Twenty years ago, two of the greats of the 1969 World Series found themselves on the same dais at a fund-raiser. The M.C. cued up highlights, and one Hall of Fame pitcher walked out. Another, Tom Seaver, howled with delight.
“He said, ‘Jim, it was 30 years ago, get over it!’ ” Jim Palmer, the former Baltimore pitcher, said on Thursday. “And he did it with that laugh only Tom Seaver had. It was a great point — but if the Orioles had won instead of the Mets, do you think he would’ve gotten over it?”
As the Mets celebrate the 50th anniversary of their miracle championship this year, Seaver, 74, will not be basking in the memories. In a statement released through the Baseball Hall of Fame on Thursday, the Seaver family announced that he has dementia and would retire from public life.
[Read more: Tom Seaver, Star of the Mets’ Championship Team, Has Dementia]
It was not a surprise to those who know him well. Seaver has rarely appeared in public in recent years. He did not throw a ceremonial first pitch during the first World Series at Citi Field, in 2015, and has been absent at the annual induction ceremonies in Cooperstown, N.Y. He had for years dealt with Lyme disease.
“We’ll all miss him, because he was such a big part of that team,” said Art Shamsky, a Mets outfielder and first baseman in 1969. “We’ve lost about 10 guys from that team, and we’ll miss them all. It’s another kick in the gut. I just hope he’s around for many more years to share some moments with his family.”
Shamsky visited Seaver two years ago at his home and vineyard in Calistoga, Calif., reconnecting for Shamsky’s coming book on the 1969 season. Seaver’s wife, Nancy, told Shamsky he had good and bad days. Their day together, Shamsky said, was wonderful.
“But I knew then he was struggling a little bit, because he told all of us he wasn’t going to be making appearances,” Shamsky said. “All he really wanted to do the rest of his life was spend time with his family, stay around his home and vineyard and prune, and get it ready for harvest.”
Palmer said he saw Seaver at an airport years ago; both ex-pitchers were out on assignment as broadcasters. Seaver told him he was doing it so he could save up for the postbaseball career he really wanted: running a vineyard, a pursuit Seaver found to be familiar.
“Same thing as pitching — attention to detail,” he said in 2014. “You can’t force it. It’s a lot of fun.”
Hard work has always seemed to suit Seaver, who extracted power from his 6-foot-1, 195-pound frame with a drop-and-drive delivery that always left a patch of dirt on his back knee. He pitched a no-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds, earned his 300th victory for the Chicago White Sox and finished his career with the Boston Red Sox. But he was a Met above all, a three-time Cy Young Award winner who brought a sense of purpose to a perennially hapless franchise.
“He had a little bit of Gil Hodges in him,” Shamsky said, referring to the Mets’ revered manager. “Gil was a strict disciplinarian and a no-nonsense guy, and Tom could be a cutup, a guy you could have fun with. But he was no-nonsense in that he did not like to lose, and he was going to battle you all the way.
“When we started getting the feeling of competitiveness, it was all about learning how to win close games. We were going to be close every time he pitched, and Tom gave us confidence we could win those games. His leadership in that regard rubbed off on all of us.”
Seaver helped the Mets to another pennant in 1973, and he still leads the team in nearly every significant pitching category. His trade to the Reds in June 1977 — over a salary dispute with the team chairman, M. Donald Grant — scarred a generation of fans. When he returned in 1983, he made a lasting impact on a rookie right-hander, Ron Darling.
“He invited me up to his home in Greenwich, and he was doing some gardening with Nancy; he loved to work in the yard,” Darling said on Thursday. “He said he was going to go take a shower before dinner, so why don’t I hang out in his study? It had all his awards, his Cy Youngs, all that kind of stuff, and I started peeking around.”
Darling noticed a bureau with four drawers full of baseballs, with notes written on each one. After some wine with dinner, Darling found the courage to ask Seaver about them.
“Oh, yeah,” Seaver replied, with casual cool. “Those are the shutouts.”
By the end of his career, in 1986 — with the Boston team that would lose to the Mets in the World Series — Seaver had thrown 61 shutouts, tied with a 1969 teammate, Nolan Ryan, for seventh on the career list. His 3,640 strikeouts rank sixth on the career list, and his 311 victories rank 18th.
Seaver was one of the best in a remarkable group of durable, Hall of Fame aces who started in the 1960s and retired in the 1980s: Bert Blyleven, Steve Carlton, Fergie Jenkins, Phil Niekro, Palmer, Gaylord Perry, Don Sutton and Ryan, who lasted to 1993. They pushed one another, Palmer said. Seaver, he added, was the pitcher he wanted to be.
“I mean, he was Tom,” Palmer said. “He was Tom Seaver. Why wouldn’t you? All of those guys set incredibly high standards, and you were always trying to match their performance. I had tremendous admiration for Tom because of his ability and the way he handled himself.”
Seaver should have finished his career with the Mets; perhaps he would have gone out a winner with the 1986 team. Instead, his New York years ended ingloriously, with the Mets leaving him unprotected in the free-agent compensation draft — long since abandoned — in January 1984.
The White Sox selected Seaver, and he earned his 300th victory in their oddly striped uniform in 1985. Seaver achieved the milestone in the Bronx — the wrong borough but the right city, home of the franchise he legitimized, the one that mourned his condition on Thursday but celebrated his legacy.
“It doesn’t matter who played for the Mets, who plays for the Mets, or who plays for the Mets in the future,” Darling said. “No one will ever be Tom Seaver.”
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