The telegram, dispatched by a friend back in New York, was slipped beneath the door of my Paris apartment early in the morning of June 16, 1977, and reading it, my heart sank.
Comme une pierre!
“Seaver to Reds for Zachry, Flynn, Henderson, and Norman.”
Bleary-eyed, I staggered down the steps to my local café to breathe in the stale Gauloise fumes and to try and forget.
Paris was still Paris then; the Mets would always be the Mets.
Not that I was surprised. It was inevitable. I loved Tom Seaver: he was the personification of excellence, decency, character. But like everything else worthwhile in the world, he had been too good to last.
Cutting to the chase: I had been shaped—make that distorted—by Mets fandom. In a horrible accident of timing, the team’s creation coincided precisely with my prime rooting years. Born too late to bask fully in the glow of the Dodgers’ long-craved 1955 championship but old enough to sip the bile two years later when Dem Bums and the Giants absconded like thieves in the night, during what should have been my carefree elementary school years, I was reduced to rooting against the Yankees. Talk about a life-warping experience; those Mantle-Ford-Berra Bombers were so invincible, to argue otherwise in the schoolyard was to bounce between self-delusion and masochism.
Arriving in 1962, when I was twelve, the Mets seemed my salvation, but of course, they were the opposite.
Still, I was yet young enough then to be cruelly burdened by hope. By the time I underwent hernia surgery that Easter vacation, they’d already lost the first nine games of their existence, but when I awoke on April 23rd, it was to whispered news from my father that they’d finally won one—and I saw only smooth sailing ahead. A few days later, watching Al Jackson shut out the Phillies at the Polo Grounds, live and in person, only confirmed the fantasy. Through the rest of that dismally memorable, record-setting 120-loss, “Can’t-anyone-here-play-this-game” season, I kept finding reason to believe.
And so it went year, after year. Others would argue the relative merits of Koufax vs. Marichal; I’d throw in the Mets’ Carlton Willey. (Hey, you can look it up—I just did—Willey was great in ’63.) By the time Seaver showed up, in ’67, I was over it; a hardened cynic, I’d at last put aside childish dreams for bigger fish that needed frying. I had a war to end. And women to pursue. Indeed, by far my biggest baseball highlight of those years was being told, by the woman with whom I was already madly infatuated, that her grandfather was Branch Rickey.
Seaver? The guy seemed pretty good—he’d go on to a 16-13 record that rookie year—but so what? By then, only once in their dismal history had the Mets finished as high as ninth in a ten-team league.
Nor, at first, did the magical year of 1969 look like it would be any better, as the Mets staggered through the early part of the season. Besides which, as one might recall, between the war and the social chaos it engendered, the moon landing, and Chappaquiddick, there were other distractions. Yet somewhere along the way, roughly between the Manson murders and Woodstock, the Mets elbowed their way into my consciousness, and Tom Seaver was in the middle of it. Suddenly, we had our own Koufax and Marichal, we really did! This time it was for real. The guy was beyond phenomenal.
Hell, Seaver, an ex-Marine, was even against the war.
“God,” he proclaimed, “is living in New York. And he’s a Mets fan.” No, God wore a flannel uniform, with 41 on the back.
Away most of that season at college, I attended only one game in 1969, when Leo Durocher’s Cubs came to town in early September for a two-game series, clinging to a two-and-a-half game lead. I attended the first, a 3-2 thriller that the Mets won behind Seaver’s fellow stalwart Jerry Koosman. The next night, Tom Terrific, The Franchise, sent them limping away, facing the inevitable, with a 7-1 thrashing.
Just to show how things were going, a few days later, the Mets did something no other team in history had ever done, taking both ends of a doubleheader from the Pirates by identical 1-0 scores, behind a pair of their lesser pitchers—with the pitchers themselves driving in the run in each game.
Then came the march through the playoffs against Hank Aaron’s Braves—a three-game sweep—followed by the even more unlikely five-game World Series triumph, with all those incredible outfield catches, over the prohibitively favored Baltimore Orioles.
It was indeed a miracle. All of it. Nor is it stretching it by much to say that Seaver and the Mets had something to do with uniting the country in that otherwise-terrible time.
There was much more to come, of course, for Seaver. In subsequent seasons, he continued to build the resume that marks him as one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history.
Did I mention how much we Mets fans loved him? He was forever in our hearts and would, so it seemed, forever be in blue, orange, and white.
There’s an old joke about a diehard Brooklyn Dodgers fan. He’s given a gun with two bullets and, confronted with Hitler, Stalin, and Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, must choose whom to shoot. “O’Malley,” he replies, “Twice.”
That’s how a lot of us felt about the pompous, self-important Wall Streeter, Mets president M. Donald Grant, who, in his pique over Seaver demanding more money in a contract negotiation, shipped Seaver away that dismal day in 1977.
After the trade—first with the Cincinnati Reds, and later with the Chicago White Sox—he labored on, adding a no-hitter to his resume, and going on to win another 113 games, en route to a lifetime total of 311.
I was there for number 300, August 4, 1985, when, pitching for the White Sox, Seaver faced the Yankees at the Stadium. At 40, he was a shadow of his former self—that once-in-a-generation fastball reduced to merely above-average—but he still pitched a gem, going the distance while giving up just one run and striking out seven.
I still have the ticket stub, discovering it years later in the pocket of what I took care to wear that day—a Mets jacket.
Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images