One of the most esteemed works of sports literature was written 55 years ago by the Pulitzer Prize-winning author John McPhee. It was a profile of a Princeton student and basketball player named Bill Bradley. The piece that first appeared in the New Yorker magazine that later became a book was titled, “A Sense of Where You Are.”
Tom Seaver had A Sense of Who He Was.
The tributes for the legend who wore The Franchise tag as if it were a custom-tailored ensemble generally tend to the personal. That’s because, if you were a sports fan growing up in New York in the ‘60s, if you were a Mets fan (and maybe even if you were not), you knew Tom Seaver.
You knew he was not Everyman, but rather a shining example of how all things could be possible. We all knew No. 41. We knew him as the personification of promise the moment he set foot in Shea in 1967, and in 1969 we knew him as the man who carried a pocketful of miracles with him when he took the mound and when the Mets took the field.
We lost Seaver on Monday at age 75 to the terrible disease of Lewy body dementia coupled with complications from COVID-19. This was more than just another sad day in a summer and calendar year filled with heartache. This was a blow to the soul of our city. This leaves a hole that will not easily be repaired or filled.
I watched him from the stands at Shea, I covered him for The Post. I spent hours with him one day in Cincinnati in the summer of 1980 after he threw for the first time in 18 days when he was attempting to come back from tendinitis and a rotator cuff injury. At that time, he had 238 career victories and his future was very much in doubt.
“If it’s now, then I’ll invest the same kind of dedication into whatever I do after I retire and I’m sure I’ll find gratification in that,” Seaver told me in an otherwise empty Reds clubhouse. “It will give me more time to spend with my family and watch my daughters [Sarah, then 9, and Anne, then 5] grow up.
“If this is the end, then fine. I’ve had a beautiful career.”
This was early January 2019, fifth floor of the Oakland…
Seaver did not retire then. He won another 73 games. And he did invest the same dedication and craftsmanship into the winery business once he did retire and created Seaver Vineyards in Calistoga, Calif. Once a perfectionist, always a perfectionist.
He had a beautiful life.
I won’t pretend to have known Seaver well. We were professional acquaintances. I covered the first game he pitched for the Reds in Cincinnati following the trade on June 15, 1977, and rode up the elevator with him and his wife, Nancy, from the clubhouse level after he had been defeated.
“Is it over now?” Nancy Seaver asked her husband.
“No,” he replied softly, the two in each other’s arms, as I recall. “It is just beginning.”
I was on the air, subbing for John Sterling on his sports talk radio show the night that Seaver was traded and the night the music died for the New York National League baseball franchise. It became later and later, it seemed that maybe a trade would not be made. But it was. I talked some more, I talked a lot more, though there was really nothing to be said.
I was in Section 10, Row C, Seat 18 of the Mezzanine, my dad right beside me in Seat 17, the night of July 9, 1969. Nine years to the day later I would marry my bride, Janis. That was a pretty perfect day. Can we keep it between us that July 9, 1969, was darn near as perfect? I ran on the field when they clinched against the Cards (“At 9:07”), I ran on the field when they clinched against the Braves and I ran on the field when they clinched against the Orioles. I ran on the field four years later when they beat the Reds.
How lucky were we? We got to watch Tom Seaver pitch every four days. How lucky was I? I got to know him a little bit.
He was not perfect. There was, on occasion, the surrendered late-game homer. There was, more than once as a Met, the inability to close no-hitters. My mom’s favorite Met was Danny Napoleon. She never, ever forgot that bases-loaded pinch-triple in the top of the ninth at Candlestick in April 1965 that vaulted the Mets to victory over the Giants. She also never ever seemed to forget a home-run ball served up by Seaver.
So there was Game 1 of the 1973 NLCS, Seaver on the mound against the Reds in Cincinnati, holding a 1-0 lead going into the bottom of the eighth. One out, game-tying home run from Pete Rose. Bottom of the ninth, 1-1, one out, a solo home run off the bat of Johnny Bench.
The moment of the crack of the bat, the phone rang at my apartment. It was my mom. She only said three words. They were, “I knew it!”
We laid my dad to rest much, much too early on Aug. 4, 1985. Following the ceremony, we returned to my mom’s place. A television was on in one of the bedrooms. My mom checked in. So did my sister. So did I.
Tom Seaver was pitching.
Tom Seaver was winning his 300th game.