Magazine April 8, 2019, Issue

Tom Seaver: The Perfectly Balanced Pitcher

Tom Seaver (George Gojkovich/Getty Images)
Remembering the self-made greatness of ‘the Franchise’

There’s a saying that “athletes die twice: once when they take their last breath and the other when they hang it up.” For baseball legend Tom Seaver, a third death looms: dementia, which led the 74-year-old former pitcher to announce that he will make no further public appearances. He will be missing when the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Miracle Mets is commemorated in June. For a man as proud of his cerebral presence on the ballfield as Seaver was, retiring to a vineyard in California is preferable to being in public when he no longer feels in command.

In his 1967–81 heyday, “Tom Terrific” was always in command. He epitomized the perfectly balanced pitcher: power and control, brains and brawn, fastball and slider, talent and work ethic, strong arm and strong legs, consistency and durability, individual success and team triumph. He was handsome, dignified, quotable, a fierce competitor and a respected gentleman, the beau ideal sports hero. Other star athletes got bachelor pads in Manhattan; Seaver lived in Greenwich, Conn. He was often compared to Christy Mathewson, the dashing early-20th-century New York Giants icon of brains, sportsmanship, and integrity. Like Matty, who came from Factoryville, Pa., Seaver seemed a born New York sophisticate despite an un-cosmopolitan upbringing in 1950s Fresno, Calif.

Seaver made himself into a great pitcher. A skinny teen, he filled into a man’s body in the Marines and working in his father’s raisin factory. Starting at Fresno City College, he impressed coaches enough to transfer to Rod Dedeaux’s storied baseball program at the University of Southern California. Behind the seamless consistency of Seaver’s games and seasons were an intense competitive drive, relentless sweat, and an obsessive, scientific study of pitching: the mechanics of throwing, the art of keeping batters off-balance, the business of knowing everyone’s weaknesses. After his playing career, he became a broadcaster and expert-at-large on pitching. Into his seventies, Seaver was apt to spend long hours working in his vineyard, and not because he needed the money. It’s who he is.  

He commanded respect: 1967 National League Rookie of the Year, three-time winner of the Cy Young Award, twelve-time All-Star. In 1992, he was named on 425 of 430 ballots for the Hall of Fame, the closest to a unanimous selection until 2016. The numbers show why. Seaver is the only pitcher since 1920 to win 300 games with a career earned-run average (ERA) below 3.00. He led the league multiple times in major categories, including wins, ERA, and strikeouts, won 20 games five times, and threw a no-hitter. He was third on the all-time strikeout list when he retired. Seaver was a master of the “high-quality start,” throwing seven innings or more and allowing two runs or fewer: He did it 295 times in his career, a total topped by only two other pitchers since 1920. In 1973, he had 26 high-quality starts out of 36; only Sandy Koufax and Denny McLain have had more in a season since 1921.

On April 22, 1970, against the San Diego Padres, Seaver became the only pitcher ever to strike out ten consecutive batters. That’s only half the story: They were the last ten batters of the game, when a pitcher is supposed to be tiring. Five of those ten Padres hitters struck out looking, bats still on their shoulders. The book on Seaver was always that you had to get to him early or he’d only get stronger; his career ERA was 3.75 in the first inning but below 3.00 every inning after that, and 1.67 in extra innings. Seaver worked hard, but he worked smart: He was the first pitching star to insist on four days’ rest between starts.

The years from the mid 1960s to the early 1970s were a golden age of starting pitchers, the last generation of hurlers expected to finish what they started. Four other pitchers of Seaver’s generation won 300 games; Seaver went 27–14 against them head-to-head, including 11–3 in 17 matchups with Steve Carlton, and 7–4 against Don Sutton. Seaver was the best of them all, the best pitcher to debut between Lefty Grove in 1925 and his own protégé Roger Clemens in 1984.

In those years, nobody as good as Seaver was also as consistent and durable. Koufax and Bob Gibson burned hotter at their peaks, but both took years to find the strike zone, and Koufax retired at 30. From 1967 to 1978, Seaver threw more than 250 innings, with an ERA below 3.00 eleven times in twelve years, with the one “off” year being 236 innings and a hard-luck 3.20 ERA. He struck out at least one batter in 411 consecutive starts, a longer streak than any other pitcher, and he struck out at least 196 batters eleven years in a row. Between 1967 and 1981, he never had a losing record despite pitching for many low-scoring teams. Seaver often labored with little help from his hitters. In the first decade of his career, his ERA in 64 no-decisions was 2.97. In the four years from 1969 to 1972, he won 20 games in which his teams scored just one or two runs.

Sophisticated modern analytics agree that Seaver was the greatest pitcher between Grove and Clemens. His career “wins above replacement” total places him an easy first in those years, ahead of Phil Niekro, Bert Blyleven, Gaylord Perry, and Warren Spahn. Over his best seven seasons, he places first, ahead of Spahn, Gibson, Niekro, and Blyleven. The ERA+, which adjusts earned-run average by ballpark and era, rates Seaver 27 percent better than average, the best by any pitcher in that era with 300 wins or 4,000 innings pitched.

It was Seaver’s place in the history of the New York Mets that earned him his other nickname: “the Franchise.” Like many expansion teams, the Mets were awful. But no expansion team has been as relentlessly, embarrassingly dreadful as the 1962–67 Mets, averaging 108 losses a year for six years and finishing last in a ten-team league five times while sharing a city with the hallowed Yankees.

Arriving fully formed in 1967 after just a year in the minor leagues, the California golden boy never had a losing record at any point in his rookie year and never looked back. The Mets finished ninth again in 1968 but added more arms that year and the next: Jerry Koosman, Gary Gentry, Nolan Ryan, and Tug McGraw. No other expansion team had yet played in October, but the Mets shocked the world in 1969, rocketing to 100 wins and beating the mighty Orioles in the World Series. Seaver, their undisputed star, won 25 games. Like Apollo 11 that summer, he had defied doubters to take Mets fans where none had gone before.

Seaver may have been even better in 1973. Pitching for a mediocre Mets team that won the division after being in last place on August 31, he felled the vaunted Cincinnati Reds — the Big Red Machine — in the playoffs and came within a game of beating an Oakland A’s dynasty smack in the middle of their three straight championships. In four postseason starts, Seaver allowed just eight runs and struck out 35 batters. How much did Seaver matter to his Mets teams? The Mets were 227–168 in the games he pitched, a 93-win pace over a 162-game season. In the games he didn’t pitch, the team was 1,271–1,829, a 96-loss pace.

The Yankees were the ultimate team of dynasties, and the Brooklyn Dodgers had been the inches-away team of “wait till next year.” Mets fandom was different: a kind of religious experience, an understanding that years in the wilderness would occasionally yield a lightning strike of greatness and joy. Seaver didn’t make the Mets cool or swaggering — nobody could — but he gave the team’s fans a gift of hope that never ran dry. As McGraw’s motto for the 1973 team had it: “You Gotta Believe.”

Miracles are paid for in suffering and loss. In 1972, Seaver lost his manager and mentor, Gil Hodges (a Marine and the archetypical strong, silent type), to a spring-training heart attack at 47. In 1977, salary disputes and a vicious press campaign by New York Daily News writer Dick Young drove Seaver to demand a trade, and he said a tearful farewell to Queens on June 15, a day that still lives in infamy among Mets fans. Reclaimed in 1983 after his only bad year, Seaver outdueled Carlton on Opening Day and reestablished himself as a wily veteran, only to be left unprotected in the off-season. Snagged by the White Sox, Seaver missed the Mets revival that started in 1984. In 1986, injuries robbed him of a World Series coda for the Red Sox against the Mets. He practiced for a comeback when the Mets needed healthy arms in 1987, but the magic was gone, and Seaver was too proud to be less than Tom Terrific. In 2008, he helped say farewell to Shea Stadium, the site of his greatest triumphs.

In retirement, Seaver battled Lyme disease, the symptoms of which made him fear premature dementia. Now, he greets the slow twilight. Mets fans are petitioning for a statue in his honor at Citi Field, Shea’s replacement. But even without one, as long as the Mets have a franchise, its fans will remember the Franchise.  

This article appears as “The Perfectly Balanced Pitcher” in the April 8, 2019, print edition of National Review.

Dan McLaughlin is an attorney practicing securities and commercial litigation in New York City, and a contributing columnist at National Review Online.

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