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September 1977 Issue [Article]

Tom Seaver’s Farewell

There is no joy in Gotham

Shea stadium is not Eden, and the picture of Tom and Nancy Seaver leaving its graceless precincts in tears did not immediately remind me of the Expulsion of Adam and Eve in the Brancacci Chapel. And yet, absorbing the feelings generated by Seaver’s departure from New York led me to the kind of inflated cogitation that links Masaccio and the Mets, if only because the feelings were so outsized and anguished and intense. After all, Brad Parks had gone to Boston, and Namath to Los Angeles, and Julius Erving to, if you will, Philadelphia. Clearly evil had entered the world, and mortality had fixed us with its sting. If Seaver is different, and evidently he is, the reasons must be sought somewhere other than in the columns of the daily press. In fact, the reasons for Seaver’s effect on us have to do with the nature of baseball, a sport that touches on what is most important in American life. Where Parks, Namath, and Erving are only superb at playing their sports, Seaver seems to embody his.

George Thomas Seaver almost did not become a Met. In February of 1966, the Atlanta Braves signed the University of Southern California undergraduate to a contract and assigned him to Richmond. At that point, Commissioner William Eckert stated that the signing violated the college rule. The contract was scrapped. USC, however, declared Seaver ineligible. The commissioner announced that any team, except Atlanta, matching the Richmond contract could enter a drawing for rights to negotiate. The Indians, the Phillies, and the Mets submitted to the wheel of fortune, the Mets were favored, and Seaver, signed in early April, went to Jacksonville of the International League. He was twenty-one and would spend one year in the minor leagues.

Seaver pitched .500 ball for Jacksonville, 12-12, with an earned-run average of 3.13. He would not have as weak a season again until 1974, when he would go 11-11, with an ERA of 3.20. Yet even at Jacksonville he struck out 188 batters, thus foreshadowing his extraordinary performance with the Mets, with whom, from 1968 to 1976, he would never strike out fewer than 200 batters a season—a major-league record. And from the beginning Seaver pitched as much with his head as with his legs and right arm, a remarkably compact, concentrated pitcher, brilliantly blending control and speed, those twin capacities for restraint and release that are the indispensable possessions of the great artist. There is no need to rehearse the achievements of Seaver with the Mets: three Cy Young awards; Rookie of the Year with a last-place ball club in 1967; the leading pitcher in the league at 25-7 (ERA 2.21) in 1969, the same year he took the Mets to their first World Series (and, in the process, reelected John Lindsay as mayor of New York—a cause for the trade no one has yet explored). In 1970 and 1971, he led the league in strikeouts (283; 289—a league season record for right-handers) and in ERA (2.81; 1.76—which is like having an IQ of 175, though the ERA is easier to document and vastly more useful). On one April day in 1970, Seaver struck out ten Padres in a row, nineteen in all—an auto-da-fé that has never been bettered. One could go on.

The late Sixties and early Seventies were celebrated or execrated for many things besides someone being able to throw a baseball consistently at ninety-five miles per hour. These were the days of the Movement, the Counterculture, the Student Revolution; of civil-rights activism, antiwar battles, student “unrest.” Yippies yipped, flower children blossomed and withered, America was being greened, by grass and by rock and by people who peddled them. This was a pastoral time, and it would, like all pastorals, turn sere, but for three or four years, while Seaver was gaining control over a block of space approximately three feet high, eighteen inches wide, and sixty feet six inches long, many other of America’s “young” were breaking loose. That great wave against structure and restraint—whatever its legitimacy—begun publicly by people like Mario Savio at Berkeley in 1964, was now rolling East, catching up in its powerful eddies and its froth everyone in the country. In 1964 Tom Seaver, Californian, was moving on from Fresno City College to USC, his move East to come two years later. Here are, I think, the origins of the Seaver mystique in New York, in the young Californian who brought control, in the “youth” who came East bearing—indeed, embodying—tradition.

Most Americans do not distinguish among Californians at all, and if they do, it is certainly not with the passionate self-absorption of the natives. Yet we should, for there are real differences among them, differences far more interesting than those implied by the contrast most favored by Californians themselves, the one between the self-conscious sophisticates of San Francisco and the self-conscious zanies of Los Angeles. There are, for instance, all those Californians, North and South, who are not self-conscious at all. Such is Seaver, who is from Fresno.

Fresno—the name means “ash tree,” that is, something tangible, durable; not the name of a difficult saint, with all its implications about egotism and insecurity, nor a mass of heavenly spirits, with its notions of indistinct sprawl, but “ash tree”—Fresno is inland, about the middle of the state, the dominant city in San Joaquin Valley, that fertile scar that runs parallel to the ocean between the Coastal Ranges and the Sierra Nevada. Fresno is the kingdom sung by Saroyan—flat, green, hot, and fertile; the land of hardworking Armenians, Chicanos, Germans; the cradle of cotton, alfalfa, raisin grapes, melons, peaches, figs, wine. Fresno is not chic, but it is secure. You do not work that hard and reap so many of the earth’s goods without knowing who you are and how you got that way. This is the California Seaver came from, and in many ways it accounts for his balance as a man as well as a pitcher, for his sense of self-worth and for his conviction that you work by the rules and that you are rewarded, therefore, according to the rule of merit.

All this Seaver brought East, along with his fastball and his luminous wife, Nancy. They were perceived as a couple long before this became a journalistic convenience or public-relations necessity. They were Golden West, but not Gilded, nor long-haired, nor “political,” nor opinionated. They were attractive, articulate, photogenic. He was Tom Terrific, the nickname a tribute to his all-American quality, a recognition, ironic but affectionate, that only in comic strips and myth did characters like Seaver exist. I have no idea what opinions Seaver held then on race, politics, war, marijuana, and the other ERA, but whatever they were, or are, they are beside the point. The point is the way Seaver was perceived—as clean-cut, larger than life, a fastballer, “straight,” all at a time when many young people, getting lots of newspaper coverage, were none of the above. And then there was something else, a quality he exuded.

I encountered this quality the only time I ever met Seaver. One evening in the winter of 1971 I spent several hours with the Seavers and their friends and neighbors the Schaaps (he is the NBC-TV broadcaster) in the apartment of Erich Segal, then at the height of his fame as the author of Love Story. The talk was light, easy, and bright, and was produced almost entirely by the Schaaps, Nancy Seaver, and Segal. Because I was about the only member of the gathering who was a household name only in my own household, I was content to listen, and to watch Seaver. He sat somewhat apart, not, I thought, by design, not, surely, because he was aloof, but because it seemed natural to him. He was watchful, though in no sense wary, and had that attitude I have seen in the finest athletes and actors (similar breeds), of being relaxed but not in repose, the body being completely at ease but, because of thousands of hours of practice, always poised, ready at any instant to gather itself together and move. Candid in his gaze, there was a formality in his manner, a gravity, something autumnal in the man who played hard all summer. He sat as other men who work with their hands sit, the hands clasped chest high or folded in front of him, often in motion, omnipresent hands that, like favored children, are the objects of constant if unconscious attention and repositories of complete confidence.

Seaver had, to be brief, dignitas, all the more for never thinking for a moment that he had it at all. A dignity that manifested itself in an air of utter self-possession without any self-regard, it was a quality born of a radical equilibrium. Seaver could never be off balance because he knew what he was doing and why it was valuable. He contrasted completely with the part of the country he was known to come from and with the larger society that he was seen as surrounded by. With consummate effortlessness, his was the talent that summed up baseball tradition; his was the respect for the rules that embodied baseball’s craving for law; his was the personality, intensely competitive, basically decent, with the artisan’s dignity, that amidst the brave but feckless Mets, in a boom of time leisure soured by divisions and drugs, seemed to recall a cluster of virtues seemingly no longer valued.

And Seaver held up. His character proved as durable and strong as his arm. He was authentic; neither a goody two-shoes nor a flash in the pan, he matured into the best pitcher in baseball. Character and talent on this scale equaled a unique charisma. He was a national symbol, nowhere more honored than in New York, and in New York never more loved than by the guy who seemed in every other respect Seaver’s antithesis, the guy who would never give a sucker an even break, who knew how corrupt they all were, who knew it was who you knew that counted, who knew how rotten it all really was—this guy loved Seaver because Seaver was a beautiful pitcher, a working guy who got rewarded; Seaver was someone who went by the rules and made it; Seaver carried the whole lousy team, God love ’em, on his back, and never shot his mouth off, and never gave in, and did it right. The guy loved Seaver because Seaver did not have to be street-wise.

In bars in Queens, in clubs in the Bronx, in living rooms in front of Channel Nine in Suffolk and Nassau, out on Staten Island, everywhere, but particularly in the tattered reaches of Shea Stadium, they loved him for many things, but above all because he never thought he had to throw at anybody’s head. From the Columbia riots to the brink of fiscal disaster, there was someone in New York who did not throw at anybody. They loved it in him, and in that act sought for it in themselves.

None of this reasoning, if such it is, would appeal to the dominant New York baseball writers, who have used the Seaver trade as a casus belli; nor to M. (for, I think, Moralistic) Donald Grant, chairman of the board of the Mets, who would quickly tell us that Seaver wanted too much money, meaning by that something he would never say aloud but would certainly formulate within himself—that Tom wanted too much. Tom wanted, somehow, to cross the line between employee and equal, hired hand and golf partner, “boy” and man. What M. Donald Grant could not abide—after all, could he, Grant, ever become a Payson? Of course not. Everything is ordered. Doesn’t anyone understand anything anymore? —Tom Seaver thought was his due. He believed in the rules, in this game governed by law; if you were the best pitcher in baseball, you ought to get the best salary of any pitcher in baseball; and money—yes, money—ought to be spent so baseball’s best pitcher would not have to work on baseball’s worst-hitting team.

Of course Tom Seaver wanted money, and wanted money spent; he wanted it for itself, but he wanted it because, finally, Tom Seaver felt about the Mets the way the guy from Astoria felt about Seaver—he loved them for what they stood for and he wanted merit rewarded and quality improved. The irony is that Tom Seaver had in abundance precisely the quality that M. Donald Grant thinks he values most—institutional loyalty, the capacity to be faithful to an idea as well as to individuals. Grant ought to have seen that in Seaver; after all, the man worked for the Mets for eleven years. Grant ought to have had the wit to see a more spacious, generous version of what he prizes so highly in himself. Certainly the guy who had watched Seaver all those years knew it, knew Seaver was holding out for something, a principle that made sense in one who played baseball but that grew from somewhere within him untouched by baseball, from a conviction about what a man has earned and what is due him and what is right. The fan understood this and was devastated when his understanding, and Seaver’s principle, were not honored. The anguish surrounding Seaver’s departure stemmed from the realization that the chairman of the board and certain newspaper columnists thought money was more important than loyalty, and the fury stemmed from the realization that the chairman and certain writers thought everybody else agreed with them, or ought to agree with them.

On June 16, the day after Seaver was exiled to Cincinnati by way of Montreal, a sheet was hung from a railing at Shea bearing the following legend:

i was a
but now we’ve

I construe that text, and particularly its telling rhyme, to mean not that the author has lost faith in Seaver but that the author has lost faith in the Mets’ ability to understand a simple, crucial fact: that among all the men who play baseball there is, very occasionally, a man of such qualities of heart and mind and body that he transcends even the great and glorious game, and that such a man is to be cherished, not sold.

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