Seaver

NEW YORK — The long goodbye has ended. The Mets’ “Franchise” is gone.

Tom Seaver, the greatest of all Mets who dropped out of public life in March of 2019 after being diagnosed with dementia died early Monday. According to family sources, Seaver, 75, died peacefully at his home in Calistoga, Calif., from complications from Lyme disease and dementia.

He leaves behind 311 victories, 3,640 career strikeouts, three Cy Young Awards and countless millions New York baseball fans who forever cherish the memories of the Miracle Mets 1969 championship season and his starring role in it.

In the annals of baseball there will never be a more improbable World Series champion than the ‘69 Mets, who had never had a winning season since their inception in 1962. Seaver was the catalyst, the ace of a young and talented pitching staff that included Jerry Koosman, Nolan Ryan and Gary Gentry, who all blossomed together.

Leading the league with 25 wins en route to his first Cy Young Award, Seaver hurled eight consecutive complete game victories from Aug. 31-Sept. 27 as the Mets rallied from as far back as 10 games behind on Aug. 13 to chase down Leo Durocher’s Cubs. The pivotal series that broke the slumping Cubs’ back was Sept. 8-9 at Shea Stadium in which Koosman out-pitched Chicago’s Bill Hands, 3-2 with a 13-strikeout effort in the first game, and Seaver, backed by homers from Donn Clendenon and Art Shamsky, triumphed over fellow future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins in the second game to bring the Mets to one-half game of first place. They went into first place by sweeping a doubleheader from the Expos the next night and never relinquished it.

Earlier that season, on July 9 against the Cubs, Seaver pitched what he called the “greatest game of my career” in an emotionally-charged night at Shea when he took a perfect game into the ninth inning only to lose it on a one-out looping single to left-center field by unsung reserve outfielder, Jimmy Qualls. Seaver took two other no-hitters into the ninth inning in his career before finally succeeding, June 16, 1978, against the Cardinals while a member of the Reds.

“A no-hitter is momentary,” he said afterward. “You enjoy the moment. But nothing can ever compare to winning a World Series.”

After sweeping the Atlanta Braves, 3-0, in the ‘69 National League Championship Series, the Mets completed their miracle season by upsetting the Orioles of Frank and Brooks Robinson, Jim Palmer and Boog Powell, who’d led the majors with 109 wins, in the World Series. After giving up a game-opening homer to the Orioles’ Don Buford, Seaver was out-pitched by Mike Cuellar in Game 1, but redeemed himself mightily by holding the Orioles to one run in a 10-inning complete game victory in Game 4. The next day, Koosman hurled another complete game to clinch the Series.

It was sometime during the ‘69 season that Jack Lang, the Met beat writer for the Long Island Press, began referring to Seaver as “Tom Terrific” in his game stories — a moniker that stuck for the rest of his career and beyond.

But there was so much more to the Seaver lore beyond the ‘69 championship season, beginning in 1966 when he became an accidental Met. After growing up in Fresno, Calif., and graduating from high school, he got no college scholarship offers because he was too small. Instead, he decided to enroll in the Marine Corps reserves whereupon, in six months, he grew from 5-9, 160-pounds to 6-1, 210. Suddenly, he was a prospect, and in 1965 earned a scholarship to USC under the legendary coach Rod Dedeaux, and was 10-2 with 100 strikeouts in 100 innings.

The following January he was drafted by the Braves, the favorite team of his youth because of Hank Aaron, whom he idolized. But after agreeing to a contract for $40,000, plus an additional $11,500 to complete his college education, Seaver suddenly found himself in no-man’s land. It seemed USC had already begun their new season when Seaver signed the contract, a violation of major league rules. Thus, the contract had to be voided, but at the same time, Seaver was now also ineligible to return to school. After his father, Charles, a world class amateur golfer who was a member of the 1932 Walker Cup team, threatened to sue baseball, Commissioner William Eckert resolved the issue by setting up a lottery in which any teams willing to match the Braves’ offer could participate for Seaver’s services. Only three teams, the Indians, Phillies and Mets, stepped forward and Eckert picked the Mets out of a hat.

Seaver spent only one year of minor league apprenticeship, earning a spot in the Mets rotation in 1967 where he proceeded to win National League Rookie of the Year honors with a 16-13 record and 2.76 ERA. When Gil Hodges took over as Mets manager in 1968, Seaver called it a transformational event in his career. He immediately bonded with the former standout Dodger first baseman and ex-Marine, and later said Hodges was the most influential person in his life after his father.

If there was one thing Seaver made clear when he joined the Mets it was that he wanted nothing to do with the “loveable losers” image they’d acquired ever since setting the major league record of 120 losses in 1962. When he beat the Dodgers, 5-2, June 3, 1969, to lift the Mets over .500 for the first time in their history, he seethed at a reporter’s question about it being worthy of a champagne celebration. “Champagne?” he snapped. “Five-hundred is nothing to celebrate. It’s mediocrity. Maybe Marv Throneberry and Rod Kanehl (two of the legendary inept ‘62 Mets) will celebrate. But I had nothing to do with that. The only time for champagne is when we win a World Series.”

Beginning in 1968, Seaver set a slew of strikeout records. On April 22, 1970, he tied the major league record by striking out 19 San Diego Padres in one game, including a record 10 strikeouts in a row to finish it. From 1968-76, he set the all-time record of nine consecutive 200-strikeout seasons. His career total of 3,640 ranks sixth on the all-time list; his 61 shutouts tied for seventh with Ryan.

In 1970 and ‘71, Seaver led the NL in both ERA (2.81 and 1.76) and strikeouts (283 and 289) but did not win the Cy Young Award. It wasn’t until 1973, when he led the Mets to their second World Series, with a 19-10 record and league leading 2.08 ERA, 18 complete games, 251 strikeouts and 0.976 WHIP, that he became the first pitcher to win the Cy Young without winning 20 games. He won his third and final Cy Young in 1975, leading the NL in wins (22-9) and strikeouts (243). But the following year, with the dawning of free agency in baseball, trouble with Mets upper management developed.

As the Mets’ union representative, Seaver had worked hard to bring about a new system in baseball eliminating the reserve clause that had essentially bound players to their teams for life, and in that role incurred the enmity of Mets board chairman M. Donald Grant, who at one point during labor negotiations confronted him in the clubhouse and said: “What are you, a Communist?” At the end of the ‘76 season, the two became embroiled in an increasingly nasty contract dispute, with Grant enlisting the support of the Daily News’ powerful sports columnist, Dick Young, to write a series of columns highly critical of Seaver. “Tom Tewwific is a pouting, griping, morale-breaking clubhouse lawyer, poisoning the team,” Young wrote in launching his offensive.

Despite being highly critical of Grant’s refusal to engage in the bidding for any of the premium free agents, Seaver made it clear to Mets owner Lorinda de Roulet he did not want to leave the Mets, and agreed to a three-year contract, with a base salary of $325,000 through 1978. But right before the June 15, 1977 trading deadline. Seaver became enraged with a column by Young that brought his wife, Nancy, into the fray: “Nolan Ryan is getting more now than Seaver, and that galls Tom because he, Nancy Seaver and Ruth Ryan are very friendly and Tom Seaver has long treated Nolan Ryan like a little brother.”

That was it. Seaver called Mets GM Joe McDonald, screaming “get me out of here” and the next day, in what was dubbed the “Midnight Massacre”, Grant traded Seaver to the Reds for four players — pitcher Pat Zachry, second baseman Doug Flynn, and outfielders Steve Henderson and Dan Norman. Later that night he traded the Mets top slugger, Dave Kingman, to the Padres for Bobby Valentine.

In the New York newspapers of June 16, Grant and Young were universally pilloried for driving Seaver out of town, none more so than Young’s own Daily News in which columnist Pete Hamill wrote: “There is, of course, no way to discuss the departure of Tom Seaver without discussing the role of Dick Young. Nothing is more squalid than a quarrel between writers and I have too much respect for Young’s talents to want to pick a fight with him. But for almost two years Young has been functioning as a hit man for Mets management and in that role he helped drive a great ballplayer out of town, helped demoralize younger men and worst of all has demeaned his own talents.”

Seaver went on to win 75 more games for the Reds from 1977-81, but after a bout with shoulder tendinitis in 1980 landed him on the disabled list for a month for the first time in his career, he was no longer a pure power pitcher. He was, however, still acknowledged as the smartest pitcher in the game. In the 1981 “split season” that was interrupted by a 50-day players strike, he led the NL in wins (14-2) while striking out only 87 batters in 166 1/3 innings.

It was ironically the element that ultimately settled the ‘81 strike (which he helped negotiate) — indirect compensation to teams that lost free agents in the form of a pool of unprotected players — that led to Seaver’s second departure from the Mets three years later. Following an injury-plagued 5-13 season in ‘82, it was agreed by Seaver and the Reds that they should part ways and a trade was worked out that sent him back home to the Mets for a second-line starting pitcher, Charlie Puleo.

It was, however, a terrible (68-94) Mets team Seaver rejoined in ‘83, and though he was able to log over 200 innings for the first time since ‘79, he had his second straight (9-14) losing record. Disappointing as that had been, it was nothing compared to the shock he incurred the following January when he was selected by the White Sox out of the free agent compensation pool after the Mets had incomprehensibly left him off their protected list. In taking full blame for the blunder, Mets GM Frank Cashen said he didn’t think the White Sox would take a 40-year-old pitcher, especially one like Seaver who was acknowledged to be a New York icon and the Mets’ “franchise” player.

Seaver won 15 games in 1984 for the White Sox including two in one day, May 9, when he was called upon to pitch the final inning of an eight-hour game that had been suspended from the night before, and then pitched 8 1/3 innings in his own scheduled start. The following year, he won 16 games for the White Sox. None of them were more notable, however, than Aug. 4 against the Yankees when he upstaged Phil Rizzuto on his “day” at Yankee Stadium with his 300th career victory — a six-hit, seven-strikeout complete game with the appropriate score of 4-1, his career uniform number.

By then, Seaver had grown homesick and longed to go back to New York so he could spend more time with his wife and two daughters. After first engaging with George Steinbenner to no avail on a trade with the Yankees, White Sox general manager “Hawk” Harrelson was able to satisfy Seaver by sending him to the Red Sox, June 29, 1986, for infielder Steve Lyons. It was an injury-plagued 7-13 ‘86 season for Seaver, however, and a knee issue consigned him to being spectator in the World Series against his old team, the Mets, when the Red Sox left him off their postseason roster.

In May of ‘87, at Cashen’s request, Seaver attempted a comeback with the Mets, hoping to end his career where it started, but it was not to be. After spending a couple of weeks trying to work his way back with the Mets’ Triple-A Norfolk team, Seaver concluded that he was regressing rather than progressing, and on June 22, 1987, announced his retirement at Shea Stadium. “I would have loved to help this team win another world championship,” he said, “but there are no more pitches in this 42-year-old arm. I’ve used them all up.” A year later, the Mets retired his No. 41, and his list of Met records — wins (198), complete games (171), shutouts (44), starts (395), innings (3,045), strikeouts (2,541) and ERA (2.57) — will likely stand forever.

In his post-playing career Seaver worked as an analyst in the WPIX Yankee broadcast booth from 1989-93 and later did the same with the Mets from 1999-2005, In 1992, he was elected to the Hall of Fame with the highest percentage (98.8%) ever to that time. “There were very few times in my career when I was speechless, but the magnitude that goes with the Hall of Fame and the numbers. ... I’m at a total disbelief at that percentage,” he said.

But as he later told intimates, broadcasting just wasn’t satisfying enough for him. He needed a new challenge and, in 1998, he told Nancy he wanted to move from their longtime home in Greenwich, Conn., to California and make wine. He purchased 115 acres of dense brush on the top of Diamond Mountain in Calistoga and created a vineyard where he produced cabernet sauvignon. In 2008, his GTS (for George Thomas Seaver) cabernet was accorded a 97 rating by the Wine Spectator.

Sadly, he was unable to fully enjoy his successful second career and new life as a California winemaker. Sometime around 2010-2011 he began having memory issues, mood swings and occasional flu-like symptoms. Fearing he’d had a stroke or was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, he did nothing about it. It wasn’t until one day in 2012 when he couldn’t remember the name of his head vineyard worker that Nancy insisted he see a doctor.

In March of 2013 Seaver revealed to the Daily News that he was suffering from a recurrence of the Lyme disease, which he first contracted in 1991 working in his garden in Greenwich. Because he had taken so long to get it diagnosed, doctors told him the damage to his brain was irreversible and his memory loss would likely gradually get worse. In October of 2018, he shut off communication with his friends. The following March the Hall of Fame put out a statement that Seaver was suffering from dementia. He is survived by his wife, Nancy, and two daughters, Sarah and Anne.

Tribune Wire

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(1) comment

KRobbins

Great article by Bill Madden. I’d forgotten how fantastic Seaver really was. There likely won’t be another like him. I was truly sad to hear that he suffered dementia the past few years. 😢

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