Bergino Baseball Clubhouse proprietor Jay Goldberg possesses the wryest of wits. In graciously inviting me to pull up a chair and talk about Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star at his one-of-a-kind shop a few blocks south of Union Square, he offered me the date of June 15. We would discuss my new book, of course, “and given that it’s the 40th anniversary of one of the worst days for both of us, we would certainly discuss that, too.”
How do you dispute intuitive scheduling like that? The symmetry, I agreed, was too good to pass up, and thus I will be there (and hope you will be, too) this Thursday night at 7 o’clock . Not coincidentally, I told Jay, June 15, 1977, inhabits the narrative of Piazza like a ghost. I’m not sure a person, especially a Mets-loving person, could have grasped the concept of a superstar franchise player being traded in the middle of his prime in the middle of a season for blockheaded management reasons if it hadn’t happened before.
In May of 1998, it was the Dodgers who were the blockheads. In June of 1977, it was the Mets who made their fans cry good grief.
The story of Mike Piazza as a legendary Met is informed by the precedent of Tom Seaver in a couple of ways. One, most obviously, is that Tom represented the previously unreachable precedent which Mike, to our way of thinking, was striving to match. Everything that was said about Mike’s prospective Hall of Fame enshrinement and number retirement tended to be placed in the context of Tom. “First Met since…” “Only Met other than…” The Seaver standard served as a relevant emotional metric, and Piazza was, by consensus, the first Met to measure up. Nobody announced in advance that the final Shea Goodbye pitch would be Seaver to Piazza, but when the ceremonial battery formed, and 31 joined 41 as the only two Mets to walk through the center field gate, it made total sense to us.
Cosmically speaking, I’d like to believe it’s no accident that Tom Seaver’s Hall of Fame induction and Mike Piazza’s major league debut came within a month of one another, on the back end of the Summer of ’92. The fact that the former event occurred on August 2 and the latter September 1 — with the bridge between them thirty days of unrelentingly crummy Metsiness that foreshadowed the annus horribilis ahead and, ultimately, the several years of toxic-spill cleanup that 1993 would necessitate in Flushing — struck me as too good to be serendipity. It’s why I started the story of Piazza in Cooperstown with Seaver; shifted it to Shea for everything that was going wrong with the team Tom had long before legitimized; and then moved the focus to Wrigley Field the day the Dodgers promoted the kid catcher who’d hit .377 for San Antonio and .341 for Albuquerque.
Within the book’s first act, I also sought to establish how difficult it can be to cast in bronze an eternal identity once you start taking your talents elsewhere…or if somebody is sending you and them away. Seaver’s image for the ages was always going to be tethered to the Mets in our hearts and minds, and the record books testified it wasn’t just our imagination running away with us. Yet fate kept finding bad terms for Tom to leave New York on. You think Seaver was thinking kindly of his Mets association forty years ago next week when he found out he was about to call Southern Ohio his professional home? When he pitched against the Mets on eleven separate occasions? When he sat in the dugout opposite theirs with a world title hanging in the balance?
Given the “go in as a Met” topic that hovered over all our talk of Piazza before 75% of BBWAA voters made the inevitable a reality — and Mike made it crystal clear whose cap he’d be wearing forever after — I thought it would be instructive to examine for my book how much of a sure thing it was that Tom Seaver, the Met of Mets, would himself go in as a Met. My conclusion is that, as one of Tom’s managers might have put it, it wasn’t a certainty until it was a certainty.
What was certain was I had to cut certain sections of my manuscript for space, and the extended Seaver discussion wound up being one of them. In commemoration of the 40th anniversary of one of the shall we say most memorable days Mets fandom has ever known, and in anticipation of a much happier night at Bergino Baseball Clubhouse , I decided to share what I wrote here.
Conceivably, it could have looked different, though there was a time that itself was inconceivable. That time was prior to June 15, 1977, a date destined to live in infamy among Mets fans of a certain age. It was the day Tom Seaver was traded to Cincinnati.
It never should have happened, not if you believed that some players and some teams were made for one another. Tom had been a Met for more than a decade by then, most of it under the ancient system in which ballplayers played ball and management did with them what it wanted. Then came free agency and, with it, the chance for ballclubs and ballplayers to improve their respective lots. Seaver wasn’t happy with how his club was running its affairs — shunning the opportunity to enhance the offense behind him — and he didn’t care for his suddenly outdated compensation package. In a nutshell, the man he worked for, Mets chairman of the board M. Donald Grant, didn’t care for what he considered Seaver’s uppity attitude.
The match made in heaven in 1966, when a pitcher’s name was pulled out of a hat in a special lottery on behalf of a franchise desperate for a transcendent figure, was on the verge of dissolution. The Mets had gotten lucky when Seaver’s original professional contract was voided by then-Commissioner Spike Eckert. Twenty-one year-old Tom, from the University of Southern California, found himself in a murky void, caught between the pro team that drafted and signed him, the Atlanta Braves, and USC, where his amateur status hadn’t fully worn off. The Braves couldn’t keep Seaver, but Seaver, it was decided, couldn’t be kept from pursuing his career. Thus, the lottery that every team besides Atlanta was invited to join, yet only three did: the Cleveland Indians, the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Mets. All it took to get him was a willingness to match the $51,500 bonus the Braves had planned on paying him and fate.
Fate sided with the Mets. It was their name on the slip of paper Eckert drew from the most charmed hat in Mets history. They got Seaver. Seaver went to Triple-A Jacksonville for a year, then made Flushing, Queens, major league a year later. The team that had never finished higher than ninth prior to Seaver’s arrival…well, they finished tenth with him, but one could only recoil at imagining where they might be headed without him. Fortunately, for ten years, the Mets never had to seriously contemplate such a question.
Seaver pitched. The Mets improved. Hodges, beloved Brooklyn Dodger and Original Met, came home to manage him and Harrelson and Koosman and Grote and a clubhouse of young players who possessed talent but craved guidance. Gil guided. The Mets improved exponentially. Seaver excelled. The Mets followed suit and won a world championship in 1969 that could hardly be fathomed and would never be forgotten. Then the Mets leveled off. Seaver didn’t. He kept pitching and kept excelling. His right arm was as strong a reason as any that the Mets stitched together another pennant, this one under Berra, in 1973. Through a torrent of innings and a paucity of runs and even in the aftermath of the tragic death of his professional mentor Hodges, Seaver kept going.
In the spring of ’77, though, he was going out the door. Trade rumors began to boil over that spring. The pot was stirred to excess by Grant’s ally, the legendary Daily News columnist Dick Young. Young invoked a supposed jealous streak Tom’s wife Nancy maintained toward Nolan Ryan’s wife Ruth. Ryan, the Met foolishly dealt to the Angels half-a-dozen years earlier, had grown into a star pitcher in California. Young’s story had it that Nancy Seaver was upset Ruth Ryan’s husband was getting paid more than her own. Tom didn’t care for this tactic whatsoever. His demand to be traded was set in stone. Late on deadline day, June 15, he went to Cincinnati in exchange for four players who weren’t and never would be the equivalent of one Tom Seaver.
“As far as the fans go, I’ve given them a great number of thrills,” an uncharacteristically emotional Seaver told reporters in front of the locker he was compelled to clean out, “and they’ve been equally returned.” It was a transactional assessment, but it was also correct.
The Mets were back where Seaver found them when he joined them: in the cellar. They struggled in his absence. They might have struggled anyway, given Grant’s aversion to modernity. The organization was rotting from within. No viable reinforcements were graduating from the minors and no significant help was being obtained on the open market. The Mets of the late 1970s were probably doomed with Seaver or without him. But the Mets without Seaver, on principle and on the field, were unbearable.
Tom thrived in Cincinnati, no matter how odd his familiar form appeared trimmed in red. He pitched a no-hitter for his new team. He pitched them into the playoffs once, to the best record in baseball another time…but not the playoffs, amid the bizarre split-season contrivance of strike-sundered 1981 (a baseball version of the electoral college trumping the popular vote). Wear and tear was finally showing on him in 1982, his sixth season with his second club. The Reds, rarely less than very good for a generation, had finally stopped winning. They didn’t necessarily need to continue paying an all-time great starting pitcher whose every-fifth-day effectiveness was ebbing.
The Mets had undergone many changes in Seaver’s absence, though you couldn’t tell it by the National League East standings. They continued to dwell near the bottom of them, but behind the scenes, things were very different. Grant was gone. The team had been sold. The new owners hired a general manager, Frank Cashen, determined to overhaul the entire operation. Cashen was building from within, drafting and nurturing a contender, occasionally shelling out for external help to patch over the rebuilding process. In the winter heading into ’82, he did some headline-grabbing business with Cincinnati, taking off their hands the bulging salary demands of George Foster, an RBI man of the highest order. It was a crowd-pleasing move. That it didn’t work out — Foster’s production couldn’t have diminished any faster had that been the plan — didn’t mean it wasn’t a good idea. Rebuilding was taking its not-so-sweet time. The goodwill attached to the 1980 regime change faded almost as quickly as Foster’s talent for driving in runs. Nineteen Eighty-Two marked the sixth consecutive year of the Mets holding down one of the two lowest spots in their division. A diversion couldn’t hurt.
Especially one that could still pitch a little.
Five-and-a-half years after the unthinkable trade of Tom Seaver from the Mets, Tom Seaver was traded to the Mets. All was right with the world again, save for the standings. The Mets remained well south of contention as 1983 dawned, but finishing last with Seaver loomed as so much more pleasant than finishing last without him. Opening Day told the story beautifully. Shea Stadium was packed. Public address announcer Jack Franchetti introduced “Number Forty-One” as the starting pitcher. No more needed to be said. Tom Seaver, in his native colors of blue and orange, strode down the right field line from the home bullpen. He stepped on the mound and threw to Pete Rose, these days a Philadelphia Phillie. His first pitch was a strike. His return was a home run.
Seaver the second-time Met was a phenomenon. Then it was just how it was supposed to be. Tom’s presence blended into another sixth-place finish. He still pitched well, but the team still didn’t score much for him or any of its pitchers. The losing continued. Cashen continued to conjure. The Mets’ slogan, when they were sold to a group headed by Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, was “The Magic is Back.” That prematurely ballyhooed wizardry was about to manifest itself for real.
In May, the Mets promoted Darryl Strawberry, the first draft pick Cashen had made for the Mets. Strawberry probably wasn’t yet ripe, but the season wasn’t producing a bumper crop of wins. Darryl could learn in New York as well as he could in Tidewater. In June, on the sixth anniversary of the Midnight Massacre that made Seaver an ex-Met, the GM stunned baseball by making Keith Hernandez an ex-Cardinal. Hernandez was an in-his-prime Gold Glove first baseman and clutch hitter. He was exactly the kind of player Seaver lobbied the Mets to acquire when free agency dawned. Cashen all but pulled him out of a hat — more magician’s than commissioner’s — giving up two young pitchers he could do without. St. Louis didn’t want Keith any longer and New York didn’t particularly care why.
Last place wouldn’t be escaped in 1983, but by August, the Mets no longer looked like long-term occupants. Strawberry was learning. Hernandez was getting comfortable. Others were coming around. Seaver was Seaver. A team on the rise and a legend in residence. For the first time since Tug McGraw implored a city to Believe, Mets fans had the sense they really could, and not live to regret it.
Then they were consigned to a sickeningly familiar state of disbelief. Tom Seaver, missed for so long, welcomed back so warmly, was gone again. It wasn’t as ugly as the first time it happened, but it was awful enough. This time, the culprit amounted to a whopper of a clerical error. That strike that cost Seaver’s Reds a postseason berth in 1981 yielded a strange compromise between players and owners called the compensation pool. In essence, if Team A signed a free agent from Team B, Team B was entitled to pick a player from Team Z, a.k.a., a team that was otherwise uninvolved in the initial transaction if Team B so chose.
For example, the Toronto Blue Jays opted to engage the services of pitcher Dennis Lamp, previously of the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox, under the terms of the Basic Agreement, were allowed to seek compensation from a pool of players left unprotected by everybody else. Floating in that pool was a 39-year-old pitcher who had just had a pretty good season for a last-place team. Because of his age, let alone his symbolic importance to his team, he seemed like the kind of player another team would leave alone.
The Mets protected the names that represented their immediate future in that compensation draft. They weren’t going to expose a Strawberry or a Hernandez or any of the youngsters who had just arrived or were on their way. A veteran like Tom Seaver, however, seemed safe enough to not technically guard. Who would dare pluck the Mona Lisa from the Louvre?
If the Louvre was careless enough to leave its doors unlocked, the Chicago White Sox, that’s who. They went for the masterpiece of veteran pitchers, Tom Seaver. Without warning, without an M. Donald Grant or a Dick Young stoking the tabloid fires, Seaver was again an ex-Met.
If January 20, 1984, the day Seaver’s contract was transferred to Chicago’s American League entity, didn’t live in infamy, it resided not too far down the block from June 15, 1977, in the same neighborhood of dates and events that made Mets fans shudder to their core. On both occasions, the Mets rolled out the moving van and packed their greatest player ever off to a distant city. It wasn’t as obnoxious or as obvious as what happened amid the Grant-Young maneuvers that sent Seaver to Cincinnati, but the result was the same. Tom Seaver was no longer a New York Met.
In short order, as conspiracy-theorists wondered just how much of an accident Seaver’s departure really was, the New York Mets revealed themselves as no longer a last-place ballclub. All of Cashen’s planning and planting began to pay off in the summer ahead. Under a new manager, Davey Johnson (who may or may not have wanted a strong figure like Seaver exerting influence inside his youthful clubhouse, if you bought the conspiratorial thinking), the Mets challenged convincingly for the NL East title in 1984 until the season’s last week. They challenged even harder in 1985, falling heartbreakingly short on the last weekend. Then, as if it had been marked as the destination on their road map all along, they blew the doors off the division in 1986 en route to winning their first World Series since 1969.
It would be simple enough to say that after a while, Mets fans didn’t miss Tom Seaver, not when their ballclub was leaping from 68 wins to 90 to 98 to 108 and the brassiest of brass rings, yet that is to not fully appreciate fan loyalty. Sure, there is the uniform, and there is the cap, and there is a fealty to success. The fan can be guided by the same transactional impulses as front office architects and free agent players.
But some things you don’t take away and expect to go unmissed. You don’t take away a first love. You don’t take away a first star. You don’t go to the trouble of bringing back the FRANCHISE POWER PITCHER WHO TRANSFORMED METS FROM LOVABLE LOSERS INTO FORMIDABLE FOE only to let him go a year later. You also don’t not notice that Tom Seaver, who left New York the second time with 273 career wins on his ledger, wore garish horizontal stripes and a shirt that screamed SOX on the hallowed occasion of his 300th victory. It took place in New York, in front of Mets fans, but the Mets fans were one-day visitors to Yankee Stadium, same as Tom. The milestone was a fine moment, but it was also indicative of a right arm that was still churning out productive pitches. During the season of No. 41’s No. 300, the Mets were battling St. Louis for first place. Seaver was in the process of winning sixteen games for the White Sox. The Mets finished three games behind the Cardinals. The math suggests those wins of Tom’s would have looked much more attractive adorned by Mets gear. The 1985 Mets were formidable foes on most fronts, yet relied on soft-tossing Ed Lynch and still-learning Rick Aguilera for starting pitching depth down the stretch. They weren’t terrible, but Tom was still Terrific.
When Seaver, having reached the age that he’d been wearing on the back of his jersey since he was 22, requested another trade, in 1986, it was to be closer to his home in Connecticut. The Mets didn’t need much of a boost that season, so he was off to Boston, mentoring a meteorically rising righthander named Roger Clemens (“At home, I’ll tell him what time the game starts. On the road, I’ll tell him what time the bus leaves,” is how Tom described the extent of his guidance) and helping another team to the playoffs until his right knee, the one that absorbed dirt from the pitching mound when his motion was ideal, gave out in September. Tom was forced to sit inactive in the dugout during the ensuing World Series at Fenway Park and, yes, Shea Stadium. Seaver the Red Sock was a footnote to the circumstances of the Mets’ second world championship seventeen autumns after he was the heart and soul of the first one. Had he, instead of sacrificial lamb Al Nipper, been available to pitch for Boston in Game Four, it could be legitimately wondered whether the Mets would have won that second world championship when they did.
Seaver versus the Mets in the World Series…shudder.
Desperation less than fate boomeranged Seaver to Flushing the following June. His recovery, along with more ownership shenanigans — collusion had squeezed the free agent market of its usual brisk high-dollar activity — seemed to quietly end his career. But the Mets, trying to defend their title, were short of starting pitching. Injuries were taking a toll, and there was a spry gent up the road in Greenwich who knew how to get hitters out and was quite familiar with the route to Shea. The Mets and Seaver reunited one more time, conditionally. Tom would have to pitch his way into shape. He and they would have to be convinced that at 42, No. 41 could still do what he’d been doing all those years before.
It didn’t work out. Seaver started an exhibition at Tidewater for the Mets. He didn’t look great. He pitched what were called simulated games, throwing his best stuff to a cadre of bench players. He didn’t look right. Backup catcher Barry Lyons in particular wracked him around. If Seaver couldn’t handle little-known Lyons, what were the chances he could tame the Hawk, Andre Dawson, or the Cobra, Dave Parker? Finally, on June 22, 1987, at a press conference called not because of a feud with a feudal-minded executive and not because of a too-clever-by-half paperwork omission, Tom Seaver and the Mets parted ways, at last more or less on the same page. Their relationship was described as strained in the press — Cashen and Johnson were by no means Grantlike villains, but they hadn’t exactly fallen over themselves to keep Tom on their team when he still had some competitive pitches left in that right arm. Yet in front of the cameras and microphones, only the most conciliatory of sentiments were uttered. “The single most important player in the history of the Mets,” the GM declared, was “retiring as a Met.”
Considering how rarely any player retired as a Met, it was more of an achievement than face value would imply. Rusty Staub received a knowing ovation on Closing Day 1985. Otherwise, Koosman ended with the Phillies, Harrelson (before returning to Shea to coach) played his last games with Texas, Grote bounced to Los Angeles, then Kansas City…and so on. Cleon Jones went out with the White Sox, Tommie Agee faded away as a Cardinal, Ed Kranepool was allowed to walk and keep walking after parts of eighteen seasons as a Met — the first eighteen seasons there were Mets. If Tom Seaver couldn’t pitch any longer as a Met, then retiring as one was the next best resolution in light of the wary ride the Franchise and the franchise had intermittently shared over the previous decade and change.
Seaver’s 41 had been out of circulation since the end of the 1983 season. Nobody wore it in Queens during his Cincinnati exile, either. Cashen announced the number, like he who wore it so elegantly, would be retired. That ceremony would wait a year. The Hall of Fame would wait five. Given the firmly established rapprochement between former pitcher and old team, there could be no doubt that Tom Seaver would enter that august institution embodying the New York Mets. The statistics wouldn’t have it any other way and there was no discernible reason for the twice-spurned Seaver to want it any other way.
It would be a first. Since the founding of the Mets a quarter-of-a-century earlier, several men with blue-and-orange ties had gained Cooperstown induction: Warren Spahn, Willie Mays, Yogi Berra and Duke Snider as players, Casey Stengel as a manager, George Weiss as an executive. None, however, was in primarily by dint of what he accomplished as or with the Mets. Ralph Kiner remained on the BBWAA radar for a necessary fifteenth ballot, his last eligible year to be voted on by the writers, perhaps because he was a highly visible Mets broadcaster, but it was Ralph’s production as a Pittsburgh Pirate that finally earned him election in 1975. Lindsey Nelson came to be so closely identified with the Mets between 1962 and 1978 that Yankee outlet WPIX-TV enlisted his services on August 4, 1985, to call Seaver’s 300th win. Nelson received the Ford C. Frick Award in 1988, Cooperstown’s paean to excellence in broadcasting. It was a substantial honor, but not exactly the same as being elected to the Hall (and Lindsey was a national broadcaster of considerable renown before and outside his work with the Mets).
Tom Seaver went into the Hall of Fame in 1992 because of what Tom Seaver did as a Met. It was all enshrined so as to be marveled at: 198 of 311 wins; 2,541 of 3,630 strikeouts; all of his Cy Youngs; his only World Series ring; and, if you still weren’t sure, the NY on the cap on the plaque. That couldn’t be traded for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson and Dan Norman, and it couldn’t be left exposed as potential compensation because Dennis Lamp lit out for Canada.
Out in California, Tom recently received a visit from Bill Madden, who wrote about it in the Daily News. If you wish to catch up with the greatest vintner to ever toe a big league rubber, you can read about it here .
The recent passing of Frank Deford brought to mind a profile the acest of ace reporters wrote for Sports Illustrated in 1981, while Seaver’s Reds “best record in baseball” campaign was on hold due to the summerlong strike. It captures a fascinating moment in time for a Met in exile. I recommend you click here and read it .
To reiterate, I will be joining Jay Goldberg at Bergino Baseball Clubhouse, 67 E. 11th St. in Manhattan, to discuss Piazza: Catcher, Slugger, Icon, Star, Thursday night, June 15, 7 PM. No doubt Tom Seaver will come up. No doubt, also, that Jay will put that night’s Mets game on in the store once the official chatting winds down. Copies of my book will be available from Bergino and I’ll be happy to sign. I really do hope you’ll swing by. The details are here .