Hi all. Anybody here ever felt their duty was to lift a 500-pound concrete block with their bare hands? Friends, that’s the job I’ve been putting off since I heard that Tom Seaver had passed away. He left this world Monday morning after a long illness, though the word wasn’t released until Wednesday night when Facebook blew up with it. He’s hardly my first obit and won’t be my last. As hard as the Jim Bouton sendoff was, Seaver was a fact in my life years before I secretly read “Ball Four.”
Every obit for Tom Terrific will mention his 311–205 record, 2.86 ERA, 3640 strikeouts, the Midnight Massacre in which he was railroaded out of New York, how he won his 300th game at Yankee Stadium on Phil Rizzuto Day. By your leave, I’m going to go off the beaten track and tell you what Tom Seaver meant to me and to a friend of mine I knew in college.
To me, starting in 1971, all baseball was a new, undiscovered country. I was a boy of 8, finishing up Mrs. Riley’s second-grade class at School 19 in Menlo Park Terrace, a housing development in central New Jersey. The Mets were on a tiny radio station then, WJRZ out of Hackensack rather than a New York blowtorch. It didn’t take my 8-year-old brain long to process the fact that Tom Seaver was the best the Mets had to offer, their #1 starter with Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan and either Gary gentry or Jim McAndrew taking the hill when Tom Terrific didn’t. Why not “The Fresno Flash,” for the Fresno-born Seaver? Well, the late race driving king Bill Vukovich was the “Fresno Flash.” So, Seaver got “Tom Terrific.” I seem to recall other reporters using the nickname, rather than the Mets’ 3 Hall of Fame broadcasters. They just called him Tom Seaver. As the season moved on, it became clear that Seaver offered as good a chance as the Mets had for a win. One lesson Dad taught me that year was, if I was going to cry over my team losing, I should get away from baseball. So, he toughened me up in his clever way. He was wise to do so. As the ace of the staff, Seaver was routinely matched with the other team’s ace, and the league had plenty–Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Phil Niekro, Ferguson Jenkins, Don Sutton; every one of those is in Cooperstown with Seaver. At the time, I didn’t know he had won 16 games each in his first two years, then 25 in 1969 when the Mets won the World Series. Announcers in the 1970’s didn’t delve as far into the past as the best ones do now. It would be years before I would learn of his near-perfecto before more than 59,000 at Shea, ruined by someone named Jimmy Qualls knocking a clean base hit. I didn’t hear the game in which he struck out 19 Padres in 1970. In my first year as a fan, 1971, he went 20–10 with a mind-boggling 1.76 ERA. The next year, he won 21 games, one of which in particular I have never forgotten. It was the 4th of July. Back then, you still heard firecrackers from dawn until dark, then heard the major fireworks in town parks. That day, Seaver assaulted the Padres with firecracker fastballs that most of them couldn’t touch. Admittedly, most of the lineup weren’t even household names in their own houses. Only Clarence “Cito” Gaston is remembered at all, and that because of his managerial tenure with the Blue Jays. I listened to that game from first pitch to last as we had a family picnic that day. Both managers were ex-Mets-Don Zimmer and the Mets’ skipper Yogi Berra. Inning by inning, I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Nobody for the Padres was getting a hit. Knowing how I acted then, I probably was jumping around yelling “Seaver’s pitching a no-hitter.” While I can’t swear I did that, it’s how I behaved then if something special was happening. I wanted the whole world to know it. I was like a small Paul Revere without a horse.
It took until the 9th inning for the Padres to get a hit. It was a sharp one, hit by LeRon Lee, the 1972 version of Jimmy Qualls who Ralph Kiner called “Jerry Qualls” when referring to Seaver’s almost-perfecto. Tough man that he was, Seaver got the next man to hit into a 6-4-3 double play ending a 2–0 win for the Mets.
A year later, Seaver, as far as I was concerned was “appointment radio” before the term had been coined. Mom had won a cassette recorder, the first our family had ever seen. She agreed to record the game in which the Mets clinched the NL east pennant. Guess who was pitching. He had won 18 games up to that point, and picked up his 19th thanks to 3 brilliant innings from Tug McGraw. Facing a heavily favored Reds team, Seaver twice hooked up with Jack Billingham. These were all day games. Game 1 was on a Saturday afternoon. Through 7, Seaver hadn’t given up a run and had struck out a dozen men. The Mets had given him the narrowest of leads, 1–0. With one gone in the 8th, Pete Rose knocked Seaver off his tightrope with one of 2 home runs he would hit in the series. An inning later, with one gone, Seaver gave up what’s now called a walk-off home run to Johnny Bench.
Only 4 days later, working on short rest, Seaver and Billingham took to the hill at Shea for game 5. In a rare move, I lobbied not to have to go to my Wednesday bowling game. I normally enjoyed hanging with other blind kids even if I didn’t knock any pins down. But that day, I wanted out. That’s not what I got. I was sent bowling and sulked all the way there. When I got home, I found out Mom had recorded the game from the beginning. I walked in during the late innings. This time, the Mets gave their ace a comfortable lead. It was 7–2 when I walked in, and there it stayed. When Seaver left after 8.1 innings, the roar of the crowd muffled Jane Jarvis’ organ to the point where you couldn’t recognize what she was playing. Shea could get loud, as the Orioles found out 4 years earlier, and it got loud on this day as the 99-win Reds went down to defeat.
I’ve given you the best I can say about Tom Seaver. Now, I’ll share a story my friend Frank Sariol told me when we were both college students. He originally told it as a public speaking speech which I was lucky enough to hear. From the second he discovered baseball, he believed Tom Seaver could do no wrong. If Frank believed in God, he believed at least that Seaver was right up there, maybe with the prophet Moses. Imagine the devastation he and his buddies in Hell’s Kitchen felt when the Midnight Massacre sent Seaver to Cincinnati in 1977. Nobody gets devastated the way teenagers do. He and his pals, none of whom usually had two nickels to rub together in their pockets, hatched a plan to see Seaver pitch at Shea when he came back there with the Reds. The big day came, and the guys, 5 or 6 of them in all and none with a dime to his name, got on board the bus to take them to Shea. To hear Frank tell it, the first guy told the bus driver who was asking for the fare, “He’s got it,” pointing to the guy behind him in line. When the last guy got on without paying, he scrammed into the crowd on the bus. The driver didn’t like it, but if he took time to bust Frank’s gang, he would be off schedule. They got off through the door at the back of the bus. The skillful scalawags all took the subway, ducking under the turnstiles to avoid paying. I’ve forgotten the slang term for doing that. They took the 7 train to Shea Stadium, still the only subway to take if you’re going to a Mets’ game. With the sea of humanity pouring in to see Seaver’s return, it was child’s play for Frank’s gang of children to get into the stadium. They even got some hot dogs and sodas, though he never told me how he managed that. Seaver made the Mets look as silly as their front office looked when they unloaded him. He beat them 5-1. Though Frank’s gang was apprehended leaving the park, and they all got grounded, (a mild punishment considering what might have happened,) he told me it was still one of the thrills of his life. He and a pal drove me to a Mets’ game in 1983, by which time Seaver had returned to Flushing. Again, he was masterful, beating the Pirates. The roar of the crowd spoke of loyalty that has vanished from the game. I don’t know if anybody is loved anywhere the way Mets’ fans loved Seaver. As they loved him, they mourn him now.
R I P1