Thursday, November 17, 2005

A Boyhood Hero


In June 1975, my friend John and his grandfather took me to see a game at Dodger Stadium. It was a rare treat. John and his grandfather were most loyal Dodger fans -- 'O'Malley blue' flowed through their veins, and the name "Walter Alston" (the Dodgers' long-time manager) was something spoken only in hushed reverence. I, on the other hand, was a heathen, a Mets fan living in Southern California, and Tom Seaver was my favorite baseball player.

That night at Chavez Ravine, a night I'll never forget, Tom Seaver pitched a three-hit shutout against the home team, as Dave Kingman knocked in 8 of the Mets' 11 runs on three homers. There was 'O'Malley blue' caked on the walls before it was over. John didn't speak to me for weeks afterwards, and even his grandfather had a hard time mustering up his usual charm.

A former U.S. Marine and pre-dental student at the University of Southern California, Tom Seaver (born on this day in 1944 in Fresno, California) was a late bloomer who barely gained any notice from baseball scouts until he was in college. He was signed by the lowly New York Mets in time for the 1967 season, in which he won 16 games (a record for Mets pitching up to that time) and he earned the nickname "Tom Terrific."

Like Christy Mathewson before him, another righthander playing in the National League for New York, Seaver was a clean-cut college boy who radiated intelligence -- both in his thoughtful approach to baseball, as well as in his vocabulary and highbrow outside interests. But it was his coolness, control and 98-mph fastball (fueled by exceptional lower body strength and low-to-the-ground pitching silhouette) that endeared him to the New York fans.

Just two seasons after his rookie year, Seaver led the Mets to an unthinkable, "miraculous" world championship in 1969 (in spite of the glare of publicity he suffered on the eve of the World Series for pledging his opposition to the Vietnam War), winning 25 games and a Cy Young Award. The following year, Seaver tied a major-league record by striking out 19 batters in a 9-inning game (the last 10 consecutively). In 1971, despite the fact that he won 20 games and led the league in strikeouts (289) and ERA (1.76), he failed to win his second Cy Young Award. The nod instead went to Ferguson Jenkins, and Seaver, ever the trooper, named his cat after Jenkins in memory of the 1971 season.

Seaver returned to win the Award in 1973 as he led the Mets to their second NL pennant with 19 wins, and league-leading strikeouts (251) and ERA (2.08), and won it again in 1975. After pitching over 200 strikeouts in a record 9 consecutive seasons and upgrading his nickname to "The Franchise," in 1977 Seaver was traded to the Cincinnati Reds -- a move that broke the hearts of the New York fans like me, although for a time there was talk of trading him to the Dodgers, straight-up, for their ace Don Sutton. With the Reds, in 5-1/2 seasons, Seaver twice led the NL in win percentage and pitched a no-hitter (on June 16, 1978).

After one more season with the Mets in 1983, he was picked up by the Chicago White Sox in the American League, winning 31 games (including his 300th) in his first two seasons. He played one more season, split between Chicago and the Boston Red Sox, ending his 20-year career with 311 wins, the highest win percentage of any 300-game winner (.603), 3,640 strikeouts (3rd best all-time) and a career ERA of 2.86.

When he was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992, he was named on a record 98.8% of all ballots cast. I went to Cooperstown for his induction into the Hall -- it was the most crowded of such events that I'd ever attended. Far from being disappointed about being so far away from the podium when he gave his thanks, I was just happy to be in the company of so many people who enjoyed Seaver's work as much as I did. Yes, it almost made up for getting snubbed by John's grandfather after that hallowed game in June 1975.

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