By Rich Coutinho
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On MLB Network’s “Studio 42″ with Bob Costas, Hall of Famer Tom Seaver will discuss a multitude of topics, including why current day pitchers can’t seem to finish games.
The network was kind enough to send me a screener – the episode airs tonight – and it is an absolute must-watch. Listening to Seaver got me to thinking about his greatness. Not only what he meant to Mets fans, but also to the sport of baseball.
To fully understand his importance consider this important fact: no player in baseball history — not Ruth, Gehrig, Musial, Williams nor DiMaggio — received a larger percentage of Hall of Fame votes upon his induction than Seaver. He was an icon in New York and season after season was as dominating a pitcher as there was in the sport.
To Mets fans, Seaver was the first player we could say had star power. When he burst onto the scene in 1967, he gave the team hope for the future. As a 7-year-old boy, my first trip to a ballpark was to see Seaver in his rookie year. My dad didn’t have much money and worked 60 hours a week as a laborer, but told me on my birthday he would take to see the Mets.
And as he put it, “I want you to see Tom Seaver pitch because years from now, you will understand his greatness.”
So, I got a chance to see a ballgame in living color (at that point all we had in our living room was a black and white TV). I saw Seaver win a game and at the same time saw another player I idolized, Henry Aaron, as the Mets beat the Atlanta Braves. I’m sure there are tons of stories like this. Seaver won so many games at Shea. But the thing that always impressed me about The Franchise is he pitched with smarts, elegance and above all, a will to win that the Mets sorely needed. The arrival of Gil Hodges in 1968 put a fire in the manager’s chair as well, but make no mistake — this was Seaver’s team.
I don’t know if this town has ever experienced a bigger 12 months in pro sports. The Jets won the Super Bowl, the Mets won the World Series and then the Knicks took home an NBA title. The three biggest stars in town were Seaver, Joe Namath and Walt Frazier — and all three were champions. I remember a game early in that ’69 season when the Mets reached .500, which was a tremendous feat considering the team had lost every Opening Day in their history (and had only escaped the cellar twice in their eight year history). Seaver said, “.500 is not an accomplishment — our goals are far higher than that.” Those words were indeed prophetic as the Mets spent the summer chasing the Chicago Cubs, but by mid-August fell to 9.5 games back of the crew from the Windy City.
From that point on, the Mets were unbeatable as Seaver and Jerry Koosman were nearly flawless down the stretch. Seaver went 25-7 capturing his first of three Cy Young Awards and won two postseason games for the Miracle Mets. Four years later, Seaver pitched great down the stretch again as the Mets returned to the World Series before succumbing to the Oakland A’s in 7 games.
In a way, that 1969 World Series was the end of an era in baseball. Soon, cookie cutter AstroTurf fields would be commonplace. There would be fewer day World Series games — if any — and free agency would forever change the finances of the game.
Seaver was in many ways the poster child for what baseball was — and what it would become.
Those 1969 Mets were as pure a baseball story as there is: a 100 to 1 shot becoming the best in the world. But changes were coming and Seaver’s Mets uniform would become a casualty of the changing times. A bitter feud with Chairman Of The Board M. Donald Grant made the unthinkable happen. Seaver was traded for four players from the Cincinnati Reds — none of which would help the Mets.
The franchise would never be the same until Frank Cashen arrived with a plan to re-build it via a solid farm system and some crafty trades. Seaver would return to the Mets in 1983, but as a shell of his former self. He would go on to win 311 games and ironically, win No. 300 at Yankee Stadium was notched as a member of the Chicago White Sox. But when he went into Cooperstown on his first ballot, he went in as a New York Met–the only “true New York Met” in The Hall Of Fame.
I know when time passes in life, we hear older people talk about players and we laugh. I am here to tell here that Seaver will forever be the greatest player in Mets history. He is the one person that made this team relevant in NYC. Before he came, they were a laughingstock. By the time he left, he gave Mets fans two pennants and a World Championship that will forever live in the annals of New York sports history.
He also gave Mets fans another important gift: he elevated them to a more important place in the city than the hated Yankees, who from his arrival in 1967 through 1975, were an afterthought when compared to the Mets, much in the same way the 80′s Mets did a decade later.
So, the next time you go to Citi Field, go to the Mets museum and see what Tom Terrific meant to the team. Take to your children to Cooperstown and tell them about the 25-7 season, the 1.76 ERA season, the near perfect game in 1969 and more importantly, tell them you don’t have to be the tallest, biggest or strongest person to be successful. Seaver was none of those things. But he was the always the best prepared and smartest player on the field. He was always able to get the most out of his ability. He hated to lose and knew that greatness is only achieved if we win on the days we don’t have our best stuff.
Growing up watching Seaver was a life lesson for me. Be professional. Be prepared. Be Flexible. Be a good teammate.
Rules to live by, and Seaver illustrated all of them, every day I saw him pitch — and as a reporter, every time I listened to what he had to say.
Do you rank Tom Terrific as NYC’s all-time greatest pitcher? Let Coutinho know in the comments below…