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Happy 62nd, Tom! (30 Years After a Crappy 32nd)

Posted By Greg Prince On November 17, 2006 @ 12:03 pm In Main Page | Comments Disabled

Tom Seaver and I have this much in common: We had crappy 32nd birthdays. Mine culminated in a cafeteria at C.W. Post on New Year’s Eve 1994. But never mind me.

Tom’s? Well, I don’t know where he was coaxed into “celebrating” by well-meaning/misguided/übertouchy relatives on November 17, 1976, but I do know that thirty years ago today, he did not get exactly what he wanted. The Atlanta Braves, not the New York Mets, signed Gary Matthews as a free agent. It was perhaps the signal event that led to the departure of Seaver seven months hence along with the intents & purposes collapse of National League baseball in New York.

Happy birthday to us.

When I think of Gary Matthews — now Gary Matthews, Sr., I suppose — I usually think of the Sarge who helped lead a platoon of Cubs over the hill in 1984, capturing the divisional flag that was very nearly ours. His numbers weren’t astounding (14 homers, 82 ribs, .291), but it seemed like he collected all of them against the Mets. By then, Matthews was 34, playing almost every day for the last time in a career that ended in 1987.

Right now, I’m thinking of the Gary Matthews who didn’t become a Met in the winter of ’76-’77. That Gary Matthews, 26, had lots of company. Every player in the very first free agent class, just freed by the death of the reserve clause, didn’t become a Met. The critical mass of the suddenly shuttered Oakland A’s dynasty was on the market, but none of them — not Rudi, not Tenace, not Bando, not Campaneris, not Fingers, not Athletic by way of Baltimore Reggie Jackson — was coming our way. Nor was Bobby Grich or Don Baylor or Don Gullett. Nor did we think they might.

This was the daring new world some were salivating over and others were dreading. This was a clutch of star and superstar ballplayers who would become available to the highest bidders every November. This had never happened before. Instead of engineering trades or banking on minor leaguers, you could just buy the guy you needed. Pay the man and he was yours.

Not the kind of atmosphere that sounds conducive to the business practices of one M. Donald Grant. Maybe if Mrs. Payson were still alive…Joan Payson, after all, wasn’t stingy. It’s been said the Mets’ original owner, who died in 1975, tried to buy Willie Mays from the Giants when he was truly Willie Mays. She wanted to purchase Stan Musial from the Cardinals to kick things off in grand style in ’62. Grant might have gone for that, a cash transaction from his team to another team. But the idea of forking over a barrelful of currency to the player himself? That wasn’t Grant’s game even if it was rapidly become everybody else’s.

So if you read the papers, you didn’t entertain too many fantasies about Reggie Jackson reporting to Huggins-Stengel in February. Though the Mets made their picks like everybody else in the re-entry draft (in which you chose whom you’d have the rights to negotiate with, a rather pointless barrier that was done away with in the next collective bargaining agreement) and they were theoretically thinking about several players, it was clear the Mets were not going to part with top dollar to snag top names.

There was one player, however, who seemed like a fit. That was Gary Matthews, then of the Giants. He had just completed his fourth full season in San Francisco. His stats weren’t stunning, not even by the standards of the day — 20-84-.279, 12 steals — but he was solid. Good outfielder. Didn’t miss games. Entering his prime. In other words, he was the kind of regular the Mets were missing. Despite a spurt that earned the Mets their best record since 1969 (86-76), the Mets were hurting for offense in 1976. Only Dave Kingman managed more than 15 homers or 80 RBI…and he batted 238. Heck, Matthews would have led the ’76 Mets in stolen bases.

Those Mets, as was their fashion for nearly a decade, relied on pitching. Jerry Koosman caught fire and won 21 games, finishing second for the Cy Young. Jon Matlack chipped in 17. And Tom Seaver? Future lock Hall of Famer Tom Seaver? Nine-time All-Star Tom Seaver who led this power trio in strikeouts (235) and ERA (2.59)? Tom went 14-11.

Like the Met offense of the mid-’70s, that was just sad.

The world was changing around Seaver. It always had. The June amateur draft was just coming in when Seaver was first eligible in 1965. The Dodgers tabbed him but he opted to stay in school at USC. The next year he was thrown into a January draft that, according to a very thorough Met historian [1], included those who had been drafted the year before but did not sign — a status that would have been impossible to garner without there having been a June draft in the first place. The Braves picked him and signed him but hadn’t noticed or decided not to notice that the Southern Cal season had begun when they secured his signature. They were two non-Pac 10 games and Seaver hadn’t pitched in them, but they violated a line between professional and amateur. The Brave contract was voided and, after Seaver was deemed ineligible for college ball, every Major League team was afforded the opportunity to match Atlanta’s offer to Tom.

That led to the greatest hat there ever was, the one into which three pieces of paper were tossed representing the three teams who thought it was worth signing 21-year-old Tom Seaver for a little more than $50,000. One said Phillies. One said Indians. One said Mets.

You know which one was drawn.

Seaver’s appeal upon his Met debut in 1967 wasn’t just the pitching, though that was key. The writers loved him. He was educated. He was articulate. He thought about things. He was the harbinger of the erudite athlete and at the vanguard of the Mets who would no longer be automatic losers. It was his professionalism as much as his right arm that made Tom Seaver one of the icons of his age.

All those qualities also manifested themselves into a player who dared to use an agent to negotiate a contract (heresy until the early ’70s), to be very active in the union and to speak his mind about how his team was run. By 1976, he had made two things fairly apparent: he wanted to be paid what his pitching was worth and he wanted the Mets to pay a hitter who would make his pitching pay off.

He wanted Gary Matthews. He didn’t get him. None of us did. While Grant, as recounted by Jack Lang in the indispensable New York Mets: Twenty-Five Years of Baseball Magic, did make an offer, it wasn’t competitive with what Ted Turner was willing to ante in Atlanta. Three decades ago today, as Tom Seaver blew out 32 candles, Gary Matthews went to the Braves, agreeing to $1.2 million for five years — barely enough to win you one year of Damion Easley now, but big bucks then.

Repercussions?

Tom Seaver was burned twice. First, no middle-of-the-lineup hitter. The Mets entered ’77 with essentially the same personnel from ’76, meaning their offense was a disgruntled Kingman and seven other fellows who weren’t here on hitting scholarships. Lee Mazzilli and John Stearns may have portended a youth movement, but neither was a slugger-in-waiting. Otherwise there were several aging parts (Grote, Harrelson, Millan, Torre) and not a lot of improvement.

Second, Tom Seaver was being outpaid if not outearned by the new free agents. Seaver, who had been voted three of the previous eight National League Cy Young awards, had signed a new deal in the spring of ’76 just ahead of the gold rush. Now the likes of Wayne Garland, who timed his single 20-win season perfectly to earn a ten-year $2.3 million deal from the Indians, were racing by him. The Yankees made Reggie Jackson a very rich man. The Angels, Padres and Rangers all invested in ex-A’s. They didn’t succeed but it wasn’t for lack of investing.

Seaver was on a team that wasn’t trying to get better and now he was being underpaid, certainly relative to what the first free agents were getting ($225,000…less than Wayne Garland on an annualized basis). He didn’t have much use for the way Grant was taking care of business, feeling he’d not been dealt with in good faith when he last signed. A feud erupted and by the third month of the 1977 season, Seaver, like Kingman (also contract-discontent), was gone.

The Mets were done. They were already playing badly and they just got worse. They finished last for the first time in ten years in ’77. They would repeat the feat in ’78 and ’79, performing their unremarkable brand of baseball before handfuls of the disinterested. They fell off the map in a manner that makes 2002 and 2003 and 2004 look like a golden age.

If thirty years ago today, when Tom Seaver turned 32, the Mets had decided it was worth topping Ted Turner’s bid and had signed Gary Matthews, would have things changed? Would have Seaver thought, hey, that’s a great addition and maybe taken a different tone or tack in attempting to renegotiate with Grant? Would have Grant, probably looking a bit like a hero, softened, too? Would have there been more player activity? Might have the Mets made a move on Reggie Jackson who greatly admired Seaver and was not yet in the Yankees’ pocket and never said which New York team he’d have to play for in order to get that candy bar? Would have the city’s baseball landscape shifted one way instead of another?

That’s a lot of ifs there and they probably ignore the systematic rot of the Mets’ operations that predated passing over Gary Matthews. Still, even though the early free agentry didn’t help too many teams (many got hurt or old and Matthews never broke out as a superstar), it would have sent a message to the fan base that the Mets weren’t living in the past. When Grant fired Joe Frazier at the end of the next of May, he exclaimed things were going just peachy in light of the Mets’ successes in 1969, 1973 and the two good months at the finish of ’76.

Oh brother, I thought at the time. We are so screwed.

Seaver, of course, would have more dalliances with the changing times. His second go-round as a Met ceased abruptly with the bizarre experiment known as the compensation pool. Had the players and owners not negotiated such an insipid compromise to their free agent haggling in 1981, Seaver never would have been available for the White Sox to pluck after their pitcher, Dennis Lamp, signed with the Blue Jays in a spectacularly unrelated move.

Oh brother, I thought at the time. We are so screwed again.

Seaver’s Major League coda, his truncated comeback with the Mets in ’87, was also a product of the free agent waters turning choppy. He was on the open market the winter the teams were colluding. He said a couple of years ago he is convinced this kept anybody from giving him a legitimate looksee after his perfectly decent showing with the Red Sox in ’86 when No. 41 was 41. His stay in Boston ended injured, but he insists he was healthy and good to go the following spring. By the time the Mets auditioned him in June, it was too late and his career was over.

Add ‘em up and you have four separate instances — amateur eligibility violation, the first re-entry class, the compensation pool and collusion — in which off-field machinations very much tied to their times had a profound effect on where Tom Seaver played. He wouldn’t have been a Met without the Brave mistake. He might have stayed a Met had Matthews not been a Brave. He might have finished a Met had it not been for Lamp and the White Sox (and Cashen’s front office not protecting him). He might never have put on the Met uniform a final time had collusion not gotten in the way of him continuing his career unobstructed.

The one we’re interested in at the moment is the Matthews component, and not just because this, Tom’s 62nd birthday, is the 30th anniversary of it. This is the 31st free agent season, the 31st winter in which baseball teams have been allowed to pursue ballplayers in mostly unfettered terms and the 31st winter in which ballplayers have happily accepted their advances.

It’s definitely not the 31st year in which the Mets have been an enthusiastic participant in these sweepstakes. After avoiding taking it seriously in ’76-’77, they dipped a toe in the next winter. Two toes: Tom Hausman and Elliott Maddox. We were led to believe free agents could change our lives. Reggie Jackson did that for Yankees fans. Reasonable contributors for a few years apiece, Hausman and Maddox weren’t lifechangers. The Mets didn’t go after those. Oh, they took a brief run at Pete Rose in the winter of ’78. But Rose laughed them out of the room when they came in about two- or three-hundred grand lower per annum than what he grabbed from the Phillies. Also, the Mets weren’t any good and Pete Rose (no good in a different sense) recognized that.

The Mets’ first honest-to-goodness bid for name free agents came in the winter of ’80, chasing Dave Winfield and Don Sutton. By then, Wilpon and Doubleday were in charge and were desperate to be taken seriously. They missed out on both eventual Hall of Famers, settling for reMetsing Rusty Staub plus Mike Cubbage and the pitcher Dave Roberts. ‘Twas nice to have Rusty home, but otherwise, not a lot of impact there.

Frank Cashen pretty much stopped after that. He was building a farm system and making shrewd swaps. His disdain for free agents was practically Grantlike. Once in a while, a Dick Tidrow or a Don Aase would wander in through the back door, but otherwise, free agentry was tantamount to the plague in Flushing for the balance of the 1980s. Given that it was the Mets’ longest period of sustained excellence, it was hard to argue the Bowtie should have gone the other way.

The ’90s represented a sea change. Cashen was leaving, Harazin was taking over and the Mets were trying to fend off mediocrity. It was time to bring out the checkbook. Coleman following 1990, Murray and Bonilla following ’91. Bobby Bo was the prize, as hard as it is to believe today. The Mets outbid the Angels and the Phillies to get him. It was considered a good thing.

As you know, all three were disappointments (to put it kindly) and the Mets retreated from free agentry; their only significant additions between the 1992 and 1998 seasons via the FA route were Joe Orsulak, Brett Butler and Lance Johnson. It wasn’t until Steve Phillips succeeded Joe McIlvaine that free agents were pursued with any sense of purpose, an approach that yielded Robin Ventura and Rickey Henderson for 1999, the first time any free agents played a major role in major Met success.

Phillips’ later stabs — Zeile, Appier, Trachsel, Cedeño, Weathers — didn’t click nearly as consistently. His last winter crop, specifically Tom Glavine and Cliff Floyd in ’02-03, wouldn’t pay off until much later. The Mets fell down a veritable well and the next GM, Jim Duquette, didn’t find much of a rope in free agentry. He would sign Mike Cameron, Braden Looper and Kaz Matsui but lowball Vladimir Guerrero. Duquette used free agentry to plug holes rather than make splashes.

That all changed with Omar Minaya. Pedro Martinez and Carlos Beltran and Billy Wagner are Exhibits A, B and C. The results were happy. This winter, the Mets will try to sign somebody of substance. If they don’t get it done, it won’t be because they don’t really want to or don’t really know how to. This quote from a Bob Klapisch piece in the Record this week shows how differently free agentry is treated by the Mets — and how differently free agents treat the Mets — on Tom Seaver’s hopefully happy 62nd birthday from the way it all went down (or failed to) on The Franchise’s 32nd:

“We’re hot. It’s hot to be a Met, we’ve got a good thing going on here,” said one club official. “A couple of years ago, we couldn’t get Henry Blanco to come here, and that was even after we offered him more money than anyone else. He still said no. That’s all changed.”

As we like to say in these parts every November 17, that’s Terrific.


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[1] Met historian: http://mbtn.net/

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