Baseball, and Mets fans in particular, received some terrible news yesterday, but the news wasn’t wholly unexpected. Just the same, though, it came as a shock. Tom Seaver, arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation – certainly, the greatest right-handed pitcher – has withdrawn from public life at age 74, due to a losing battle with dementia. What brought it on is anybody’s guess. We know he’d been suffering from the effects of Lyme disease for a number of years, but the jury is out on whether that has any bearing on his current situation. Not that any of that matters: however you slice it, this news is heartbreaking.
As I write this, I’m three weeks shy of my fifty-fourth birthday. I have been watching Mets games for about fifty-two years. Coincidentally, that’s how long ago Seaver hit the majors with the Mets. Growing up, summer to me meant Met games on the rabbit-eared TV – WOR channel 9 – starting at 7:30 or 8:00. It meant Seaver on the mound, a setting sun in his face, full dark not coming until the third inning or so. A behind-the-plate camera would show Seaver delivering his final warm up toss, then lower his head before taking the throw from his first baseman. It made him appear thoughtful, maybe even collegiate, like he was steeling himself to write a term paper on the Punic Wars or the Battle of Bull Run. He would look up, take that throw and climb the mound. Atop the hill – at home there, master of it – he would get to his work deliberately, methodically and deadly proficient. More often than not, his first pitch would determine how his night would go. Usually, it was a blazing fastball on a tiny sliver of one of the outer edges of home plate. Most nights, he could put that exactly where he wanted it. If that wasn’t on, on a particular night, he would figure something else out. He wore no expression, the look of a young man absorbed in his work and focused on nothing else. That first pitch would usually result in a famous smudge of dirt on his right knee, a telltale sign that he was dropping his body low enough to be on his top form – his signature “drop-and-drive” pitching style, the source of his power. Someone like Pete Rose or Dave Cash or Bobby Bonds would be left standing motionless, mentally agape, if outwardly confident. If they saw the dirt on the knee, they knew they were in for a long night of it.
This is how I grew up. From the ages of two to twelve, this was all I knew. Sure, there was running with friends, there were trips to the beach, there were long days and short nights: there was being a kid. But the Mets were there, on channel 9, every night. And once a week, there was Seaver. Always, Seaver. Until, the vile, venal people running the team sent him away that is. In an instant, we kids all got a lesson in the cruel ways of this sometimes vicious world. We learned in a hurry that life wasn’t always gonna be Saturday cartoons and Disneyland. Our hero was sent away because of money. Tom Seaver – Tom Seaver, who was the Mets! — was banished to Cincinnati for having the audacity to ask to be paid near to what he was worth. He became Rose’s teammate. He looked awful in those Cincy double-knits. He beat the snot out of some awful Met teams on a regular basis, but he never left our hearts. He was always “ours,” the true Tom Terrific. After five and a half years in the Ohio wilderness, he came back. Older, yes. Less effective, certainly. But he was home, he was truly “ours” again. Then in a flash, he was gone again, cast aside by some front office bumbling/hubris. Four years after that, he tried to come home one more time, tried to help his old team out of an injury-wracked jam, but he had nothing left in the tank; by then, all he could conjure from his legendary pitching form was a dirty knee.
Seaver sailed into the Hall of Fame, as true as one of his fastballs, with the highest percentage of Hall of Fame votes to that date – Ken Griffey, Jr. and Mariano Rivera both surpassed his percentages in recent years. He broadcast Yankee and Mets games for awhile, then opened a winery in California. He remained a presence to Met fans as a team ambassador, throwing the ceremonial final pitch at Shea Stadium in 2008 and first pitch at Citi Field in 2009. We heard he got sick shortly after the team’s 50th Anniversary celebration in 2012. I know for myself, I got nervous when he never made any kind of appearance at any of the 2015 post-season games – I hated myself for thinking it, didn’t want to believe it, but damn, this is one time I hate being correct.
The news this week has certainly brought one thing into focus: at the age of (almost) fifty-four, I’m getting the feeling that my childhood might be over.
God bless you, George Thomas Seaver. You will always be “ours.”
Follow me on Twitter @CharlieHangley.