My life is dotted with touchstones founded upon my devotion to Tom Seaver. But as I analyze them now, knowing that there will be no more of them, I was struck by how my life has been enriched by the people who shared them with me.
When I heard that Tom Seaver died from complications from Covid-19, I thought of these past several months in my role as an essential worker. I administer my hospital department from the relative safety of an office in the “cold zone” of the campus, while the front-line staff serve in the “hot zone”. But from now on, when I recall their efforts in those frightening days of unprecedented loss, I will visualize a patch of dirt just below their right knees, as they drove with all their power to give others a chance to play on.
My first Seaver memories …
With my own money, I bought tickets to take my father to the Mets game on Fathers Day, 1974. When the day arrived, I was so excited to be heading to Shea Stadium to see Tom Seaver pitch against the Dodgers. My parents had recently separated, and I wanted to signal to my father that I had finally become a baseball fan. I had resisted efforts to make me a Yankees fan, but had, on my own, discovered the Mets in 1973, just before they began their pennant drive. My father was willing to go see the Mets only to see Tom Seaver.
However, the experience was less than idyllic. It poured all morning, and my father, the essence of an absentee parent, presumed the game would be canceled. He apparently made other plans. Tom Seaver at that moment was in the deepest depths of his season of agony brought on by persistent sciatica attacks. The weather cleared up after noon. The game started at 2 PM. Around 2:30 I checked the radio, and Murph was calling a live ballgame. I called my father’s girlfriend (later his wife of 40 years), she located my father, and as the game went to the top of the 4th inning, we were on our way from Yonkers to Flushing. We got to our seats in the upper deck during the top of the 7th. The Dodgers had broken through, and I saw Seaver pitch to only a few batters. I always recall the voice of the beer vendor saying “Yogi better come get him soon.” Yogi did. Dodgers 8, Mets 1.
Equally illustrative of the kind of childhood I had was game 161 of the ’74 season. On the precipice of his first losing season, Seaver faced the Phillies in a meaningless game, needing a win to get to 11 – 11. Significantly, his streak of 6 consecutive seasons of 200 or more strikeouts was also on the line. He needed 13 Ks to make 200. With me alone in my room, Lindsey, Ralph and Murph over the airwaves, I pantomimed each of Seaver’s pitches, gripping a billiard ball (my father was never able for many reasons, including a disability, to teach me to play baseball, but he had tried to teach me pool), as the strikeout total climbed, reaching 14, for 201 on the season.
Beyond the Mets, but still beloved
Seaver’s first game back at Shea Stadium as a visiting player saw my newly-minted stepfather bring our little family to Shea Stadium. He had just spent all of his savings buying us a new home, and in reality, he never cared much for watching baseball. But he knew it was important to me. As I kept my scorecard, the kindly grandpa with the family in the adjacent row kept asking me how many strikeouts Seaver had. At the 7th inning stretch, he bought me a Royal Crown Cola to thank me for indulging him.
The day the Chicago White Sox took advantage of the Mets ineptitude by claiming Tom Seaver in the compensation draft was reckoned, until recently, the coldest ever in the Chicago’s history. I was in my University of Chicago dorm kvetching at everyone at how horrible this was, and I threatened to walk a mile in the awful conditions just to go get drunk at a bar in Hyde Park that had $.80 draft beers all night. Fortified with however many mugs of Busch Bavarian I pounded, I made my way back to the dorm, tugging at each bush and shrub buried in the permafrost until I could pry one loose from the ground. I snuck it into the building through the fire exit door (good way to avoid attention, by setting off an alarm) and placed it, Monty Python and the Holy Grail style, at the feet of the most beautiful young woman in the student body. She would go on to marry her high school sweetheart anyway, and I got to help her plan part of their wedding. Thirty-five years later, she called me out of the blue to help her do the same for her daughter’s wedding.
The bright morning of Phil Rizzuto Day saw me, recently graduated from college, considering what the best way to watch Seaver’s first attempt for his 300th win on television: alone or at the local pub. The phone at my parent’s home rang, and one of my prep school buddies gladly announced that he was taking me to the game with tickets that he had won on a radio call-in promotion. He would be rooting for the Yankees, of course, but he thought the second ticket was best distributed to me rather than any of his newer friends. When the game reached the point that Tom Seaver, Doctor of Baseball, would have recognized as the moment where the pitcher must retire the next hitter to have a chance to win the game, that batter was Dave Winfield, tying run at the plate. Seaver reached back for the extra yard, and blew the riser over the violent swing of his future Hall of Fame fellow. My friend seemed delighted that he had been able to make that memory possible for me … then he became a Swiss banker and left the country.
On to Cooperstown
The five baseball writers who left Tom Seaver off of their ballots each had a crappy excuse, none of which had anything to do with Seaver’s worthiness. I was annoyed that he was not a unanimous selection. I was about to book a bus coach trip to Cooperstown for the induction ceremony and go by myself when my drinking buddy said he would also like to come. He, a Bronx-bred Yankee fan, wanted to pay his respects to the great pitcher. We had a wonderful trip, drinking Genesee Cream Ale and Canadian Ace, and he and I would briefly make these types of pilgrimages a habit. Together, we saw Sinatra for our first times, at Radio City, and we waited in the standby line in the rain to see Tony Bennett, at the Blue Note on West Fourth Street. Then, radio silence for over 20 years. But recently, I was happy to be able to draw on that reservoir of happy memories when he engaged my services to help him with some important planning.
My brother reached one of his most troubled points in his life when he was flush with the most cash he had ever earned in a single endeavor. In what was meant, at the time, as a way to say a loving, and perhaps permanent, goodbye and thank you, he sent me a package of autographed Tom Seaver baseball cards, each one in a different uniform from the four MLB teams with which he had played. I am happy to say that recently, from his new perspective on life, he added another one to the collection, with baby-faced Tom Seaver in his USC kit.
Moments after the death of Tom Seaver was announced, my former editor from the University of Chicago Maroon (also the facilitator, founder and chief bottle washer of this blog) texted me about writing something like this piece. One more, and possibly last time, we would encounter that old sensation---my writing too much and his editing it down. We had survived that dynamic as college friends, so that now reactivating those neuro pathways actually feels good.
In closing, I want to thank Tom Seaver for positing a career and living a life that resists revisionism and diminishment. You, sir, were a powerful gravitational force that kept this lonely kid from feeling isolated most of the time. My faithful devotion to you seeded so many other connections that I could never thank you enough.