“…And the starting pitcher, number forty-one, Tom Seaver.”

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 Tom Seaver, arguably the greatest pitcher of his generation – certainly, the greatest right-handed pitcher – has withdrawn from public life at age 74, due to a losing battle with dementia.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.

11 comments for ““…And the starting pitcher, number forty-one, Tom Seaver.”

  1. TexasGusCC
    March 9, 2019 at 1:42 am

    My dad has dementia. He is 84 and was first diagnosed in early 2017 (but looking back the signs were there in 2015) a bit after his brain operation, which seemed to accelerate it, and brought on depression as he couldn’t understand why he was different from what he always knew. On a scale of 1-30, he’s an 18 with moderate dementia. All that is being controlled by medication and my dad can live pretty well. I would think/hope that Seaver’s dementia was realized early and with medication can be controlled. It isn’t really a battle as it is accepting a change, and slowing it down as much as possible.

    The problem with dementia is the confusion: forgetting words, calling your wife by your daughter’s name and sometimes calling your son by your daughter’s name. Those around must learn to not notice, and if they see that there is confusion with a particular topic, they should change the subject to alter the thinking and not let the person realize the confusion to dwell on it. Sundowning happens often, but with support and keeping things upbeat, the battle is much easier and often he can appear pretty sharp. All because of the positive state of mind which is vital.

    We don’t know how severe Seaver’s dementia is, but it isn’t life threatening as it is life altering. I can see why he wouldn’t want to deal with public life as he would be put in situations that might stress his mind. He doesn’t need it. I’ve seen interviews with his wife Nancy and his daughters and have no doubt that George Thomas Seaver will be taken care of, and that makes me feel better. I never knew Seaver as I became a Mets fan the year they traded him, but I wish him well as I would any elder that must navigate the frustrations of age.

    • March 9, 2019 at 10:18 am

      Gus, I’m sorry about your dad.

      And thanks for writing this heartfelt piece that gives us more clarity about what the Seavers are and will be going thru.

      • TexasGusCC
        March 9, 2019 at 10:42 am

        Brian, don’t feel bad, really. He’s doing pretty good and has much support. He can’t drive any more, but at his age that was probably coming at some point. He still comes to work everyday and sits in the front, stands to greet every person who comes up to him no matter what, and just keeps as busy as he’s willing to be, LOL! That was my point about Seaver. He will be supported and with medication, he can be continue being content with hopefully minimized responsibilities. We all know it’s those that cause the most stress.

        Thank you Brian for the kind words and you Charlie for writing about Tom Terrific, or The Franchise. How ‘bout those two nicknames?

        • Chris F
          March 9, 2019 at 11:59 am

          Sorry Gus. Friggin cruel disease.

  2. March 9, 2019 at 10:25 am

    Charlie – nice to see your byline again! And thanks for writing this.

    • March 9, 2019 at 11:42 am

      You’re welcome. I’m glad to have done it and sad that it was necessary. You know what I mean?

      • TexasGusCC
        March 9, 2019 at 6:22 pm

        Yup.

        Does “retiring from public life” mean no speaking engagements and appearances, or is that everything, like not coming to a Tom Seaver Day at Citifield? I would think he could still come and get something out of it, personally.

  3. Mike Walczak
    March 9, 2019 at 1:25 pm

    Whether I played, baseball, stick ball or whiffle ball, I always made believe I was Tom Seaver. He was my hero. Not only a great pitcher, but a fine human being.

  4. Bugsy
    March 9, 2019 at 7:38 pm

    I was at the first game tom seaver ever pitched. April 1967, vs the pirates.
    He left after 6, gave up 2 runs, mets won 3-2.
    I have the scorecard.
    I was there with my cousin and grandfather. We were so pumped up, sure that we were looking at a real home grown ace.

    We cut school,to be there, in the blue seats (mezzanine p)above first, for game 4 of the 69 series.
    Truthfully We found ourselves at a world series game a little sooner than expected.
    That day tom went ten innings, swoboda made an incredible catch,
    And the mets won in the bottom of the 10th on a misplayed bunt.
    I have that scorecard too.

    I moved away from new york in the late 70’s, but happened to be in town the last weekend of the 83 season, when I decided to take my then 2 year old son to see his first game, seaver pitched one inning and left with a back problem.
    It was the last game he ever pitched as a met.

    I watched seaver pitch his first game with my grandfather, born in the 1890’s and his last game as a met with my son, born in 1981.

    I’ve seen all the great Mets pitchers over the years; doc, koos, darling, cone, pedro, johann, degrom, syndergaard; I’ve seen all of them at their best, and some of them in post season games, but there is only one Tom Seaver:
    Our first ace, the guy who lead us right past respectability to a championship
    And legendary status.
    I will always be grateful.
    I hope he has many “good days” to come.

  5. MattyMets
    March 9, 2019 at 11:42 pm

    Welcome back Charlie. Seeing you write this piece gives us all a little peace of mind. Hopefully the statue and a moving tribute in June and, at some point, the Ed Burns documentary, will all help us swallow this bitter pill a little easier. I hate that we couldn’t let him play his whole career as a Met. I sure hope we can right that wrong with deGrom.

  6. Rob
    March 11, 2019 at 5:58 pm

    There is a you tube video of his first return to Shea after going to reds. It was only a few weeks later. The sound quality isn’t very good but that crowd roar is defining. Perfect example of what he meant to the fans.

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