A couple of days ago, Tom Seaver celebrated his seventieth birthday. And, really, if he’s turned the big 7-0—and become a septuagenarian—I, too, must be getting a little long in the tooth. As a wide-eyed Met fan in the 1970s, “Tom Terrific,” as he was affectionately known, was my favorite player bar none. Games where he took the mound assumed a little extra meaning to me, because I constantly fretted over his won and loss record and earned run average. I remember a boyhood friend—and fellow Seaver aficionado—and I commiserating over a tough loss in which our idol gave up four whole runs. “Do you know what that’s going to do to his E.R.A.?” he asked with genuine concern in his voice. Yes, back in those days, four runs scored against our ace pitcher—and future Hall of Famer—was a very bad outing indeed.
As a boy, I didn’t give much thought to how much Tom Seaver meant to me. Although he was larger than life from my youthful perspective, I didn’t christen him my “hero” or any such “official” thing. I didn’t conclude that I wanted to grow up and be a Major League Baseball pitcher like him. And although I would have loved to have been his next-door neighbor, I didn’t dream of living in Greenwich, Connecticut—the tony town he called home—either.
Nevertheless, I proudly wore his number “41” on the back of my “Property of the New York Mets” gray T-shirt, and I felt genuine disgust when a pal of mine—who didn’t even follow baseball, let alone revere Tom Seaver—donned a similar shirt. As the neighborhood’s most dedicated Tom Seaver disciple—it was by and large a Bronx neighborhood full of Yankee fans—I didn’t appreciate my uniqueness being challenged. And challenged by a non-believer making a fashion statement no less! (Major League Baseball merchandising was pretty primitive back then. “Property of” tees were the rage and, as I recall, that was the long and short of it.)
Anyway, Tom Seaver is seventy and there is no turning back the clock. Three thousand miles away from where he once so magnificently plied his trade, Shea Stadium—which is, alas, no more—the baseball great grows grapes for his own wine label. No too long ago, Tom Seaver was pretty sick and diagnosed with Lyme disease. Its symptoms led some to suspect the man they called “The Franchise” might be in the early throes of dementia. Now that was a scary thought! Happily, he’s of sound mind. When all is said and done, though, I suspect he really was my hero—and the only one I ever had.
I realize that Tom Seaver has something of a reputation for being haughty and a bit full of himself. He doesn’t always appreciate his loyal fans, which isn’t an admirable quality. But then again, he’s got ample reasons to be impressed with his accomplishments in baseball. The man was the consummate professional in an era when one could respect, above all else, on-the-field performances and not be hopelessly distracted by the endless sideshows that accompany contemporary sports and sports figures. Today, athletes are very often multi-millionaire celebrities—spoiled and overexposed. When Tom Seaver and I were younger, the world we simultaneously cohabited was a whole lot different place than the current one. Great pitching mechanics and a fastball with movement and snap, crackle, pop were the stuff of heroes. The man, by the way, pitched 231 complete games in his career. Imagine that.