He was called Tom Terrific for a reason. Tom Seaver is “among the greatest pitchers of all time” (Bob Costas). He is one of only two pitchers with 300 wins, 3,000 strikeouts, and an ERA under 3.00. He was a three-time Cy Young award winner, twelve-time All Star, and was elected to baseball’s Hall of Fame with the highest percentage ever at the time. Popular among players and fans, Seaver was fiercely competitive but always put team success ahead of personal glory.
Born in Fresno, California, Seaver signed with the New York Mets in 1967, leading them to their stunning 1969 World Series victory. After a legendarily lopsided trade, he joined the Cincinnati Reds, then later played for the White Sox and the Red Sox before ending his career following the 1986 season. After his playing days, Seaver retired back to California to establish a successful vineyard. The in 2013, a recurrence of Lyme disease severely affected his memory, which Madden was the first to report. In 2019, Seaver’s family announced that he had been diagnosed with dementia and was withdrawing from public life. Tom Seaver died on August 31, 2021.
Madden began following Seaver’s career in the 1980s. Seaver came to trust Madden so completely that, eager to return to New York from Chicago, he asked Madden to explore a possible trade to the Yankees which never materialized. Drawing in part on their long relationship, Madden “has crafted a biography as terrific as the subject” (Jane Leavy, New York Times bestselling author of Sandy Koufax: A Lefty’s Legacy).
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Chapter 1: 300! CHAPTER 1 300!
HE HAD ALREADY WON 273 GAMES in the big leagues, along with a record-tying three Cy Young Awards, a no-hitter, and Sports Ilustrated’s Sportsman of the Year Award—not to mention having led the New York Mets to the most improbable World Series championship in baseball history—when Tom Seaver received the news that fateful morning of January 20 in 1984.
He was going to have to leave New York for the second time in his career.
Unlike the first time, 1977, when he was still in his prime, Seaver was thirty-nine now and coming off two successive losing seasons, which had already caused him to question privately whether it was time to start seriously considering life without baseball.
Other than miraculously regaining the lost two miles per hour on his fastball or winning the Sporting News’ Comeback Player of the Year Award, Seaver had nothing more to prove when the Chicago White Sox shocked the baseball world that day by selecting him as the number one pick in something called the free-agent compensation draft, passing over hundreds of far younger established players and prospects.
“I just don’t know if I want to do this,” Seaver said to his wife, Nancy, that morning in the kitchen of their home, a converted barn snuggled within a parcel of seven heavily wooded acres in Greenwich, Connecticut. Leave home again? With his two daughters growing up? Why?
In recounting that conversation years later, Nancy Seaver said her husband’s anger at the Mets for leaving him unprotected in the draft was tempered by his own self-doubt as to whether he had anything left in that durable right arm that had already logged more than four thousand innings across seventeen major-league seasons—and whether it was worth it to find out, in another city, in a different league with the designated hitter, halfway across the country from his home and family.
“I think he was questioning himself whether or not he needed to put himself out there again,” Nancy said during an interview at Seaver’s vineyard in Calistoga, California, north of San Francisco, in 2017. “Maybe it was time for him to come home and start to think about his future.” But Nancy said she suggested that he give it a try. Go to the new team. “I started thinking, ‘Well, we could live in the city. How fun that would be for the girls. We could actually live in a high-rise—we’d never done that before.’?”
Seaver pondered what she had said, still uncertain about how much he had left.
“Well,” he said, “maybe if I just get two hundred ninety wins. What’s so wrong with that? Maybe I could be content with that.”
Again, Nancy felt he was short-changing himself. What was twenty-seven more wins? He’d won twenty games in a season five times previously in his career and led the league with fourteen victories just three years earlier in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign.
“You have to go for the three hundred wins,” she said, firmly. “If you don’t at least try, it will always be in the back of your mind.”
Looking back thirty-three years later, Nancy laughed. “I literally shoved the guy out the door. I said: ‘You will never be happy if you have to wonder if you could ever get to three hundred wins.’ I knew he wasn’t finished.”
Three years earlier, Seaver had told scribe Frank Deford of Sports Illustrated: “My one statistical goal is three hundred wins, but I’m not going to keep after it if I have to struggle. It’s no fun to go out there and not pitch well. That would be too frustrating.” He was thinking of two of the more recent three-hundred-game winners, Early Wynn and Gaylord Perry, both of whom had been in their forties and needed multiple starts to achieve three hundred. He wanted no part of that.
And much of the 1982 season, when he’d gone 5-13 with an ungodly 5.50 ERA in his last year with the Cincinnati Reds, and ’83 when he’d pitched considerably better but still had another losing record (9-14) with the hapless (68-94) last-place Mets, had left him with nothing but frustration.
But perhaps more than anything, Seaver worried if he could fit in with a new team and new teammates, most of them ten to fifteen years younger than him. He had always been regarded as a true baseball Renaissance man, the out-of-the-ordinary clubhouse intellectual who was fond of citing Bernoulli’s law to explain why a fastball rises; who eschewed reading the sports pages or the hunting and fishing magazines at his locker in favor of the New York Times crossword puzzle; and who organized bridge games in the clubhouse, as he explained to his teammates, “to stimulate your minds.” He had learned bridge from his parents and brought the game to the clubhouse in his early years with the Mets. “It’s a mental exercise,” he would say, “just like the crossword puzzles I do every day. Both bridge and crosswords have you withdraw bits of information and recall things—just like you do with pitching.”
There was another thing: he was no longer young. The game was changing, and so were the players He’d be moving on to another new team where he had to figure out if he could fit in. All around him, the kids were getting younger, their interests far different from his. Their music was louder, and they wore earphones. There was no conversation. No stimulation. It’s important, he thought, how the new generations make you feel, in the same job you’ve been doing for twenty years.
But Nancy was right. He may have lost a tick or so off his fastball but nothing of his competitiveness. The White Sox were a far better team than the Mets, having led the major leagues with ninety-nine wins in ’83, and it would be not unlike joining Cincinnati’s All-Star-laden Big Red Machine in 1977, with Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, George Foster, and company. He and Bench had developed a very special pitcher-catcher rapport, much like what he’d enjoyed with Jerry Grote, who’d been his catcher with the Mets the whole ten and a half years he’d been with them. And Sox receiver Carlton Fisk was considered the American League “complete catcher” counterpart to Bench.
So, Seaver would go to Chicago—although not before an acrimonious contract extension negotiation with the White Sox owners—and begin that final quest for the one milestone that mattered to him. When he reported to the White Sox spring training camp in Sarasota, Florida, on February 20, he felt renewed. His bitter feelings toward the Mets had still not subsided—“what the New York Mets did was disrupt my family life,” he told the Chicago press corps—but he’d had a full month to reflect on the benefits of going from a last-place team to a first-place team, and he’d gotten acquainted by phone with Fisk and White Sox manager Tony LaRussa; he’d seen firsthand how they went about their business, and concluded that the move might actually be a blessing.
“I knew in my heart I’d be pitching somewhere in 1984,” Seaver told the Chicago media. “I can win sixteen to twenty games here.” He went on to say how much he, a student of baseball history, was looking forward to pitching in the American League, especially at the White Sox’s seventy-four-year-old Comiskey Park, venue of the infamous 1919 “Black Sox” World Series fix scandal, in which eight White Sox players were banned for life from baseball for conspiring to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds. “I’ve never even been in Comiskey Park, or Fenway Park in Boston, where I’ve always wanted to pitch. This is going to be exciting for me.”
As it was, he would win fifteen, but it was more than any other Sox hurler in ’84, as the previous season’s most successful starting rotation in baseball would all have off-years in ’84—none more so than staff anchor LaMarr Hoyt. The twenty-nine-year-old righty went from leading the league with twenty-four wins and earning the AL Cy Young Award to a league-worst eighteen losses. (In the off-season, the White Sox traded Hoyt to the San Diego Padres for a promising twenty-one-year-old minor league shortstop, Ozzie Guillen.) Meanwhile, the old man of the staff was a model of consistency at 15-11, never missing a turn, while putting in 236? innings, his most since 1978.
“I was very satisfied with that first year in Chicago,” Seaver told the Chicago writers. “I was a different pitcher here, but I was still pretty darned good. I could still get batters out.”
Left unsaid: Fifteen down, twelve to go.
He breezed through the first six weeks of ’85 with four wins, one loss, and four no-decisions in his first nine starts, but pitched well in all but one of them, a no-decision, April 20, against the Red Sox at Comiskey in which he gave up five runs in five innings, including a pair of homers by Mike Easler and Tony Armas. Then from May 20 through June 30, he went through a spell of five losses in nine starts, but again pitched fairly effectively and ended June with a 7-6 record and a more-than-respectable 3.28 ERA. No longer the power pitcher with a ninety-six-, ninety-seven-mile-per-hour blazer, he was doing it now on guile, command, and smarts. Fisk marveled that Seaver was the brainiest pitcher he ever caught. After his bullpen session before one game in Minnesota, on June 9, Seaver saw White Sox pitching coach Dave Duncan shaking his head.
“You ain’t got squat today,” Duncan said, frowning.
“I know that, Dunc,” Seaver replied. Then, pointing to the Twins’ dugout, he added: “But they don’t! Today we’re just gonna have to fool ’em.”
And he did, limiting the Twins to five hits and just one run in 7? innings to run his record to 6-4 and reduce the magic number to three hundred to five. After the game, he said to Duncan, “Can you imagine if I’d had good stuff tonight, Dunc?” And they both laughed.
“One of the first things Tom said to me when he came over to us, and we were talking pitching, was there are three ways to get guys out: with velocity, location, or ball movement,” Fisk related in a 2017 interview at the Hall of Fame.
“Of the three,” Seaver said, “velocity is the least important. If I can have two—because you’re not gonna feel a hundred percent every time you get on the mound—if I can have two of those elements, I can get guys out.”
“That was his craft,” Fisk said. “Getting guys out, the pitching part of the deal, working on hitters’ tendencies—aggressive tendencies or nonaggressive tendencies. He was a master at changing speeds, running the ball, cutting the ball. He always knew what he was doing out there. It’s like he could read the batters’ minds. That was the fun part of him and I working together.”
They could rag on each other pretty good, too, sometimes right in the middle of a game. Fisk recalled one instance when Seaver was having a particularly hard time with his breaking ball, bouncing it in the dirt, missing the plate by nearly a foot. After a couple of these errant pitches in succession, Fisk, who fancied himself a pretty good thrower, decided to retaliate. Retrieving one of the balls out of the dirt, he straightened up and fired the ball back to Seaver, nearly hitting him in the ribs.
“I could see that startled him,” Fisk said. “Then the next inning, it happened again. He bounced another one, and I did the same thing, firing the ball back to him where I knew he’d have trouble catching it. This time he waves me out and I say to myself, ‘Oh, boy, this is gonna be fun.’?”
When Fisk arrived at the mound, Seaver was scowling.
“Okay, Fisky,” he said, “who’s pitching this game? You or me?”
“Well, with that shit you’re throwing up there today,” Fisk shot back, “I think I should be pitching and you should be catching!”
From June 20 through July 30, Fisk caught every one of Seaver’s nine starts, in which he went 4-4 but at the same time lowered his ERA from 3.28 to 3.02—while achieving double digits in strikeouts only once.
“He was a wonder to watch,” said Fisk, a Hall of Fame inductee in 2000. “As we got closer to three hundred, however, not once did we mention ‘Oh, we’ve got ten left, we’ve got seven left.’ We just kept at it. We knew in the back of our heads. He knew. But he kept his nose to the purpose. He never talked about it.”
Even after Seaver gutted out a 7–5 complete game victory in which he gave up a couple of home runs and struck out only three against the Red Sox in Fenway Park, on July 30, for number 299, it didn’t initially dawn on him that his next start would be against the Yankees—in New York! “I never looked ahead,” Seaver said in a 2016 interview. “Someone pointed it out to me in the clubhouse afterward; I don’t remember who. I just remember thinking, ‘Well, isn’t that gonna be nice. At least it’ll be an easy commute for Nancy and the girls.’?”
A few days before arriving in New York, Seaver was asked if he would feel any special revenge toward the Mets by winning his three hundredth game in their backyard. The passage of time had mellowed him. “I’m not going back with any idea of that,” he said. “I have some very, very good memories of New York and its fans. When I left New York this last time, it was an honest mistake. There was no animosity leading up to the point where I was left unprotected. [Mets co-owner] Nelson Doubleday called me and apologized and told me he hoped I’d get my three hundredth real soon. So, it’s not anything where I’m trying to show anybody up.”
When the White Sox arrived in New York late Thursday night, August 1, for the four-game series against the Yankees, Seaver went home to Greenwich. Only when he was reading the newspaper at breakfast Friday morning did he learn that Sunday, when he would be making his hopefully historic start, had long before been designated “Phil Rizzuto Day” by the Yankees to honor their beloved former shortstop and longtime broadcaster by retiring his uniform number 10. So be it, Seaver thought; while the Rizzuto festivities were going on prior to the game, he would be otherwise indisposed.
Sunday, August 4, dawned to an unsettling commotion in the Seaver household. Somehow a bat—the flying kind—had made an unwelcome intrusion through a window in the old converted barn, arousing Tom and Nancy and sending them scurrying about to find a broom. Once one was located, Tom began flailing away at the bat until the creature finally winged off out the window whence it had come. Their rude awakening having subsided, Tom and Nancy went back to bed and were able to catch a couple more hours’ sleep before the forty-year-old pitcher was to start preparing for the biggest day of his career.
It was a fitful morning, Seaver would later reveal, that had nothing to do with the bat invasion. His stomach was uneasy, and he could hardly get down an English muffin for breakfast. He had a headache, too. When he arrived in the visitors’ clubhouse at Yankee Stadium later that morning, Jerry Reinsdorf and Eddie Einhorn, the White Sox owners, were waiting for him, along with a small group of reporters and a clubhouse man holding a case of baseballs for him to sign.
“How do you feel, Tom?” Einhorn asked.
“I’ve got a headache, and my stomach is queasy as hell,” Seaver said, laughing. “Otherwise, I feel just great.”
LaRussa knew otherwise. Between the ceremony to honor Rizzuto and Seaver’s “homecoming” going for his three hundredth win, the White Sox manager could envision all the theater that was about to unfold in the House that Ruth Built. Privately, he was anxious and worried about his pitcher.
“I remember the atmosphere in the stadium like it was yesterday,” LaRussa said in a 2017 interview. “At least half the fans were Mets fans, while the Yankees had all these formidable hitters, future Hall of Famers like Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson, and there’d been so much buildup. I’m saying to myself, ‘I know he’s Tom Seaver, but this is so unfair to Tom to have all this attention and, likely, you know they’re going to get him, and we’re not going to play well, and it’s just not going to be a storybook ending. How wrong was I?”
Shortly before two o’clock, Seaver began making his way down to the bullpen for his pregame warm-up session. By now, the Rizzuto Day ceremonies had taken on the air of the TV game show The Price Is Right, as one corporate CEO after another presented the sixty-eight-year-old Yankees legend with a slew of expensive gifts ranging from cars and boats to golf clubs, lifetime supplies of soft drinks, and a trip to Italy. It was John Campi, the longtime vice president of promotions for the New York Daily News, who supplied a welcome bit of levity to the interminable proceedings by coming up with the idea of presenting Rizzuto with a cow, adorned with a golden halo, in recognition of the signature “Holy cow!” phrase the Scooter was so fond of invoking throughout his broadcasts. Taking the reins of the cow from legendary Daily News cartoonist Bill Gallo, Rizzuto was suddenly jolted when the frisky bovine, who’d apparently had enough of all this shlock, stepped on his foot and knocked him to the ground. Fortunately, Rizzuto, who came up laughing, was not hurt, although years later he would frequently complain in jest about being upstaged on his own day by a cow and, of all people, an ex-Met, Tom Seaver.
“It’s funny,” said Reinsdorf in a 2017 interview, “I have absolutely no memory of the Rizzuto ceremony that day. That’s how so consumed I was with Seaver.”
Because the Rizzuto Day ceremonies dragged on as long as they did, Seaver twice had to stop throwing in the bullpen. It was not until 3:06 p.m., after the White Sox had come up empty despite two singles and two walks off the Yankees’ Joe Cowley in the top of the first, that Seaver finally got to throw his first pitch. Among the near-sellout Yankee Stadium crowd of 54,032 were former president Richard Nixon, Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, and, sitting in a box right next to the visiting team’s dugout, Nancy and their two daughters, twelve-year-old Sarah and nine-year-old Annie. Along with them was Seaver’s seventy-four-year-old father, Charles, who, a half century earlier, had achieved his own bit of sporting fame by going unbeaten for the United States in its victorious 1932 Walker Cup golf match against Great Britain. On his way out to the bullpen before the game, Seaver stopped at the box and handed his dad a baseball.
He was not quite sure what kind of reception he would get, Yankee Stadium being longtime hostile territory for anyone with a Mets pedigree, and the day already devoted to Rizzuto. So, it was immediately a great comfort to see so many people standing and applauding him as he took the mound in the first inning. It was hard to differentiate Yankees fans from Mets fans, as they were all chanting “Sea-vuh! Sea-vuh!” in the same New York accent.
Even though he found himself trailing, 1–0, after yielding an RBI single to Ken Griffey in the third inning, he felt he had his good stuff. Seaver was saved from a potential big inning in the fourth when, after Yankees leadoff hitter Dave Winfield reached on an error by White Sox third baseman Tim Hulett, Greg Walker made a diving stop on Dan Pasqua’s hard-hit ball to first, advancing Winfield. Seaver got Ron Hassey to ground out on the right side, moving Winfield to third, then hit second baseman Willie Randolph with a pitch, putting runners at first and third. Reaching back to his ’69–’73 youth, however, Seaver struck out slugging New York third baseman Mike Pagliarulo to end the inning.
Now he just needed a few runs—which the White Sox provided after putting runners on first and third with one out to knock out Cowley in the sixth. Hulett doubled home one run off reliever Brian Fisher, then Ozzie Guillen, Chicago’s standout twenty-one-year-old rookie shortstop, singled home the go-ahead run. Another single by Bryan Little scored two insurance runs. In the clubhouse before the game, the ever-ebullient Guillen shouted over to Seaver, “You gonna win today, Tom, and I gonna drive in the winning run for you! You wait and see!”
Bolstered with a 4–1 lead, Seaver retired New York in order in the sixth and seventh. His string of ten consecutive retired batters ended when the Yankees’ Bobby Meacham singled to lead off the eighth. Seaver shrugged that off by striking out dangerous Rickey Henderson looking on a pitch down and outside. Afterward, Henderson would complain that home plate umpire Derryl Cousins was helping Seaver: “I wouldn’t have played today if I knew they just wanted to give him the win that way,” he moaned to the reporters.
After Griffey grounded into a force play, Don Mattingly, on his way to the AL Most Valuable Player Award, singled him over to third, giving the Yankees their first runner in scoring position since the fourth inning. That brought up Winfield, en route to a fourth consecutive season of a hundred or more RBI. Duncan, who had taken over as acting White Sox manager after LaRussa was thrown out of the game for arguing too vehemently an out call at home that ended the Sox’s sixth-inning rally, hustled out to the mound for a conference with Seaver. LaRussa, before departing the premises (he would later creep back up the tunnel from the clubhouse to the edge of the dugout and watch the rest of the game from there), had instructed Duncan, “If he says he’s got enough, let him stay, even though we’ll have Bob James [the White Sox closer who saved thirty-two games in 1985] ready. He’s always honest. Tom Seaver will never lose a game because of his vanity.”
“You can’t possibly be thinking of taking him out?” Fisk said to Duncan.
“I just want to know how he feels,” the pitching coach replied. Then, looking at Seaver, he asked, “Have you got enough left?”
Seaver hesitated. As he would later admit, “I was caught up in the emotion of the day, and, at that point, I really didn’t have a feel for how I was pitching.”
“You’re not done,” Fisk said firmly. “You’re Tom Seaver. You don’t want someone from the bullpen coming in here. This is your right. You can get this guy. You’re not leaving this game!”
Seaver nodded. “I’m okay, Dunc, really,” he said.
Satisfied, Duncan retreated to the dugout, and Fisk resumed his place behind the plate. Later, he said, “If Tom had tried to take himself out of the game, I think I would have tripped him!”
As Griffey hovered off third, Seaver somewhat deliberately ran the count to 3-2 on Winfield before striking him out on what, in his later career, had become his signature out pitch. When everyone in the ballpark was expecting one of his vintage fastballs, Seaver threw a changeup. This one earned him a standing ovation from the crowd. Trotting off the field in giddy triumph, he rushed over to the corner of the dugout next to the box where his family was sitting, grabbed daughter Annie’s hand, and said, “Three outs to go.”
“Oh, good, Daddy!” she exclaimed. “Then we can go home and go swimming!”
Though they’d banged around a trio of Yankee pitchers for thirteen hits, the White Sox were unable to tack on anything to their 4–1 lead, leaving it up to Seaver to close the job with whatever he had left in the ninth. A hard-hit leadoff single off the right-field fence by the lefty-hitting Pasqua had the Seaver family all clenching their fists in silent prayer, only to feel momentary relief when the old man fanned Hassey on a fastball at the knees and got Randolph on a fly ball to right that required a running, leaping catch at the wall by All-Star Harold Baines. After Baines whirled and threw the ball back to the infield as Pasqua took second, Seaver, crouched behind third base to back up the throw, grinned.
“Congratulations,” said third-base umpire Terry Cooney.
“Do you believe that catch?” Seaver said.
“You deserve it,” said Cooney.
“I’ll deserve it when I get one more out!”
But then he walked Pagliarulo on four straight balls to run his pitch count to 141, and this brought Duncan and Fisk to the mound again. Approaching the plate was thirty-six-year-old Don Baylor, still one of the most dangerous right-handed hitters in the league, pinch-hitting for Meacham.
“You okay?” Duncan asked.
“I’m okay,” Seaver replied.
Though he surmised the walk to Pagliarulo had taken a little bit more out of him, Fisk expressed confidence his battery mate could finish. “You’re pushing the ball,” he said to Seaver. “Just relax. You’ve waited a long time for this.” Then turning to Duncan, he said: “He’s good, Dunc. Let him go.”
“I was beat as hell,” Seaver conceded later. “It was like I was levitating on the mound. I hadn’t felt like that since 1969 when I was going for a perfect game against the Cubs. But there wasn’t a chance in hell I was coming out. If you can’t get up for one more out for your three hundredth win, then you never will!”
Duncan turned and headed back to the dugout, as Seaver began his staredown with Baylor, who now represented the tying run. It was 6:11 p.m., four hours and one minute after he’d first gone out to warm up, when Seaver threw his 142nd and final pitch of the game: a fastball close in on Baylor’s hands. Baylor swung and lofted a high fly to medium left field. White Sox left fielder Reid Nichols moved in a couple of steps, then drifted back the same distance to camp under the ball and make the catch. It was over. Tom Seaver had just become the seventeenth pitcher in baseball history to win three hundred games. Final score 4–1, Seaver’s uniform number throughout his major-league career. “Hel-lo?” Nancy would say later.
As soon as the ball settled into Nichols’s glove, Ozzie Guillen leaped high into the air, screaming and waving his arms in exhilaration. After watching the catch, crouched down between the pitcher’s mound and first base, Seaver turned and looked at Fisk, letting out a shout before jumping into his catcher’s arms. “Seaves,” Fisk said, joyously, “you’d have been nothing without me!” (Before he left the field, Fisk made sure to grab all the used balls from the game out of the home plate umpire’s bag.)
After being mobbed in a brief scrum by his teammates, Seaver’s attention quickly turned to Nancy, sitting in the dugout box and wiping away tears with a handkerchief. He broke away and rushed over to hug her and the girls, but he was a moment behind Guillen, who had decided to collect his reward for the game-winning hit by being the first to plant a smooch on Nancy and the Seaver daughters. “I said ‘Congratulations’ to all of them,” Guillen explained to the media afterward, “because family is a part of your life. They felt real ‘wow.’ I was just real excited for a teammate and a good guy.”
It was delirious bedlam, Seaver hugging Nancy and the girls and then his dad, as the entire stadium crowd remained standing and applauding amid more chants of “Sea-vuh! Sea-vuh!” and “Let’s go Mets! Let’s go Mets!” In Chicago, his old team, the Mets, had just finished putting away the Cubs—twenty-year-old Dwight Gooden, their new Seaver, notching his eleventh straight victory to run his sophomore-year record to 17-3, with a microscopic 1.57 ERA—and watched the last two innings on the clubhouse TV. When Nichols gloved the final out, they erupted in cheers. “Tom is really a Met,” first baseman Keith Hernandez told reporters. “He will always be a Met. We’re very happy that he had the chance to do this historic thing in New York.”
The last thing Yankees owner George Steinbrenner wanted was to see Yankee Stadium turned into a World Series–like celebration of an opposing pitcher—and a damned Mets icon, no less! “I congratulate Tom Seaver, but I’m not happy about being on the wrong side of history,” Steinbrenner grumbled when approached in his box by reporters after the final out. “I’m happy for Tom, and I’m proud of him, but I wanted to beat him so bad today. I don’t know if it bothered our players to lose, but it sure bothered me and [manager] Billy [Martin].” (That being the combative Billy Martin, who was in the fourth of his five tours as the skipper in the Bronx.)
Nevertheless, the Yankees’ boss had taken the trouble to commission a special silver bowl commemorating Seaver’s three hundredth win as a gift for him. His eyes reddened from a combination of tears and champagne, Seaver waved a bottle of the bubbly in the White Sox’ clubhouse and shouted to his celebrant teammates: “We might want to do this more than once every nineteen years!” He then hoisted the bowl to show to the reporters. “This was really nice of George,” he said. “The only thing is, how did he know I’d win my three hundredth here?
“Oh,” he said, scrutinizing the engraving on the bowl, “he didn’t date it. I guess I’ll have to do that myself.”
“When do you think this will all hit you?” a reporter asked him.
“Probably in November,” Seaver said, “when I’m out to dinner with my wife. I’ll really be able to savor and appreciate it. Then I’ll pour my heart out to her.”
It had been a long, emotional day, one that began with his adventure with the bat and not feeling well, before gutting it out for three hours and twenty minutes in the most satisfying complete-game victory he would ever pitch. At last, the reporters had exhausted all their questions and began filing out. The day’s hero would be right behind them; Nancy and the girls were waiting. But as he grabbed his sports jacket, across the room he spotted Lindsey Nelson, the Mets’ lead broadcaster from their inception in 1962 to 1978, bedecked in one of his trademark blinding plaid sports jackets. Nelson had been been hired by WPIX, the local Yankees TV station, to do a one-game cameo while also hopefully sharing Seaver’s greatest moment.
“Lindsey!” Seaver hollered. “Lindsey!”
Nelson, who was heading out the door, turned and waved.
“Lindsey!” Seaver shouted again. “Tell them I could throw the ball hard once. Tell the guys in my clubhouse too. They don’t believe me.”
“You could, Tom,” Nelson said, pointing his finger at Seaver. “You sure could.”
Much to Steinbrenner’s chagrin, the next day’s New York papers featured wall-to-wall coverage of Seaver’s three hundredth, with Rizzuto’s day pretty much reduced to large pictures of the beloved Scooter being knocked to the ground by the cow (much to the delight of John Campi). It was also the Daily News’s Mike Lupica who best summed up what the day had been all about:
“Tom Seaver still was something special to see on a summer afternoon. It was Yankee Stadium, not Shea, and it was the White Sox for whom he was pitching, and not the Mets. But for three shining emotional hours yesterday, Tom Seaver said to a New York crowd: ‘This is who I am. This is who I have always been.’?”
Thirty years later, in August 2015, during one of my visits with Seaver at his vineyard in Calistoga, I asked him what, in retrospect, stood out most for him about that game. Doing it at Yankee Stadium, before a capacity crowd, including Nancy, the girls, and his dad, pitching a complete game? I prodded. It was none of that, he said.
“You know what?” Seaver said. “Winning three hundred games in the major leagues is a great achievement. But does anyone know what I did in my next start? No? Well, I won my three hundred first. I went back to work and said, ‘This game is as important as the game five days ago.’ I’m more proud of three-oh-one than I am of three hundred. There’s such a motivation for three hundred. And I respected the game enough to understand that the next one is just as important, if not more so, than three hundred. Because it makes a statement. I loved it.”
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 300! 1
Chapter 2 Fresno 19
Chapter 3 The Accidental Met 39
Chapter 4 A Splash at the Show 57
Chapter 5 Gil and the Miracle Workers 79
Chapter 6 The Little Team That Could-Was Us 111
Chapter 7 Deaths in the Family 135
Chapter 8 It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over 153
Chapter 9 A Bitter Queens Farewell 175
Chapter 10 Cincinnati 197
Chapter 11 Soxed 219
Chapter 12 Lord of the Grapes 247
Epilogue: Into His Own 273