On Thursday night Tom Seaver paid one of his periodic visits to the broadcasting booth, an occasion that should be a happy one for Met fans but somehow never quite is. Why not? Because whenever Seaver visits, you get the definite impression that he treats such drop-ins as if he's Zeus come down to blister a mortal or two with his radiance. When Keith Hernandez — not even a Hall of Famer! — had the temerity to ask Seaver how he lost all those games, the laughter was loud and long, and Seaver was smiling. But there was a slight hinge of hysteria to the guffaws — Keith had danced gleefully onto a third rail, and Gary and Ron didn't seem entirely sure that he'd get off it alive.
But hey, it was definitely funny. Less funny was Seaver narrating footage of himself talking pitching with a gaggle of Met hurlers, including Joe Smith and Mike Pelfrey. Seaver made no bones about being unimpressed with Pelfrey (whose name he apparently didn't know), relating bemusedly that he'd been discussing the pressure point of a change-up grip and the kid hadn't known what he was talking about, making Seaver realize he had to go a lot more slowly. Not exactly a comfortable moment in the booth — thanks for the vote of confidence, Tom!
Seaver gets a pass for these things for two reasons. The first reason is because he is the closest thing to God among those who have worn the blue and orange — the only guy who wears our cap in Cooperstown, as any of us could tell you. But the second reason is because he is one of the most cerebral students of one of the world's most difficult crafts — the ability to throw a baseball over and over again to certain points with certain velocity and spin, an act which is the culmination of a demanding choreography between body parts, some of are making unnatural motions and will require being packed in ice to avoid permanent harm, and all of which aforementioned stuff would be hard enough without another preternaturally gifted athlete standing a bit over 60 feet away waiting for the smallest mistake that will allow him to slam that ball back at you harder than you threw it. Tom Seaver was a superb physical specimen, yes. But he every bit as much of a Hall of Famer from the neck up, studying pitching with a lab scientist's pitiless scrutiny and an engineer's fever to tinker.
And psychologically he was a monster, waiting to devour any hitter who betrayed a weakness. One of my favorite stories is about Seaver pitching against the Pirates in the rain, and waiting to throw the ball until a droplet of water had grown heavy enough so that it would wiggle off the bill of Manny Sanguillen's helmet and into his face while Seaver's pitch was traveling. Few other pitchers would have thought of that, but Seaver regarded such things as a crucial part of his arsenal, and he never had much use for those who didn't devote the same care to that mental side of pitching. Seaver knew his profession was thick with throwers and chuckers, guys with million-dollar arms and heads worth a lot less than that, and always seemed faintly affronted that they had the same job description he did. Pitching, he said last night, “is using what you have to work with on any particular day and it changes within the context of the day. It's the definition of pitching, it's not the definition of throwing.”
Seaver said that in discussing Pedro Martinez (tip of the quoting hat to Mark Herrmann), but it would have applied even more so to Johan Santana tonight. Santana, frankly, didn't look terrific — his location was off and his pitchers seemed to lack the zip and bite they've had recently. Roy Oswalt, his counterpart on the mound, looked better, but wound up with that left-handed compliment for pitchers, the eight-inning complete game.
How? Well, luck certainly had something to do with it. Santana rode the edge of disaster a couple of times (particularly when he batted down Lance Berkman's centerbound scorcher with two on and two out in fifth) and got some help from poor baserunning by Hunter Pence. Oswalt, on the other hand, was nicked for a run on one of the least-wild wild pitches in baseball history and a bloop single, made one bad pitch the rest of the night, and lost.
But it wasn't just luck — far from it. When your fastball's electric and you can throw the ball to a dime-sized target, you can do pretty much whatever you want on the mound. It wasn't exactly that kind of night for Santana. But because of that, I bet Seaver would say it was a victory to savor even more. Johan turned so-so stuff into seven shutout innings, using what he had to great effect. He won from the neck up — which was enough to make even Tom Terrific proud.