I went to my first Opening Day at Shea Stadium in 1967. I hadn’t yet turned 8 years old. My father picked me up from school early and I truly felt special. The starting pitcher that day was journeyman Don Cardwell. For the following 10 seasons George Thomas Seaver was the Mets Opening Day pitcher.
Most people have some knowledge that those early Met teams (founded in 1962) were terrible teams. Original Met manager Casey Stengel when asked about one of his early teams’ execution, famously quipped “I’m all for it”.
For Met fans and Seaver buffs:
Seaver was drafted in the tenth round of the 1965 Major League Baseball draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. When Seaver asked for $70,000, however, the Dodgers passed.
In 1966, Seaver signed a professional contract with the Atlanta Braves, who had drafted him in the first round of the secondary June draft (20th overall). However, the contract was voided by Baseball Commissioner William Eckert because his college team had played two exhibition games that year (although Seaver himself hadn’t played). Seaver intended, then, to finish the college season, but because he had signed a pro contract, the NCAA ruled him ineligible. After Seaver’s father complained to Eckert about the unfairness of the situation, and threatened with a lawsuit, Eckert ruled that other teams could match the Braves’ offer. The Mets were subsequently awarded his signing rights in a lottery drawing among the three teams (the Philadelphia Phillies and Cleveland Indians being the two others) that were willing to match the Braves’ terms.
I didn’t know any of the background on Tom Seaver as I went to my first baseball game ever that cold April day. Seaver was in the dugout that day recently having made it to the big club and he went on to win 16 games that season and was NL Rookie-of-the-Year. The next year in 1968 Jerry Koosman had a terrific rookie year, also in my view being worthy of Rookie-of –the-Year honors, but that was not in the cards as some guy name Johnny Bench won the award that year.
1969 was a glorious year for Met fans. Tom Terrific, (as he was now called as well as The Franchise), was the undisputed leader of that 1969 championship team going 25-7 with a 2.12 E.R.A. Baseball was still ‘America’s Pastime’ in ’69 and in fact professional baseball was celebrating its 100 anniversary that season. It’s hard to believe that Met team will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of the aptly named ‘Miracle Mets’. Like most Met fans I am sad that Seaver will not be able to attend the festivities this season due to his struggles with Lyme disease and Dementia.
The last time I saw Seaver in person was that final day at Shea Stadium when he walked off into center field with his fellow Hall –of –Famer Mike Piazza. He looked both good and strong that day.
Seaver was an intense competitor and while not a man of many words to the press, always gave thoughtful if not straightforward answers. He was also not known as a guy with a great sense of humor, at least not to the public, but his Met teammates have long described him otherwise.
However in the late 1980’s I was treated to one random special moment that displayed Seaver’s quick wit and humility. For some reason I tuned into a New York Yankee broadcast which had longtime announcer Phil Rizzuto working with a variety of people which included Tom Seaver. While Seaver did pitch for the Yankees late in his career (this pained me deeply), having him on a Yankee broadcast made it worth watching at least a little bit.
Anyone that watched Phil Rizzuto over the years knew him to be a wacky and fun-loving broadcaster who sometimes forgot that he was actually live on the air. Rizzuto and Seaver had a warm on-air relationship borne out of mutual respect and admiration. Neither were great broadcasters but both were memorable ones.
The moment in question started with a camera shot of a large bright full moon. Rizzuto says something like:
Rizzuto – ‘Hey Seaver, lookit that moon!’
Seaver – ‘no Scooter that’s not the moon’.
Rizzuto (puzzled) – ‘It’s not?’
Seaver – ‘Nope. It’s a home run I gave up to Mike Schmidt five years ago finally coming back to Earth’ .
Rizzuto –Speechless. Then laughter.
My boyhood hero had demonstrated a humor and humility that I had never seen before and I loved him all the more for it.
‘Tom Terrific’ has only just retired from public life. Remember that he’s still with us and I am sure is a bit embarrassed by all the recent fuss about his family’s announcement of that retirement. But he will still work in his vineyard making very good wine.
I’ve got a bottle of GTS Cabernet given to me by a good Met fan friend that I am saving a day I hope is long into the future. My boyhood hero has never disappointed me and that’s…Amazing!