Nothing Terrific About Seaver's Latest News
Fifty years ago today, Ted Williams, the newly minted manager of the Washington Senators, brought his squad to Dodgertown -- the Los Angeles Dodgers spring training complex in Vero Beach, Fla. The once innovative facility was no longer state-of-the-art, but Teddy Ballgame was gracious about it.
“This is the nicest camp I’ve seen,” he said. “This place has character.”
It had characters, too, including Tommy Lasorda, then the manager of the Dodgers Triple-A team. As the left-handed Lasorda threw batting practice that day, a puckish fan yelled that Lasorda didn’t exactly remind anybody of Sandy Koufax, the future Hall of Famer who’d retired from the Dodgers three years earlier. “I throw just as hard as Koufax,” Lasorda told the heckler. “It just doesn’t get up there as quick.”
Nothing seemed to move fast in Florida that spring. On March 12, 1969, Los Angeles Herald Examiner sportswriter Melvin Durslag noticed a sign at the Dodgertown canteen and newsstand that read “COLLIER’S: AMERICA’S MOST EXCITING MAGAINE. GET YOUR COPY TODAY.”
As Durslag noted in his column, “Collier’s folded in 1956.”
But the MLB was leaping into the future that year. Celebrated as the 100th anniversary of professional baseball, the 1969 season was the first to feature playoffs. Until then, the National League and the American League held pennant races, and the winners met in the World Series.
The last year of the old format is still remembered as the Year of the Pitcher, as the Detroit Tigers and St. Louis Cardinals rode dominant pitching to a Series won in seven games by the Tigers.
Cards ace Bob Gibson and Tigers righty Denny McClain not only won the Cy Young Award in their respective leagues, but the Most Valuable Player awards as well. In the World Series, though, Detroit had a secret weapon: a second ace, lefty Mickey Lolich, who won three of the seven games and was named Series MVP.
Going into 1969, nobody quite knew if the new format would work, but it did: MLB’s two best teams, the Baltimore Orioles and the New York Mets, faced each other in the October Classic.
A short series doesn’t always guarantee the best team will win, and it didn’t in 1969: The Orioles had the best record in the majors -- they’d won 109 games -- and were one of the most complete teams ever assembled. Yet they faced the “Amazin’ Mets” -- darlings of destiny -- who won it in five games.
That spring, the Dodgers had gotten an early glimpse of the Mets’ prowess when they were shut out, 3-0, in an exhibition game in Vero Beach. The pitchers New York sent to the mound that day included two future Hall of Famers, 24-year-old Tom Seaver and 22-year-old Nolan Ryan. Both righties threw hard, but Ryan threw really hard. “He was the only guy that could put fear in me,” Reggie Jackson once said of the Texas-born fireballer. “Not because he could get me out, but because he could kill me.”
Jackson was even more effusive when describing Tom Seaver. “He’s so good, blind men come out to hear him pitch,” Reggie once quipped. It must have been galling for the Dodgers to see Seaver on the mound in those days. A San Joaquin Valley native who’d starred at the University of Southern California, Seaver had been drafted in 1965 by the Dodgers, who unwisely refused to meet his $70,000 signing bonus request.
Two seasons later, Seaver was Rookie of the Year -- for the Mets. At that summer’s All-Star Game, young Seaver introduced himself to Henry Aaron.
“Kid, I know who you are,” replied the great Aaron. “And before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will, too.”
Even before that career ended, Aaron pronounced Seaver the toughest pitcher he ever faced. But it was how players in his own clubhouse described Seaver that really told you what he was like.
“Tom does everything well,” said Cleon Jones, an Amazin’ Mets’ teammate. “He’s the kind of man you’d want your kids to grow up to be like. Tom’s a studious player, devoted to his profession, a loyal cat, trustworthy -- everything a Boy Scout’s supposed to me. In fact, we call him ‘Boy Scout.’”
Sportswriters took to calling him “Tom Terrific,” a moniker reprised last week when organized baseball was shaken by the most un-terrific news: At 74, Tom Seaver has been diagnosed with late-stage dementia and is retiring from public life.
From the mists of our memories came the names of his long-ago teammates -- names like Ed Kranepool, Ron Swoboda, Art Shamsky -- who sent their best wishes. “He always handled himself with dignity and class,” said Kranepool. “I was proud to be his teammate,” said Swoboda. “A very, very special person,” said Shamsky.
“He will always be the heart and soul of the Mets, the standard which all Mets aspire to,” added Mike Piazza, a Hall of Fame catcher who knows Seaver but never played with him. “This breaks my heart.”