verducci wrote a very moving story last year about a reunion between Seaver and several of his teammates from the 1969 Miracle Mets. They were fortunate enough to catch Seaver on a good day, on a day when he could remember the times they'd had together and some of the amazing things he had done on the mound.
The Mets were lucky to get him. He had been drafted out of USC by Atlanta but the Braves had signed him to a contract while the USC season was in progress. It turned out that this was against the rules even though Seaver hadn't actually played in a game. Spike Eckert voided the deal with the Braves and gave the other teams a chance to match their offer. Three of them did: the Indians, the Phillies and the Mets. The three names went into a hat, and the Mets were the lucky winner.
What followed was rather like the beginning of Dave Stieb's career. The team was putrid, but the pitcher was brilliant. He was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1967, going 16-13 2.76 for a team that lost 101 games. He was even better in 1968, going 16-12 2.20 for the 73-89 team that finished in 9th place. They'd added another hotshot rookie pitcher that year, a LH named Jerry Koosman.
The Mets made their great leap forward the following season and by the middle of August 1969 they actually found themselves in the giddy heights of third place in the NL East with a 62-51 record. They were a full 10 games in back of the first place Cubs, but the Mets had never come close to having a winning record before. This alone was astonishing. The Mets? In third place? But they were just getting started. To the shock and surprise of the entire baseball world, they went 38-11 over the final six weeks to leave the Cubs choking on their dust. During that stretch, Seaver himself went 9-0, 1.24 in his 10 starts. They swept the Braves in the NLCS and dismissed the Orioles in five games to win the championship.
That year, 1969, was the first season of Seaver's five year peak when he was about as good as any pitcher has ever been (103-51, 2.35, ERA+ 154, at least 260 IP each seasons.) In his fourth start of 1970, against San Diego on a Wednesday afternoon, he allowed a second inning homer and a fifth inning single. In the sixth inning, Cito Gaston flied out to RF for the second out of the ininng. Cito, it would turn out, would be the last Padre to put a ball in play that day. Seaver fanned Al Ferrara, for his 10th K of the day to end the inning. He fanned Colbert, Campbell, and Morales in the seventh; Barton, Webster, and Murrell in the eighth; Kelly, Gaston and Ferrara to close it out in the ninth. The 19Ks tied the MLB record, and has since been passed just twice; the 10 consecutive Ks have never been matched, before or since, in the long history of the game.
He wasn't quite as awesome afterwards, but he stayed very, very good and for a very long time. The Mets ran him out of town, of course. He was their player representative in the early 1970s, as the battle for free agency was heating up. Donald Grant, the Mets owner, had what can best be described as a plantation mentality about the players who worked for him. (He was offended that Seaver actually joined the same country club.) New York Post columnist Dick Young was very much in Grant's corner (his son-in-law worked in the front office) and waged a two year campaign on Grant's behalf that denounced Seaver, and all the players who might be like him, as greedy swine who didn't know how lucky they had it. Seaver finally demanded a trade and was dispatched to Cincinnati, just as the Big Red Machine was beginning to crumble. After a few seasons there, he finally had a bad year at age 37, and the Reds obligingly traded him back to the Mets so he could finish his career in front of the fans who knew and loved him best. The Mets managed to screw that up, too. They left him exposed in the free agent compensation pool and the White Sox snapped him up.
Which is how he came to pitch in Toronto, at last. It was May 1984 and I was in the house. I was pretty excited. Tom Terrific! And he was just great. It was extremely weird to see him in White Sox colours - but otherwise, he looked just like Tom Seaver. In the third inning, Damaso Garcia singled, stole second, and scored on a Dave Collins single. And that was all the scoring either team would manage on the day. Seaver pitched a complete game six-hitter, fanned four and walked no one and took a 1-0 loss to Jim Gott and a trio of relievers. Seaver would make another two starts in Toronto before he was done: Jimmy Key beat him in 1985 and Dave Stieb beat him in 1986, in what would turn out to be his last appearance on a major league mound, in September of 1986. He was with the Red Sox by then, still pitching effectively (a losing W-L record notwithstanding) but his knees were shot and he wasn't on the post-season roster when the Red Sox and the Mets met in one of the more memorable World Series ever played.
He was very much a power pitcher, with the ultimate drop and drive delivery - his right knee made such solid contact with the mound at the end of his delivery that he took to wearing a pad on it. He was the thinking man's pitcher, a man who understood his own mechanics, who understood what he was trying to do on the mound, who was still able to pitch effectively past age 40 when the blazing fastball of his youth was a distant memory. He was at once the most admired, most respected man in the room among his teammates - and he was also something of the class clown. Everyone who knew him remembers his giggle.
Oh, he was special. It's hard to believe he's gone.