Tom Seaver was the closest I had to a baseball idol. When I first fell in love with the game I rooted for Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Sandy Koufax. But they were an inheritance, the local stars whose careers began before I was born. Seaver was the first New York superstar of my generation.
I can document two occasions when I saw him pitch. The first was opening day at Shea Stadium in 1975. Sciatica had limited him in 1974; more than most pitchers, Seaver depended on his legs and hips, driving off the rubber so low his back leg scraped the dirt from knee to ankle. The product of this earnest delivery was a blazing fastball that, physics be damned, appeared to rise on its way to home plate. Joined with a snapping curve, sharp control, and canny pitch selection, the fastball made Seaver a winner no matter how humdrum his supporting cast: 16 times in 20 seasons his personal winning percentage exceeded his team’s.
He finished his career third in lifetime strikeouts, behind Nolan Ryan and Steve Carlton, and fifteenth in victories. But on opening day 1975 I feared he’d never get that far. Had he put the sciatica behind him?
Yes. From the first pitch he toyed with the Philadelphia hitters, giving up just one run. Today he would yield to bullpen specialists after six or seven innings, but casting aside anxieties about his recent injury, he kept going, dueling fellow future Hall of Famer Steve Carlton to a draw until the bottom of the ninth, when the Mets pushed across a second run to win the game.
The other time I can prove I saw Seaver was June 1, 1983, at Candlestick Park for a game between the Mets and Giants. At 38 he couldn’t summon his old fastball anymore, but he was still Tom Terrific, broad shoulders belligerently squared until his arms rose slowly over his head and his left leg tucked into his chest to start the explosive delivery that finished with his right leg trailing in the dirt. Betrayed by his teammates’ apathetic play, he went seven laborious innings and lost, 4–2.
After three more seasons Seaver retired, returning to California (he grew up in Fresno and attended USC) and buying a vineyard near Calistoga at the top of Napa Valley. In his later years he eschewed the spotlight, preferring a quiet life that included getting his hands dirty pruning grapevines. The Fabulous Wife and I used to stay in Calistoga frequently, and I secretly hoped I’d spy Seaver walking down the street. It never happened.
Long after he left baseball, I learned Seaver possessed qualities that may have drawn me to him on another level. Here’s how sportswriter Joseph Durso described him in a June 16, 1977 New York Times article I discovered twenty years after it was published:
He was educated and articulate, he completed his bachelor’s degree in public relations by correspondence, and he even wrote a college paper that differed with official policy on the war in Vietnam. He read Steinbeck, he attended the opera and theater, and on two charter flights he attacked the Sunday crossword puzzle in The New York Times. He was, observed John McHale, now president of the Montreal Expos, “as well organized a young man as we have in baseball.”
What did McHale mean by well organized? I doubt it had anything to do with how Seaver arranged his locker. Rather, I suspect it was a euphemism for serious or purposeful or smart or all three, which indeed would have endeared Seaver to me, distinguishing him from the bulk of his colleagues, whose off-field pursuits, in the Mantlesque tradition, tended toward the sybaritic.
I decry nostalgia except in baseball, where I’m convinced things really were better forty years ago. One of my best justifications for that nostalgia is now gone, a victim of Lewy Body Dementia and COVID-19. And I feel bereft of something distant, even abstract, yet precious.