The sample size is only four Saturdays, but I can definitively report that it’s always colder the morning of the Queens Baseball Convention than it was at any point in the preceding week. Sometimes it snows. Sometimes it snows a lot. It snowed so much in 2016 that there was no QBC.
That’ll happen in January. Ideally, you’d hold a baseball convention in Queens when the weather is more amenable to baseball in Queens, but then you’d have baseball in Queens, and you wouldn’t need the convention. Depending on how you set your ballological clock, we have baseball for six to eight months out of every year. We’re varying degrees of fine from Pitchers & Catchers until the final out of the World Series. We’re great between Game One and Game One Sixty-Two. It’s January’s white space that envelops us in endless gloom, whether a blizzard is doing its worst or flurries are making a nuisance of themselves.
This most recent Saturday, the date of the most recent QBC, was indeed chillier than the most recent Friday and Thursday and so on. It’s a fair trade, I suppose. It’s never warmer in January than it is once you get inside and rub your hands in front a roaring Hot Stove, surrounded by those with whom you relish sharing the fire.
You know how nice it is to come in from the cold? That’s QBC if you’re a Mets fan. QBC is home. You’re where you’re belong when you’re there.
QBC, inaugurated in January 2014, was such a good idea. Still is. We had nothing like this as Mets fans. We should have always had something like this. Other team’s fans have it, arranged by the teams themselves. The Mets don’t do that kind of fan outreach. Perhaps it’s enough that they’ve lately begun to give us seasons worth looking forward to. Let the Mets get spring, summer and autumn right. We’ll handle winter as best we can.
That’s where QBC comes in, a Mets fanfest by and for Mets fans, all of whom take the responsibility seriously. Not just the principal organizers and raft of volunteers (though they work especially hard to make it happen) but everybody who shows up. QBC clicks because we the Mets fans breathe it into existence with our passionate determination. Or maybe our determined passion. Either way, give Mets fans a time and a place to be Mets fans, even without a Mets game, and we will come through.
The 2017 rendition moved from its ancestral home at McFadden’s Citi Field to Katch Astoria, multiple 7 stops and an N trip west of Flushing. On balance, it was an ideal locale. It was in Queens, it opened itself up to baseball and we convened. Plus the staff was friendly and the food was tasty. Can’t ask for much more when you’re already blessed with so much.
Like being in the company of your fellow Mets fans. Like seeing old friends and making new acquaintances over Mets talk. Like getting a load of this jersey and that t-shirt. Like being in a room where somebody’s telling you what the Mets’ record was in 2016 when Yoenis Cespedes wore a compression sleeve on one arm versus their record when he wore it on the other arm and realizing you’re in the lone spot on earth where that’s treated as valuable information. Mets fans should never have to apologize for being Mets fans. I didn’t hear a “sorry I am what I am” all day.
Being a Mets fan means never having to say you’re sorry. Our Love Story won’t allow it.
My QBC day, besides sitting and listening and laughing and loving, was devoted to two assignments. First, I presented an award named for one Met legend to another Met legend on behalf of the ultimate Met legend. I don’t throw around the phrase legend lightly. Each legend in question is connected to the 1969 Mets, engineers of the most legendary championship in world history (we’d also accept 1986 as a correct answer). The prize was the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award, a token of our esteem we came up with before the first QBC to continue to keep the name Gil Hodges aloft in the minds of Mets fans. The recipient this year was Tom Seaver, chosen because a) we are on the cusp of the 50th anniversary of Tom’s major league and Met debut and b) do we really need a reason to give an award to Tom Seaver? He had three Cy Youngs, a Hickock Belt and a plaque in Cooperstown. Tom has been attracting honors for a half-century.
QBC drew hundreds of Mets fans, not to mention special guests Tim Teufel and Bobby Valentine, but a Napa Valley vintner can’t necessarily pop on over to Astoria for every bauble bestowed in his direction. We understood that. We decided to honor him anyway. He’s Tom Seaver. We figured “the academy” would accept on behalf of our winner and we’d continue to talk about him in absentia. Later we could box up the award and ship it to California.
A funny thing happened on the way to the podium. One of the organizers came up to me as Teufel (who hit an extra-inning grand slam with his insights and anecdotes) was wrapping up. Hey, he whispered, Art Shamsky just showed up. He wants to talk to Mets fans. Would you mind moderating?
As requests that come out of right field go, this was a can of corn. Why, yes, I’ll be happy to host Art Shamsky, 1969 Met, for a spell. Then another organizer sought me out. Art’s gonna accept the award for Tom. Can you present it to him?
Yeah, I’m really put upon at these things.
For about twenty minutes, it was an afternoon at the Improv at Katch Astoria, but I haven’t been a Mets fan for forty-eight years without being able to vamp a little when positioned elbow-to-elbow with a Mets legend. I once ate pizza in the company of Cleon Jones. After I didn’t faint from delight at that encounter, I realized I possessed the emotional reserves to handle proximity to any 1969 Met.
Art was great at QBC, which goes without saying. Art was a great Met from 1968 through 1971, peaking in unison with a couple dozen other fellows in 1969. He likes to say he played thirteen years of professional baseball, yet nobody asks about the other twelve. I thanked him for 1970 and 1971 because I watched him then and he was one of my childhood favorites. (I omitted his first Met year because I wasn’t yet on board in 1968; my bad for being five.)
Mr. Shamsky did us the solid of accepting for Mr. Seaver and then set up shop at a table to greet his public and offer up his evergreen book about the only season anybody ever asks him about. I went back to being in the audience for the other presentations, particularly enjoying the bejeesus of Bobby V taking what we shall call an unorthodox route to storytelling. He tended to mush together different seasons at times, but he always tracked down the payoff at the wall. Bobby seems as fond of his Mets as we are. (He’s also fond of Japan, but doesn’t sound like he’ll be rushing off there anytime soon despite previous reports.)
At five o’clock or so, the last hour of QBC, I was back on stage for our 50th anniversary Seaver retrospective, my second assigned task. We didn’t have Tom, but we had three writerly perspectives to provide: one from me as moderator not to mention lifelong Terrifophile; one from Bill Ryczek, who wrote and talked about Tom’s rookie year; and one from Matt Silverman, who spoke from one of his many volumes regarding the night the music died forty years ago this June 15. An hour spent delving into what made Seaver Seaver is as good an hour as you’ll have all winter.
When the day was done, January was closer than ever to ending. We who indulged in QBC helped each other clear away excess winter, so you’d have to call it a very productive Saturday. I’d even go so far as to judge the streets of Astoria slightly warmer on Saturday night than they had been Saturday morning. Baseball works wonders sometimes.
You can listen to the presentation I did with Art here and the entire panel discussion among Bill, Matt and myself here. Below is what I wrote in advance for the occasion. It’s not exactly what was delivered verbatim due to the revised-yearbook nature of the proceedings, but the text should give you a sense of why we wanted to talk about Tom Seaver…besides the fact that he’s Tom Seaver.
When we came up with the concept for the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award in 2013, we had two goals in mind.
One was to cast a glow around the memory of the manager who led the Mets to the promised land when nobody else dreamed such a journey was possible. Gil died two days shy of his 48th birthday after four seasons at the helm in Flushing. It was too soon then, it’s too soon now. What Gil did and who Gil was should never be forgotten, and this award is our small way, as Mets fans, of trying to keep his legacy alive.
Our second goal was to annually thank a special figure from Mets history for warming our hearts, brightening our spirits and lighting our way. We meet in winter. Of course we want to spend a few minutes thinking of somebody like that. What is baseball for but to get us through the times when there is no baseball?
In the first three years of QBC, we were honored to present the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award to Gil Hodges, Jr., who accepted on behalf of his late father; to the Glider, Ed Charles; and to Buddy Harrelson. We were canceled by a blizzard last January, but one of QBC’s organizers, Dan Twohig, made the pilgrimage out to Central Islip and gave the award to Buddy between games of a Long Island Ducks doubleheader, and Buddy, like Gil Jr. and Ed, was extremely gracious and talked about how much Gil meant to him.
This year, we don’t have our recipient with us, but he takes a backseat to nobody when it comes to warming hearts, brightening spirits and lighting the way for Mets fans. The 2017 winner of the Gil Hodges Unforgettable Fire Award is Tom Seaver.
We’re going to get into Tom’s career later, as we celebrate a truly Amazin’ milestone in his and the Mets’ story, but when you think about Tom Seaver, whether as…
• the rookie phenom immediately establishing himself as one of the best in the business;
• the incandescent star pitching his team toward a most improbable championship;
• the indefatigable ace continually defining and perfecting his craft across a generation;
• the prodigal veteran son bringing everybody out of their seats and everybody’s heart out of their chests upon his overdue return to where it all started;
• the beloved legend trotting to the mound one more time to take another bow as his number, like him, eased into retirement;
• or the all-time great carrying OUR banner for the first time into the Baseball Hall of Fame
…well, I don’t know how you’re not warmed, you’re not brightened and you’re not absolutely lit at the thought of one George Thomas Seaver, a.k.a. Tom Terrific, which he always was and always will be.
Tom, as you probably know, is a vintner in California these days, hard at work making the best of wine, just as he made the best of every pitch. A continent away, we wish to invoke a few of the sentiments he’s shared about the manager and the man he revered, Gil Hodges.
This from an interview published in 1974, reflecting on Gil’s influence and his passing:
“He was an outstanding man. He was a man’s man and demanded total respect. I learned many things about the game from him. Probably the most important was what it meant to be a professional, and how important self-control was for you to perform as a professional. It was almost like losing a second father. I loved the man and I tremendously admired him. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him.”
This from his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 1992:
“The one guy who taught me how to be a professional, to really be a pro, [was] Gil Hodges. If [there were] other people [who] taught me how to get here and what to do when I got here, Gil Hodges told me how to be a pro and stay here — the most important man in my life from the professional standpoint of my career. And God, I know that you’re letting Gil look down here today and I know that he is part of this.”
And this from just last year when a reporter asked him if he was bothered — like so many of us are — that there’s no Tom Seaver statue outside of Citi Field:
“I’m not dead yet. So I’d rather it be Gil Hodges. He’s the most important person in the franchise.”
And that’s coming from THE Franchise. So it seems more than appropriate…it seems Terrific that we can take it upon ourselves to, one more time, link manager and pitcher where they belong, at the peak of our appreciation.
So ladies and gentlemen and Mets fans of all ages, let’s transport ourselves to Shea Stadium, to 1969, to pregame introductions during the World Series. Let’s give it up for No. 14, the manager of the New York Mets, and No. 41, starting pitcher for the New York Mets. Let us, from the upper deck of our souls, say “thank you” to Gil Hodges and to Tom Seaver.
I mentioned a milestone. It’s one of those anniversaries I’m still getting used to since 2012, when the Mets — and I — turned 50. As someone who’s approximately the same age as the Mets, I find it hard to believe we both have things that happened to us 50 or more years ago, but time will do that to a person and a team.
On April 13, 1967, the best of things happened to the Mets. Wes Westrum, the manager between Casey Stengel and Gil Hodges (give or take a Salty Parker), handed the ball to a rookie right-hander, to start the second game of the season, at Shea. It was the rookie’s major league debut. The team and the sport would never be the same.
Tom Seaver faced the Pittsburgh Pirates that Thursday afternoon. The Mets won. A precedent was established. Seaver and winning went together like no Met and no such result ever had before. Tom was about to become one of the best pitchers baseball has ever known and, hands down, the greatest Met we have ever known. There was nobody remotely like him prior to April 13, 1967, and there’s been nobody quite like him since.
It’s been fifty years and he’s rarely been matched by any pitcher from any team and he hasn’t been touched by any Met at any position. I think it’s fair to say he’s had quite the half-century.
Tom’s primacy as the Met of Mets is so established and so obvious, that after 50 years, we might not fully comprehend the texture of what he achieved on the mound for us from 1967 forward or his apparently immovable place atop Met history. Our mission today, then, is to explore the accomplishments and legacy of Tom Seaver as we celebrate 50 years of Tom being our indisputable best player.
We could frame Tom Seaver’s grandeur by quoting statistics, and I’ll be happy to note a few a little later, but to get us started on our commemoration of 50 Years of No. 41, I want to take us to any given year in the early to mid 1970s and either remind you if you were around or let you know if you weren’t what life was like for a Mets fan coming of age in the Age of Seaver.
In January, you leaf through the sports section and your face lights up because there’s a picture of Tom Seaver, maybe posing in the snow at Shea Stadium, maybe indoors, and he’s signing his contract for the upcoming season. Spring Training can’t be far off.
In February and March, you go to your local candy store or newsstand and you start to look for preseason magazines, and somewhere on their covers, you find Tom Seaver. You grab those and, either at that place or maybe at a bookstore, you find the paperback guides to the season ahead. If Seaver’s picture isn’t on those covers, his name figures prominently in the text as soon as you turn to the Mets preview. You grab those, too.
By March, baseball cards are out, and of course you’re buying as many packs as you can reasonably handle. You rip them open in hopes you’ll find a Tom Seaver. If you’re fortunate, your year of collecting is made. If you’re not, there’s a very good chance you’ll find some kind of insert with Tom’s picture, or a leader card with Tom’s face, because he’s always leading the league in something. You might get Tom Seaver In Action, or Tom Seaver’s Boyhood Photo or something referring to how Tom Seaver helped the Mets to the playoffs and World Series the year before. Those are pretty good cards, too.
Come April, Opening Day is upon us. You don’t need to check to see the probable pitchers because you know who’s starting the season for the Mets. Tom Seaver has been the Opening Day starter every year since he established himself and no Met manager is going to mess with that tradition. It works. The Mets almost always win on Opening Day.
As the season gets going, you take special pride in scouring the statistics in the Sunday papers. You don’t have to scour far, because Seaver, NY is inevitably at the top, whether you’re looking at wins or innings pitched or winning percentage or earned run average or strikeouts. If you’re going to a game, you hope he’s pitching. Even if he’s not, you can’t miss him. He’s on the cover of the yearbook. He’s on the cover of the scorecard. He’s Tom Seaver. He’s everywhere.
July comes along and it’s All-Star selection time and your question about who will be representing the Mets goes simply, “Tom Seaver and who else?” Tom is the personification of an All-Star, whether he’s starting the game, coming on in relief or just tipping his cap among his peers. Coincidentally or not, the National League is always winning these games.
The season wears on. Seaver keeps pitching. Usually, he wins. Sometimes he pitches more than well enough to win but the Mets don’t score for him. But every start you can anticipate greatness. Maybe he’ll throw a complete game. Maybe he’ll throw a shutout. Dare we dream of a no-hitter? Probably he’ll be on Kiner’s Korner, where he and Ralph have a second-nature rapport, legend to budding legend. You’ll hear Tom talk seriously about his pitching and you’ll hear Tom cackle giddily about his hitting.
By September, if the Mets are in the race, you’ll look forward to those nights or afternoons when Tom starts. You’ll figure you’ll pick up ground on the Pirates or put more distance in front of the Cubs. If the Mets aren’t in the race, there’s still plenty to get excited about. Tom is nearing 20 wins or Tom is extending another strikeout record or Tom is lowering his ERA out of reach of any other pitcher. Whether at the beginning or end of the season, Tom Seaver always keeps you in the game.
If Tom is still pitching beyond earliest October, you know it’s been a great year to be a Mets fan, and you can keep watching him on TV doing what he does best. If Tom is done, you look forward to November and reading about the Cy Young voting. Tom probably deserves to win another award. If he wins it, you’ll be happy. If he doesn’t, you’ll be sure he should have. If nothing else, you’ll have another reason to have Tom Seaver on your mind, which is the next best thing to having Tom Seaver on the mound, which will happen again soon, because by January, there’ll be a picture of Tom at Shea, signing another contract, ready to begin another year. Once more, Spring Training can’t be far off.
This is what it was like to grow up and mark time with Tom Seaver. It was hard to fathom it hadn’t always been this way and that it wouldn’t always be this way.
The beauty of Tom Seaver was twofold. There was watching him, his aesthetically perfect drop and drive motion, the power-pitcher who led with his legs, got his right knee dirty and blended rising fastballs, curves and sliders consistently for strikes. That was what you could see. You could only imagine or wait for his postgame remarks to get a handle on what he was thinking. As ideal as he was physically, he was just as beautiful when it came to the mental game.
Then there were the numbers No. 41 put up. The basics of his career are easy enough to quote: 311 wins, 3,640 strikeouts, an ERA of 2.86 over 20 seasons, 3 Cy Youngs, 12 All-Star selections, 16 Opening Day starts, 5 one-hitters, 1 no-hitter — albeit in the wrong uniform — and a 10-inning complete game World Series victory that put the Mets on the brink of a world championship.
Though they didn’t show up in the box score, there also seemed to be a new book about or “by” Tom Seaver every year, including one I remember using for a book report in sixth grade. I made the last paragraph nothing but his year-by-year statistics to date, and even at the age of 12, I knew that was a bit much, so I don’t want to drown us in numbers. Still, those numbers never fail to floor.
Here, as promised, are a few numerical notes to consider when considering Tom Seaver.
• In the first ten years of his career, 1967 through 1976, when he was becoming and had become “Tom Seaver” for us, Tom compiled 182 wins, 2,334 strikeouts and a 2.47 earned run average. You know who else in the major leagues could match that profile? Nobody. Nobody else did that during the first ten years of Tom Seaver’s career. It wasn’t just bias that convinced us he was the best pitcher in baseball. He was.
• Those were the traditional markers of what made a pitcher outstanding when Tom was coming up. WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, did not enter our lexicon for several decades. When it did, we found, according to Baseball Reference, that Tom Seaver was worth 71.2 Wins Above Replacement for the ten years starting in 1967 and ending in 1976. You know what pitcher did better in baseball? None. Nobody else has a better WAR for that decade. Gaylord Perry finished about 5 wins above replacement behind, and Fergie Jenkins more than 10. They’re the runners-up.
• Go on Baseball-Reference, go to the page with National League pitching leaders for 1973 — a good Met year, to be sure — and check out who led the league in SEVENTEEN different statistical categories, traditional and advanced. Wins weren’t even among them, a symptom of the Mets not being the most offensively robust of clubs throughout Seaver’s stay. For the record, Tom had “only” 19 and won the Cy Young anyway.
• The one truly troubling season in Seaver’s first decade was 1974, when he was bothered by a sciatica condition and finished a horrifying — for him — 11-11, his ERA skyrocketing to 3.20. And yet, when you click the Baseball Reference page forward from 1973 to 1974, you still see Seaver’s name dotting the leaderboards, in the Top 10 across all kinds of interior categories and placing fourth in Pitcher WAR. We didn’t know it at the time, but even when Seaver was at his worst, he was among the best. As an aside, when Seaver was nearly at his best, we weren’t easily satisfied. I clearly remember a comment from Bill Mazer, the longtime sportscaster in New York, then, in 1972, the host of the Met postgame show on WHN, saying very definitively, sure, Tom Seaver has won 20 games, but “it hasn’t really been a Tom Seaver year.” That’s how high a standard he set for himself and for all of us.
• One more quick statistical glance, from 1983, at which point Tom, a Met for the first time since, if you’ll excuse the expression, June 15, 1977, was 38 and pitching for a last-place team. The won-lost record wasn’t much — 9-14 — and the ERA, 3.55, indicated he was clearly on the back end of a fabulous career. Even with age and wear and a not very good Mets squad behind him, Tom comes in tenth in the NL in innings pitched, ninth in games started and seventh in fewest hits allowed per nine innings. If he’s not one of the best pitchers in the league by his seventeenth season he’s definitely one of the better ones. And, as we’d find out over the next three years, he still had plenty left in the tank.
But the tank would be found elsewhere in 1984, just as it was transferred to points west in 1977. “Tanks for nothing” we’d find ourselves saying twice to two sets of Mets management.
Tom Seaver pitched his last official inning in 1986, curtailed a comeback in 1987, had his number retired in 1988 and entered the Hall of Fame in 1992. He hasn’t added to his Met totals since any of those milestones, yet he maintains his place as the Greatest Met Ever, unchallenged 50 years after he basically invented the concept of Great Mets.
Have you ever seen a Greatest Met list that wasn’t topped by Tom Seaver? Have you ever tried to make one? It’s not so much that it would be sacrilege — it would be inaccurate.
Dwight Gooden’s 1985 might have surpassed any of Seaver’s individual seasons as the crown jewel of pitching years, but Doc couldn’t keep up that kind of accelerated pace for long.
Mike Piazza, the second player to go into the Hall as a Met, gave us indelible memories, connected on critical swings and was primarily responsible for perhaps the most dramatic era of Mets baseball — there’s a book coming out about it, I hear — but he established the first half of his legend elsewhere.
David Wright is all Met all the time and he already owns almost every Met offensive record there is, but the Captain, ever the good soldier, would be the first to tell you that as Terrific as we think he is, his cumulative impact on the franchise hasn’t come close to that of The Franchise.
Darryl Strawberry hit more home runs than any Met. Dave Kingman hit them longer than any Met. Yoenis Cespedes is as breathtaking as any Met. Buddy Harrelson was about as reliable as they came. Nobody was more dynamic on the basepaths than young Jose Reyes, unless it was Mookie Wilson. If anybody swung sweeter than Rusty Staub, it was John Olerud. Gary Carter pushed the Mets close to a championship after Keith Hernandez steered the ship around. Carlos Beltran did almost everything right. So did Edgardo Alfonzo. Rey Ordoñez did one thing well, but might have done it better than anybody, Met or otherwise. Ed Kranepool, for eighteen seasons, is a chapter unto himself. Jerry Koosman still hasn’t lost a postseason start for the Mets, and he made a bunch. You Gotta Believe in Tug McGraw, in Jesse Orosco, in John Franco, even, when it comes to closing games. We cross our fingers that someday we’ll be at a discussion like this and praising to the high heavens the likes of Syndergaard and Harvey and Matz and deGrom and all they did and how long they did it for.
We have no shortage of great Mets. But we have only one Tom Seaver, the greatest of Mets. He started being great fifty years ago this April. He has yet to stop.