Remembering the Terrific Tom Seaver (1944-2020)Jay Jaffeon September 3, 2020 at 9:42 pm

Not for nothing did they call Tom Seaver “The Franchise.” When he debuted in 1967, the Mets lost 101 games, their fifth time in triple digits in six seasons of existence. Two years later, he led the team not only to its first winning record but to an upset of the powerhouse Baltimore Orioles in the World Series. A month shy of his 25th birthday, he had given “the Miracle Mets” a leg up against the crosstown Yankees, who were going through a fallow period after dominating baseball for four and a half decades, and in doing so he became an all-American icon. Uniting a powerful, efficient “drop and drive” delivery with a cerebral approach and impeccable command, he would go on to check virtually every important box in his 20-year major league career, winning three Cy Young awards, making 12 All-Star teams, leading his league in a triple crown category 11 times, tossing a no-hitter, surpassing the 300-win and 3,000-strikeout milestones, and setting a record with the highest share of a Hall of Fame vote when he became eligible in 1992.

Last summer, in celebrating the 50th anniversary of that championship, the Mets announced that they would officially designate the address of Citi Field as 41 Seaver Way (after his uniform number, which they retired in 1988), and dedicate a statue to “Tom Terrific.” Alas, by that point, Seaver’s family had gone public with the news that he had been diagnosed with dementia and was retiring from public life; he had battled health problems for years, including multiple bouts with Lyme disease. He missed the anniversary festivities and never lived to see the statue’s completion. Seaver passed away on Wednesday at age 75. According to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, he died peacefully in his sleep from complications of Lewy body dementia and COVID-19.

Seaver spent 11 1/2 of his 20 seasons with the Mets, departing in rather traumatic fashion first on June 15, 1977, in a trade to the Reds that was dubbed “The Midnight Massacre,” and then again in 1983, when after returning to New York via a trade and spending a season back in Queens, he was left unprotected in what was called the free agent compensation draft. He spent 2 1/2 years with the White Sox and his final half-season aiding the 1986 Red Sox’s pennant push, though a late-season knee injury kept him off the postseason roster and he could only watch as his former team won its second World Series.

Seaver was so durable that he made at least 32 starts and threw at least 200 innings in the first 13 seasons of his career and in 16 in all, the last at age 40. He finished with an ERA+ of at least 100 while qualifying for the ERA title in 18 of those seasons, including his final one at age 41; that’s tied with Walter Johnson for fourth behind only Greg Maddux, Roger Clemens, and Cy Young, all with 19. His 3,640 strikeouts still rank sixth all-time, while his 311 wins rank 18th. He’s seventh in shutouts (61), 15th in starts (647), 19th in innings (4,783), walks (1,390) and home runs allowed (380), and in a virtual tie for 22nd among pitchers with at least 2,500 innings in ERA+ (127).

On the advanced statistical front, his 109.9 bWAR (including offense) ranks sixth behind only Johnson, Young, Clemens, Pete Alexander, and Kid Nichols. His seven-year peak score is “only” 20th, but his 84.6 JAWS is eighth; every pitcher ahead of him save for Clemens last pitched in the majors prior to World War II.

Seaver is 8th in JAWS among starting pitchers. Everybody above him is pre-World War II except Clemens.

— Jay Jaffe (@jay_jaffe) September 3, 2020

“I never knew a pitcher with such great knowledge of pitching,” said Hall of Fame catcher Johnny Bench, who competed against Seaver from 1967 until the trade, then became his teammate until the end of his own career in 1982. “He had such a great mind, he could out-think the hitters.”

Hall of Fame manager Sparky Anderson, who managed Seaver from mid-1977 through the end of ’78, and against him on either side of that run, first with the Reds and then later with the Tigers, told Roger Angell in 1982, “My idea of managing is giving the ball to Tom Seaver and sitting down and watching him work.”

At his best, Seaver — whose compact delivery inevitably produced a signature dirt smear on the right knee of his uniform — threw a 98 mph fastball, and while he was often referred to as having a four-pitch arsenal that included his slider, curve, and changeup, he claimed to have numerous variants. “I’ve got a couple different kinds of fast balls and three different curve balls and a slider and two change ups,” he said in 1974. “So it’s seven or eight pitches that I have, though there are only four different signals for them.”

George Thomas Seaver was born on November 17, 1944 in Fresno, California to Charles and Betty Seaver. Charles was an executive with the Bonner Packing Company, which harvested and sold raisins, and a top amateur golfer. Seaver began playing Little League at age nine, and by age 12 had thrown a perfect game. He pitched at Fresno High School, which had recently graduated future All-Star pitchers Dick Ellsworth and Jim Maloney and future Mets teammate Dick Selma, but by his own description was “a 5-9, 165-pound junkballer.” At Fresno City College, he enlisted in the Marines, and grew to 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds. “The principles that I learned in boot camp were the principles that I took to the mound,” he would say in 2011. “Focus, dedication. I wouldn’t have made it without the Marine Corps.”

The bigger, more-focused Seaver began impressing scouts with his pitching. Legendary University of Southern California coach Rod Dedeaux offered him a chance to earn a scholarship if he went to pitch in the Alaskan Summer Collegiate League in the summer of 1964. Seaver did so, earning summer All-American honors from the National Baseball Congress, then going 10-2 while striking out 100 in 100 innings at USC in 1965.

The Dodgers drafted Seaver in the 10th round of the first amateur draft in 1965, but when they wouldn’t meet Seaver’s $70,000 asking price, he refused to sign. He was chosen again by the Braves — whose stars Hank Aaron and Eddie Mathews he admired — in the January phase of the 1966 draft, and signed with the team for $40,000, plus an additional $11,500 to complete college. But because USC’s season had already begun, commissioner Spike Eckert voided the contract; at the same time, signing it had cost him his amateur eligibility. After his father threatened to sue, Eckert resolved the situation by setting up a lottery involving any teams willing to match the Braves’ $40,000 offer. Only the Mets, Phillies, and Indians did so, and New York’s name was the one Eckert pulled from a hat.

The Mets, who had lost a major league-high 112 games in 1965, signed Seaver for a $50,000 bonus, and in short order he began his professional career with the team’s Triple-A Jacksonville team, where he went 12-12 with a 3.13 ERA and 188 strikeouts in 210 innings. Manager Solly Hemus was impressed by his mature approach to pitching, referring to his “35-year-old head attached to a 21-year-old body.” Rival Rochester manager Earl Weaver, who like Seaver would be in the majors the next year, recalled his stuff and command: “He had an excellent fastball and slider and he put them precisely where he wanted to, in and out on the black of the plate, mostly knee-high.”

Seaver made the Mets the following spring, joining a roster that had been significantly overhauled by new general manager Bing Devine, who had built the Cardinals’ 1964 champions but was fired late in that season. He debuted on April 13, 1967, the Mets’ third game of the season, throwing 5.1 innings of two-run ball against the Pirates while striking out eight; his first victim was Donn Clendenon, who would play a key role in the Mets’ 1969 championship. He got a no-decision that day, though the Mets won. A week later, in his second turn, he earned his first win with a 7.1-inning, one-run effort against the Cubs, than beat them again five days later with a 10-inning complete game in which the only run he allowed was unearned.

By July, Seaver was an All-Star — his first of seven straight selections, and 10 in 11 years — on the same NL staff as future Hall of Famers Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Fergie Jenkins, and Juan Marichal; he notched a save by pitching a scoreless 15th inning in the NL’s 2-1 win. On August 13, he four-hit the Pirates for his first shutout, then on September 23, he bettered that with a three-hit shutout. He finished the year 16-13 with a 2.76 ERA (122 ERA+) and 170 strikeouts in 251 innings and 6.7 WAR, good for sixth in the league. He was an easy choice as the NL Rookie of the Year.

Though his won-loss record was nearly identical (16-12), Seaver was even better in 1968, even given the season’s more pitcher-friendly context. His 2.20 ERA (137 ERA+), 205 strikeouts, 278 innings, 14 complete games, and five shutouts all cracked the league’s top 10, while his 6.8 WAR ranked second only to Gibson. Under new manager Gil Hodges, the Mets — whose rotation now included 25-year-old lefty Jerry Koosman (who also made the NL All-Star team) and fireballing 21-year-old righty Nolan Ryan — won a franchise-record 73 games, though they still finished ninth in a 10-team league.

“No one had more impact on my career than Gil Hodges,” Seaver wrote in 1984. “Playing for him was a learning experience, and he was a tower of strength. Not everybody liked him, but everybody respected him. He went about his job in a very professional manner, and it caused me to do the same with my job.”

Though the Mets played sub-.500 ball through the first quarter of the 1969 season, the young club began to jell with an 11-game winning streak that began on May 28 and carried them to second place behind the Cubs in the newly-formed NL East. Seaver notched three of those wins and set a career high with 14 strikeouts against the expansion Padres on June 8. On July 9 at Shea Stadium, in front of 59,083 fans, many of whom had begun lining up for tickets over 12 hours before first pitch, he retired the first 25 Cubs he faced before Jim Qualls broke up his perfect game; he settled for the first of five career one-hitters.

The gem gave the Mets their 29th win in 40 games and pulled them to within 3 1/2 games of the Cubs, but by August 13, they had slipped to 10 back. From there they caught fire, winning 14 out of 17 to close August and narrowing the lead to 4 1/2 games. Behind Koosman and Seaver, they swept a two-game series from the Cubs at Shea on September 8-9, and the next day they took over first place for good; by winning 38 of their final 49 games while the Cubs went 18-27 over the same span, they finished eight games up at 100-62. Seaver’s 25 wins led the NL, while his 2.21 ERA ranked fourth and his 7.2 WAR fifth. He wasn’t done, however. Though he allowed five runs in seven innings in the new National League Championship Series opener, the Mets lineup got to opposite number Phil Niekro for nine runs, including five unearned runs in the eighth. The Mets swept the best-of-five series, then faced Weaver’s Orioles, a 100-win powerhouse featuring future Hall of Famers Frank Robinson, Brooks Robinson, and Jim Palmer, in the World Series. Seaver was chased after just five innings in the opener, but that was the team’s only loss. Pitching on three days of rest, he returned with a gritty 10-inning complete game as the Mets won 2-1 via a walk-off on a throwing error by Orioles pitcher Pete Richert.

The Mets completed their amazing, unlikely upset the next day. They were celebrated with a ticker-tape parade, the city’s first for a baseball team since 1962. Seaver collected 23 out of 24 votes in the NL Cy Young balloting; he narrowly lost out to Willie McCovey in the MVP voting but was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsman of the Year. He had become a national celebrity.

Seaver continued to dominate NL hitters. From 1969-76, he averaged 35 starts, 19 wins, 16 complete games, 274 innings, 245 strikeouts, and 7.3 WAR. His 1,959 strikeouts, 58.4 WAR, a 2.47 ERA, and 144 ERA+ were all tops in that span, during which he won five strikeout titles and three ERA titles. Six times in that span he led in strikeouts per nine, three times in strikeout-to-walk ratio (he was runner-up another four times in there) and WAR. In 1971, he set career bests with a 1.71 ERA (194 ERA+) and 289 strikeouts, while in 1973, he set his career high in WAR, with 10.6. On April 22, 1970, Seaver held the Padres to two hits and one run while striking out 19, tying Steve Carlton’s nine-inning record, which had been set the previous September 15 against the Mets. He struck out the final 10 Padres he faced, a feat still unequaled.

Alas, the rest of the Mets all too rarely lived up to Tom’s terrific-ness in that span. The team went 83-79 in both 1970 and ’71, then 83-73 in the strike-shortened ’72 season. The last of those brought tragedy when the 47-year-old Hodges died of a heart attack on April 2, 13 days before the season opened; Yogi Berra took the reins. The team finished third in the NL East in each of those seasons, then went just 82-79 in 1973, a year that brought a slew of injuries to their lineup and near-total parity to the division; they edged the Cardinals (81-81), Pirates (80-82), and Expos (79-83), with the Cubs (77-84) and Phillies (71-91) not far behind.

To do even that, the Mets had to climb out of last place; they were 61-71 on August 30, 6 1/2 out after Seaver lost a 1-0, 10-inning heartbreaker to the Cardinals. Behind reliever Tug McGraw’s famous rallying cry, “You gotta believe!” they won 21 of their final 29 games, but still looked like easy prey for the 99-win Reds in the NLCS, particularly given that Seaver’s start in the opener was in doubt due to shoulder and hip soreness that had played a part in his 6.75 ERA over his final four starts. Pronounced good to go after a pre-series workout, he struck out 13 Reds, but his effort was spoiled when he surrendered a game-tying solo homer to Pete Rose in the eighth, then a solo walk-off to Bench in the ninth. The series ran to the full five games; in the rubber match, Seaver again pitched 8.1 innings while allowing two runs, but this time the Mets’ offense backed him with seven runs.

Seaver was strong in the World Series, but the Oakland A’s, who were in the midst of a three-year run as champions, were stronger; both his eight-inning two-run start in Game 3 and his seven-inning, one-run start in Game 6 went for naught as the Mets scored a combined three runs in those games. The latter forced a Game 7, but Seaver could only watch as his teammates fell, 5-2.

Despite his late-season struggles, Seaver’s 19-10 record and NL-best 2.08 ERA and 251 strikeouts garnered him his second Cy Young award and helped make him the game’s highest-paid pitcher via a $172,500 contract for 1974. However, that year marked the first time he really struggled at the major league level. Carrying over his late-1973 ailments, he was tattooed for a 6.12 ERA through his first four starts; not until he spun a four-hit shutout of the Giants on April 26 did he notch his first win. He missed the NL All-Star team for the first time, and despite striking out 201 batters in 236 innings, finished the season just 11-11 with a 3.20 ERA, his first time above 3.00. The Mets went 71-91, their first season below .500 since 1968.

Seaver returned to dominance in 1975. He came within one out of a no-hitter against the Cubs on September 24 (Joe Wallis broke it up, and the Mets lost 1-0 in 11) and led the NL in wins (22) strikeouts (243), making him the first pitcher to record eight straight 200-strikeout seasons) and WAR (the aforementioned 10.6) en route to his third Cy Young, a record at the time. In the wake of the landmark Messersmith-McNally decision that created free agency, he sought a three-year, $825,000 contract, and threatened to play out his option — that is, play under the same contract terms as the previous season, then head to free agency — if he didn’t receive what he felt he deserved. Mets chairman of the board M. Donald Grant threatened to trade him to the Dodgers for Don Sutton, but the fact that Seaver could become a 10-and-5 man as soon as he played in 1976 lent urgency to the situation. Four days before Opening Day, he agreed to a three-year, $675,000 deal, but his relationship with Grant, whom Seaver later described as having “a plantation mentality” and attacking him for joining the Greenwich (Connecticut) Country Club because he was a mere athlete, not a blueblood — was now broken.

Tensions with Mets management were increased when Grant refused to pursue any free agents following the Mets’ 86-win 1976 season (a solid one for Seaver in which poor run support held him to a 14-11 record), most notably center fielder Gary Matthews, who signed a five-year, $1.2 million deal with the Braves. “How can you not even try?” Seaver asked reporters at the Mets’ spring training complex in St. Petersburg on February 26, 1977. Meanwhile, ex-Red Don Gullett, a much less accomplished pitcher than Seaver, signed a six-year, $2 million deal with the Yankees. Still sore about his own negotiations from a year ago, he continued, saying, “I was made an example of. I was pictured as the ingrate after nine years with the club. I was to be punished. And even now, a year later, I still resent the way they did it.”

Most of the Mets’ beat sided with Seaver, but not the New York Daily News‘ notoriously conservative Dick Young, who had long portrayed Seaver — the team’s union representative — as a discontented, disruptive clubhouse force and was willing to do Grant’s dirty work.”Tom Tewwific,” wrote Young in an early June 1977 column, “[is] a pouting, griping, morale-breaking clubhouse lawyer poisoning the team.”

Going over Grant’s head to negotiate with owner Lorinda de Roule and general manager Joe McDonald, Seaver reached an agreement in principle on a three-year extension, but before it could be signed, Young opened his now-infamous June 15 column — the day of the trade deadline back then — by comparing Seaver to Walter O’Malley, who had uprooted the Dodgers from Brooklyn, and manufactured a feud between Seaver and the higher-paid Ryan, writing, “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.”

Extending the battle to his family was the last straw for Seaver, who demanded a trade. In a deal dubbed “The Midnight Massacre,” he was sent to the star-laden Reds, who had won the previous two World Series, for four players: pitcher Pat Zachry, infielder Doug Flynn, and outfielders Steve Henderson and Dan Norman. The trade was a public relations disaster and a baseball one as well; the Mets would lose at least 94 games in six of the next seven seasons, interrupted only by the 1981 players’ strike. Shea Stadium became so deserted that it became known as “Grant’s Tomb.”

Seaver flourished upon joining the Big Red Machine, going 14-3 with a 2.34 ERA after the trade, and finishing tied for third in the NL Cy Young race, but the aging team did not have the pitching to keep up with the ascendant Dodgers, who were en route to the first of back-to-back NL West titles and pennants. Seaver made his 11th All-Star team in 12 years in 1978, topped 200 strikeouts for the 10th and final time, and spun the only no-hitter of his career against the Cardinals on June 16 of that year at Riverfront Stadium, but the Reds finished 2 1/2 games behind the Dodgers, then watched Rose depart for Philadelphia in free agency. Wanting his own man in the dugout, new general manager Dick Wagner replaced the popular Anderson with John McNamara, and while the Reds rebounded to win the division in 1979, they were swept by the Pirates in the NLCS, with Seaver’s eight-inning, two-run performance again going to waste due to a lack of run support. Seaver got a no-decision in the team’s 5-2 loss, which marked the sixth time in his eight postseason starts that his team was held to either one or two runs, neutralizing his 2.77 career postseason ERA.

Seaver spent three more years in Cincinnati, all marked by different brands of disappointment. In 1980, shoulder tendinitis held him to 26 starts and 168 innings, his first time failing to record 32 starts or toss 200 innings. On April 18, 1981, he fanned the Cardinals’ Keith Hernandez to become the fifth pitcher to notch 3,000 strikeouts (after Johnson, Gibson, Gaylord Perry, and Ryan), went 14-2, made his final All-Star team, and was runner-up to Dodgers rookie Fernando Valenzuela in the NL Cy Young race in 1981. But despite the Red’ NL-best 66-42 record, they failed to make the playoffs because they finished second to the Dodgers by half a game before the seven-week players’ strike, then 1 1/2 games behind the Astros in the post-strike second half. In 1982, shoulder problems dipped Seaver’s performance to 5-13 with a ghastly 5.50 ERA.

The Mets, who fired Grant after the 1978 season and were sold to a group headed by Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, and run by general manager Frank Cashen, sought to score a public relations coup by reacquiring “The Franchise.” In December 1982, they traded pitcher Charlie Puleo and minor leaguers Lloyd McClendon and Jason Felice to Cincinnati for the 38-year-old Seaver. He threw six shutout innings in front of a packed house at Shea Stadium on Opening Day, and was much-improved relative to the previous year, but his 9-14 record and 3.55 ERA (103 ERA+) made clear that he was old Tom Seaver rather than the Tom Seaver of old. Despite the arrivals of Hernandez and Rookie of the Year Darryl Strawberry, the Mets went 68-94.

That winter, they lost Seaver again. The 1981 strike had created a mechanism by which teams that lost a free agent could select an unprotected player from another team. From a baseball standpoint, the Mets weren’t wrong to protect their younger players instead of a pitcher who had just turned 39, but when the White Sox selected Seaver as compensation for having lost pitcher Dennis Lamp to the Blue Jays, it was a PR disaster just the same, particularly when the pitcher accused the front office of “stupidity.”

Considering his age, Seaver pitched well for the White Sox, though they couldn’t match their surprising 1983 AL West title. In 1985, his best season in Chicago, he went 16-11 with a 3.17 ERA and on August 4, facing the Yankees in — where else? — New York, he notched his 300th win, a one-run, six-hit complete game that summoned memories of vintage Seaver. He made his record 16th and final Opening Day start against the Brewers on April 7, 1986, but went just 2-6 with a 4.38 ERA before being traded to the Red Sox for outfielder Steve Lyons. His performance improved somewhat after the deal, but right knee trouble, soon discovered to be torn cartilage, kept him off the Red Sox’s postseason roster. He still got the largest ovation of any player when introduced at Shea Stadium.

The Red Sox declined a $1.125 million option on Seaver’s services for 1987, and Seaver spurned their reduced offer of $500,000, becoming a free agent for the first time in his career. He did mount an abortive comeback effort with the Mets in 1987, signing in late May, but after struggling in a trio of simulated games, announced his retirement on June 23, saying that he realized “there were no more pitches in this 42-year-old arm that were competitive. I’ve used them all up.”

Having dabbled in broadcasting via occasional postseason appearances in the booth from 1977 to ’82, Seaver spent a good chunk of his post-playing carer in that capacity. He replaced Joe Garagiola as NBC’s lead color commentator on the “Game of the Week” alongside Vin Scully in 1989, and worked for the Yankees’ WPIX from that year through ’93, then for the Mets from 1999-2005. He started his own vineyard in Calistoga, California in 2002; his cabernets, including one called “Fancy Nancy” in honor of his wife, drew positive reviews. He retired from broadcasting in 2005 to focus on the vineyard.

In 1992, Seaver was elected to the Hall of Fame. He received 98.8% of the vote from the BBWAA voters, surpassing Ty Cobb’s 98.2% for the highest share of all time to that point; only five writers out of 425 left him off their ballots. According to former Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, then serving as the institution’s vice president of communications, three were part of blank-ballot protests related to the Hall’s 1991 decision to rule Rose ineligible due to his lifetime ban from baseball for gambling, a fourth was a mistake by a writer recovering from open-heart surgery, and a fifth said he didn’t vote for first-time candidates out of principle. Since then, only Ken Griffey Jr. (99.3% in 2016), Mariano Rivera (100% in ’19), and Derek Jeter (99.7% in ’20) have surpassed that share.

Hall voting results don’t always line up perfectly with a player’s accomplishments, but in Seaver’s case, they’re a reasonable stand-in. Other players may have been slightly more popular, and other pitchers, including several of his cohorts such as Carlton and Ryan, as well as his protegé Clemens, may have since surpassed him in certain counting stats while gaining acclaim for this pitch or that. Even so, Seaver’s numbers uphold the broad consensus of that vote. For durability, consistency, and brilliance, he was as complete a pitcher as baseball has ever produced, the archetype combination of strength and smarts.
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