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Greg Prince and Jason Fry
Faith and Fear in Flushing made its debut on Feb. 16, 2005, the brainchild of two longtime friends and lifelong Met fans.

Greg Prince discovered the Mets when he was 6, during the magical summer of 1969. He is a Long Island-based writer, editor and communications consultant. Contact him here.

Jason Fry is a Brooklyn writer whose first memories include his mom leaping up and down cheering for Rusty Staub. Check out his other writing here.

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My Seminal Seaver Summer of ’71

Welcome to A Met for All Seasons, a series in which we consider a given Met who played in a given season and…well, we’ll see.

For me, baseball provides constant challenge, a new mental and physical test every game.
For me, baseball also provides tremendous satisfaction, a realization that all the work and dedication and concentration I’ve put into the game since I was a youngster haven’t been wasted.

—Tom Seaver, with Dick Schaap

It was very important in the summer of 1971 that when I was assigned to a Long Beach Recreation Center Pee Wee League baseball team that I got to wear 41. I worried that because of my late registration (our family tended to be late for everything) that I’d miss out on the plum number because, c’mon, it was 1971 and didn’t every kid want to wear 41? Wasn’t every eight-year-old’s favorite player Tom Seaver?

My conception of organized baseball was formed from watching it on television. There were starters. There were bench players. There was a bullpen. There were uniforms. I did the calculations and assumed that each team would have a minimum of 18 players. One in the field for each position. One on the bench to back up at each position. One to be ready in the bullpen in case the starting pitcher faltered. I could see myself in my spiffy uniform, No. 41, warming up in the bullpen. I knew Pee Wee League wasn’t the big leagues, but I’d seen enough sitcoms to notice that little leaguers got to wear uniforms like just like the big leaguers. If Greg Brady was wearing a real baseball uniform, why wouldn’t Greg Prince?

Ah, but Greg Brady and all those Hollywood scriptwriters didn’t know from the operations of the Long Beach Recreation Center Pee Wee League. There was no bullpen. There weren’t as many as 18 players per team. There were however many as signed up and if a kid didn’t start one day, he’d have to start the next day. Nobody could be a “sub” more than one game in a row, at least according to the rules. As for uniforms, there were no pants. I mean, yeah, we wore pants, but nothing regulation. All we got to identify us as members of a particular team was a t-shirt and perhaps a cap. i say “perhaps,” because they were out of my team’s caps by the time I was registered and taken to Mr. Sport. Mr. Sport had the shirts. Mr. Sport was the official t-shirt supplier of the Rec League. I don’t know who else would have been in Long Beach.

I was an Ace. I could have been a Comet, a Leopard, a Lion or one of two other things whose team names I forget, but they put me on the team with green t-shirts, which was fine as far as it went. I liked green. The A’s of Vida Blue wore green. Mr. Sport — or the man I assume was the proprietor of Mr. Sport but had a different last name — asked if I wanted a number on the back.

Yes, I said, bracing for potential disappointment that I couldn’t have the number I wanted. I wanted 41, I said. I doubt I had to explain its significance to a man known as Sport in 1971

Mr. Sport handed my mother a white felt “4” and a white felt “1” and was instructed where to sew them on. Mr. Sport wasn’t full-service. Numbers were extra to begin with. Two were more than one, but I had to be 41. Mom, who didn’t watch a lot of baseball and didn’t do a lot of sewing, nevertheless dipped into her bowl of needles and thread, and made it happen. I looked ready to play for the Aces. I would be representing an ace among Aces.

I was No. 41.

My No. 41 is no longer in stock. I hope Tom’s will do.

In 1971, I was in my third season as a Mets fan, my second full season. Late summer 1969 was my entrée. What a way to begin. 1970 was the real thing, a full campaign, Spring Training to the World Series, the latter of which proceeded without the participation of the Mets, unlike 1969. I grasped my favorite team couldn’t win every year. I grasped less gracefully, by the time 1970 was over, that my favorite player, Tom Seaver, couldn’t win every start. Or he could but sometimes didn’t. Sometimes the Mets didn’t score enough for him. Sometimes, somehow, he’d give up a run or two too many. He had gone 25-7 in 1969 and seemed to be en route to something similar in 1970. But he stalled in August. Tom won only 18 games despite leading the National League in both strikeouts and earned run average. The Mets won only 83 games despite having Tom Seaver.

Two years, two sets of results, one that enthralled me, one that I accepted somewhat reluctantly. But by then, I was in for life. I didn’t know it, given that life wasn’t yet eight full years, but I could have guessed. Why would I stop loving the Mets or Tom Seaver?

The 1971 Mets were a lot more like the 1970 Mets than the 1969 Mets. They were OK. For a while they were more than that, dueling the Pirates for first place through June. Then they came down with a terrible case of the blahs. They lost 20 of 29 in July and slipped below .500 for a few days in August. When it came to competitiveness, the Mets of No. 41, Tom Seaver, weren’t doing quite as well as the Aces of No. 41, me.

At no point during the 1971 Pee Wee League season would have the Aces been described as being “of me,” but since I’m the only Ace telling this story, consider them my team. Now, because I’m trying to be a reliable narrator, I will tell you that this No. 41 of the Aces — there were at least a couple more, as nobody was really fussy about number assignments; some kids didn’t even bother with numbers — wasn’t a particularly good baseball player. Or Tee-ball player. That’s what we were playing. I’d never heard of it until I showed up for my first game, after that game had started, at least one game after that season had started. My only previous experience with slightly organized ball was an afterschool program in recently completed second grade. We played all kinds of sports. I was all kinds of not good, but I loved to play. In spring, we played baseball. My mother bought me a glove at TSS. Somebody decided I was a first baseman, probably due to decent height for an eight-year-old. But my glove wasn’t a first base mitt, so soon I was labeled a third baseman. Less chance to get me and my glove involved in the action.

Come summer and the Aces’ second or later game of the season, I show up with my glove and my No. 41 shirt and no cap and I’m asked what position I play. “Third base,” I say confidently. All right, I’m told, go play third base.

You know that phrase you’ve heard down the corridors of time with the Mets regarding “the third base experiment”? For all those converted first basemen or outfielders who were drafted for third base duty in those “79 men on third” days when nobody could fill the gaping hot corner hole for more than a week, maybe less? “The third base experiment didn’t last very long,” that sort of description?

The third base experiment didn’t last very long with me. I clearly remember a ball getting by me, bouncing past an open chain-link gate and me chasing it onto an adjacent street where men working some kind of road construction kindly pointed me toward my rolling object of desire. I got the ball back into the infield. The batter had rounded the bases by then. The batter might have rounded the bases twice. It took me a while to make the play.

That was the extent of the third base experiment for me on the Aces. Soon I was consigned to “sub” duty half the time and half the time directed to the pitcher’s mound. No. 41 on the mound! It was the stuff of my Channel 9 dreams. Or at least The Brady Bunch. Except in none of that programming did the batters bat off tees, rendering the “pitcher” utterly — and I mean utterly — pointless, save for an occasional grounder up the middle, and even then.

I was wearing 41, just like Tom Seaver. I was the pitcher, just like Tom Seaver. Except I was nothing like Tom Seaver. Tom Seaver looked in for the sign. Tom Seaver went to his windup, hands above his head, his body unfurling with fury, his right knee hitting the dirt, his right hand firing a pitch, probably a strike, to his catcher. Tom Seaver actually got to throw the ball. Tom Seaver wasn’t switched after a couple of games to catcher. In the league where Tom Seaver played, the catcher — Jerry Grote most starts, Duffy Dyer sometimes — kept busy catching. In Tee-ball, the catcher got to wear extra gear and stand (not crouch) behind the plate while the other team’s batter swung at a ball that was not pitched. So except for an inning of experimentation at third, my role as a 1971 Ace was pitcher/catcher/sub.

I was cursed with versatility.

Seaver, on the other hand, was blessed with the right arm that was the envy of his contemporaries. He did more than wear 41. He modeled it for the aspirational youth of the age. By the All-Star break of 1971, even with the Mets crumbling, Seaver stood out. He had ten wins, halfway to the twenty he didn’t get in 1970. He’d been stuck on ten for a couple of weeks. The Mets were no help. Still, you didn’t have an All-Star Game without Tom Seaver. Seaver had been a National Leaguer for five seasons and was making the All-Star team his fifth time. He started in 1970, and the NL won. He wasn’t used in 1971, and the NL lost. There’s a valuable lesson in there.

I loved All-Star teams and All-Star Games. The Rec Center put up a sign that they’d be having one. I saw that it would be Thursday. Hey, Mom, can we go? It meant cutting short her sitting at the beach, which she quite enjoyed, but she agreed. I looked forward to cheering on my teammates who made the All-Stars the way I cheered on Seaver and Bud Harrelson when they were introduced at Tiger Stadium. Except I had read the sign wrong. The game had been last Thursday. The Rec Center’s diamonds were quiet, except for somebody’s mother loudly pointing out her son was something of an idiot.

That interruption of a perfectly lovely beach day had not gone over big with my Pee Wee League mom, and I sure heard about it, but otherwise, she was surprisingly supportive of my venture. On sunny mornings she’d sit in the stands under an umbrella and voice encouragement. “Throw the hat, not the bat” was her chant, conceived to teach me to stop throwing the bat if I managed to hit the ball off a tee. You were called out for throwing the bat. The communal helmet they didn’t seem to think posed as much of a danger. (Also, we all shared one batting helmet, which I don’t want to think about too much.) She also suggested to our best player that he could help his well-meaning teammate, No. 41 here, improve if he played a little catch with him, over there, where they’re building the skating rink, when the Aces weren’t in the field and neither of us was batting. To my surprise, the best player on the team became my warmup partner.

The Aces were actually pretty good, my sporadic contributions notwithstanding. Once karma smiled on me and allowed me the kind of trip around the bases some kid enjoyed at my expense when a ball with which I made contact mysteriously slipped away from another eight-year-old and then some. I didn’t have the perspective to appreciate just what unsure bets eight-year-old glovemen were. I counted it as one of the 35 home runs I hit in 1971. Thirty-four were in my backyard, alone.

I would’ve preferred to play more for the Aces — and not strap on a chest protector, a mask and purpose-free shin guards when I did — but I had some nice conversations on the bench. When not chatting, I tried to be a holler guy. One time I hollered at the coach when he attempted to convince me that “for the good of the team” I should allow him to waive the league rules and sit for a second consecutive game. Every kid had to play at least every other game. I wasn’t putting up with his illegal roster management. Neither was my mother. She got a big kick out of me pointing out to the coach that while other players, like myself, were rotated on and off the bench, his son always started, always played center and always batted leadoff. I think I wanted to add “…and your son isn’t really that great,” but I wanted to maintain my status as a good teammate.

My fellow substitutes appreciated my speaking up on behalf of the forgotten children. I wonder if the pitchers Gil Hodges reflexively skipped over so Tom Seaver could always pitch when his turn came up were any more understanding of their slights than I was of mine. I doubt any of them raised their voice to Gil. Then again, nobody on our team, whatever our level of success in 1971, was a budding Tom Seaver.

Four teams made the Pee Wee League playoffs, ours included. The Aces beat the Comets in the semis; somebody’s mom took the team to Jahn’s for ice cream. We earned the right to face the Lions in the finals. They had defeated the Leopards. I was a designated bench guy for the championship game. I didn’t argue. One of the other subs brought a bottle of lemon-lime soda from the nearby A&P. Green bottle, to match our t-shirts. We passed it back and forth and took swigs, just like we shared a batting helmet. I was hoping we were going to save some to douse each other in victory, same as Tom Seaver and his teammates did with champagne when they won every championship they won in 1969. It would be sticky, I figured, but it would be worth it.

Turned out we didn’t need to save any A&P Lemon-Lime Soda for a postgame celebration. We lost to the Lions. I don’t recall the score. I don’t recall terrible disappointment. I was a Mets fan. I knew you couldn’t emerge as champions every season. Being pretty good was good enough sometimes. I also knew my mother was inviting the team to Gino’s for consolation pizza, which was terrific.

***
It was very important in the summer of 1971 that when my mother and I wandered into a bookstore at Roosevelt Field and I picked up a paperback book with my favorite player on the cover that I have it. The Perfect Game: Tom Seaver and the Mets it was called, “by Tom Seaver with Dick Schaap”. The Dick Schaap part was in smaller letters. I knew Schaap from doing the sports on Channel 4. I didn’t know he wrote, too. I didn’t know Seaver wrote at all, but how surprising could that be? To me, Tom Seaver could do it all.

The cover promised “The marvelous story of the team that couldn’t win, the pitcher who wouldn’t lose, and The Perfect Game”. Plus it was “Fully illustrated!” All that for 95 cents. I don’t think I had to ask Mom too hard.

Reading about Tom Seaver is fundamental.

I owned a few sports books by the time I was eight, but this was the first one completely devoted to the Mets, or to a Met. It was about both Seaver and his team. A lot more about Seaver, given the authoring arrangement. As I dug in, I contemplated how the process worked. Did Schaap come over to Seaver’s house? Probably. Seaver’s house looked like my house in my mind because mine was the only house I knew well. They probably sat in the dining room, situated where our dining room was, Seaver talking, Schaap taking notes, Nancy — I already knew from Nancy Seaver — coming in courteously asking if anybody wanted coffee.

However Seaver and Schaap pulled it off, they told a story that mesmerized me. They told me about Tom being from Fresno. Tom going to USC. Tom joining the Marines. Tom pitching for the Alaska Goldpanners. Tom being drafted by the Atlanta Braves, then being told not so fast there, Tom because the college season had already started and USC’s own Tom Seaver was still on campus.

They told me about a hat and a lottery and a slip of paper that said New York Mets, which was where the chronology got really good, because it meant Seaver would pitch for us. First, a year in Jacksonville, rooming with Wilbur Huckle. Then 1967, his rookie season, his All-Star season, his Rookie of the Year season, followed by 1968, when making the All-Star team became a way of Tom’s life.

Then 1969, which was the whole reason there was a book by and about Tom Seaver. Up to the day I brought The Perfect Game home, I remembered a few highlights personally from when I was six and had picked up some more from studying baseball cards, listening to Ralph Kiner, Bob Murphy and Bob Murphy and watching (as the short preceding The Out of Towners at the Laurel Theater) Look Who’s No. 1 when I was seven. Now, at eight, I was getting the inside dope from the main man, from No. 41 himself. I got to learn about how he couldn’t get a decent breakfast before he started the first game of the World Series — the hotel coffee shop was crazy busy in Baltimore — so he had to grab a roast beef on white with mayo. It apparently wasn’t nourishing enough because he gave up a leadoff homer to Don Buford and lost Game One.

The Perfect Game was organized around Game Four. That was the title game. I thought it would be about that perfect game he didn’t quite get versus the Cubs on July 9, 1969, the one Jimmy Qualls broke up in the ninth inning. No, it was Game Four. It was more perfect to Seaver because he was trying to win a championship. The Mets were up two games to one in the Series. He was disappointed in that first start. He was going to make up for it, even if it took ten innings.

Which it did. Tom Seaver went the distance, beating the Orioles, 2-1. Gil didn’t take him out until his turn to bat came up in the tenth. J.C. Martin pinch-hit for him and bunted. Running fortuitously in a baseline of his own creation, Martin’s wrist deflected Pete Richert’s throw to first. Pinch-runner Rod Gaspar scored from second. Hodges didn’t make his subs sit very long.

That night, Tom Seaver celebrated his first World Series victory at Lum’s, a Chinese restaurant on Northern Boulevard, near where he and Nancy lived in Flushing. Mr. Lum (presumably no relation to Mr. Sports) told the Seavers he thought that by the time the Mets were in the World Series that his beard would be down to the floor.

Mr. Lum, Seaver and Schaap pointed out, didn’t have a beard at all.

I consumed what Tom ate, what Tom breathed, what Tom thought, what Tom did. I read The Perfect Game and then I read it again. I was so proprietary of its facts and figures (it was also fully illustrated with statistics) that when my sister gave me a rubber stamp and ink pad with name, I stamped GREG all over the back and side of the book.

TOM had already imprinted his name on my brain. For years, any book I saw that was “by” Seaver or about Seaver was one I had to have, even when the price rose above a dollar. Same for books about the rest of the Mets. All I wanted to do was read about my favorite player and my favorite team. Maybe someday I’d write about them.

***
It was very important to me in the summer of 1971, especially as summer slid into fall, that when the Mets’ season was over, it end with Tom Seaver winning 20 games. The Mets’ season would be over on September 30, a Thursday night at Shea Stadium versus St. Louis. I knew their season wouldn’t extend into the playoffs. The Cardinals had surpassed the Mets for second place, and the Pirates had run away with the NL East. I’d be happy if the Mets could finish no lower than third. I’d be ecstatic if Seaver was a 20-game winner.

How could he not be? Something went awry last year, 1970. Tom was 16-5 at one point, 17-6 a little thereafter. Then he stopped winning games. It bothered me the whole offseason. The Cy Young voters didn’t care that his ERA was lowest in the league (even if it was kind of high for a league leader, at 2.82) or that his strikeouts were the most (283, more than any righty in NL history). They honored Bob Gibson instead. Tom finished seventh. Seventh! Pitchers with earned run averages over three (three!) finished higher. But most of them had won 20 or more games. That was the Cy Young standard. I knew Tom Seaver was the best pitcher going. But one number would speak loudest on his behalf.

Twenty wins in 1971 was both a badge of honor and not altogether inaccessible. Fourteen different pitchers were on their way to a record of 20 and something. Most dazzling in his pursuit of the dynamic digits was Vida Blue of the Oakland A’s. When I wasn’t focused on Seaver and the Mets, I was taken by Blue and the A’s. They wore green, just like the Aces. Blue piled up wins out of the gate in 1971 like Seaver had in 1970. Vida was 6-1 by the end of April, 10-2 at the close of May, 16-3 when June concluded. Even slowing down a little, he was fantastic, notching his 20th win on August 7. Vida Blue was a revelation.

Yet he didn’t lead the American League in wins. Vida finished 24-8. Mickey Lolich of the Tigers came on like gangbusters (you learn a lot of terms when you’re eight and paying attention to sports) and finished 25-14. Lolich, a lefty like Blue, pitched a lot. A lot. Vida started 39 games and completed 24. Mickey started 45 and completed 29. These would have been crazy totals to me had I had much context, but I was in my third season of watching baseball, my second full season. This is what aces when they went out to pitch.

The Orioles had four aces, or, more precisely, four 20-game winners. Nobody really thought of Pat Dobson as an ace, yet Baltimore’s fourth starter won 20 games, as many as Mike Cuellar and Jim Palmer, one fewer than Dave McNally. Cuellar and McNally had won a Cy Young previously. Palmer had a few in his future. Yet they were essentially footnotes behind Blue and Lolich — and Lolich only pulled himself into the blue-tinged conversation by pitching what seemed like every third day.

Blue’s teammate Catfish Hunter won 21 games. Lolich’s teammate Joe Coleman won 20 games. A White Sox knuckleballer named Wilbur Wood won 22. Andy Messersmith won 20 for the California Angels. The American League was lousy with 20-game winners. For what it was worth, Hunter was a pretty good hitter as well.

I followed the AL leaders because they played baseball, too, but the NL is what really mattered to me. The NL — or senior circuit, as it was sometimes called in the papers — was a little more choosy. Al Downing, who’d been around a while with limited distinction, suddenly won 20 for the Dodgers. Steve Carlton, who I knew mostly from the story about him striking out 19 Mets yet losing that game when Ron Swoboda homered off him twice (the Mets had since traded Swoboda — comprehending that a 1969 Met hero could be traded was tough when I was eight), won 20 for the Cardinals. Gibson was absent from the list this year, but another perennial 20-game winner, Ferguson Jenkins of the Cubs, was accumulating a couple of dozen victories for a Chicago team no less so-so than ours in New York. Jenkins would wind up with 24 wins. He’d also lose 13 and complete 30. Leo Durocher was not shy about pushing his starters.

Gil Hodges was more careful with Tom Seaver. In 1970, he started his ace on three days’ rest a few too many times for comfort. It didn’t work. Back to the five-man rotation Gil and pitching coach Rube Walker had fashioned to bring the Mets to prominence. Tom would get four days of rest as a rule. Sometimes it rained and somebody would sit so Tom didn’t have to idle. Hopefully those non-Seaver Met pitchers were of good cheer rooting on Tom.

As of July 17, in his first start after the All-Star Game, Tom Seaver sported as good a non-Blue ERA as you could ask for from an ace pitcher in 1971 or, really, any year: 2.32. But his won-lost record, the first and sometimes only thing busy baseball writers examined when evaluating who was good, who was great and who was the best when deciding who’d win an award, was 10-7. The seventh loss came when Seaver pitched into the ninth at the Astrodome. He’d given up one run on four hits over eight innings, walking nobody and striking out ten. The score was 1-1 despite his best efforts. In the ninth, Roger Metzger led off by singling, Joe Morgan bunted him to second and Jim Wynn, a.k.a. the Toy Cannon, was issued an intentional walk. Gil told Tom to go after the promising Houston center fielder, Cesar Cedeño instead. Cedeño, all of 20 years old, beat savvy 26-year-old Tom with a single that scored Metzger.

Tom Seaver made it to his 1972 card a two-time 20-game winner. The card has survived with me 48 years.

That was the kind of outing Tom Seaver would lose for the 1971 Mets. He’d go eight, strike out eight and lose, 3-1. Or he’d go nine, strike out ten and be no-decisioned despite giving up no runs. Pitching into the tenth inning didn’t necessarily get him a win. What would become identified down the line as “quality starts” didn’t by any means guarantee him a W.

In early August, with Seaver’s record at 11-8 and his ERA at 2.26, Jack Lang, one of the beat reporters who’d tracked Tom since Tom was a rookie, made the kind of pronouncement that made a certain kind of sense in the year of Blue and Lolich and Jenkins:

“One thing is clear. It is not Tom Seaver’s year.”

Perhaps Tom Seaver took inspiration from Lang’s appraisal, because when his next start came around, 1971 very much became Tom Seaver’s year. Even the Mets must’ve been reading, because they scored nine runs on his behalf; the Mets won, 9-1, with Seaver going all the way. He was now 12-8.

Tom followed up with another ten brilliant innings (0 R, 14 SO)…and a no-decision in San Diego. But it was too late to turn back now. The pitcher who crushed the 20-win mark in 1969 and fell short of it in 1970 was on a mission. A shutout over the Dodgers raised Tom’s mark to 13-8. Three consecutive complete-game triumphs in his next three starts boosted him to 16-8. Then, not just a complete game, but a shutout over the Expos. 17-8. Nine more innings, another win, this times versus the Philies. 18-8 on September 11.

Then, frustration. A 1-0 loss to the Cubs, with the only run scored when opposing starter Juan Pizarro homered in the eighth. Tom would be outpitched by a Cub again, this time rookie Burt Hooton. Seaver’s ERA was down to 1.81. His “record,” the only figure anybody referred to as a pitcher’s signature, was 18-10. Eight games remained in the season. Under usual circumstances, Seaver would have but one start left.

On September 26, Tom took on the division champion Pirates at Shea. Perhaps he was moonlighting with the grounds crew, because Seaver was mowing down every Buc batter he faced. Three up, three down in the first; three up, three down in the second; three up, three down in the third.

Tom Seaver was pitching a perfect game against the Pittsburgh Pirates. Roberto Clemente had the day off, but Danny Murtaugh had started several of his dangerous-hitting regulars: Willie Stargell, Al Oliver, Bob Robertson, Dave Cash. Seaver was setting down every Pirate he saw. The strikeouts were piling up. He had fanned ten in the first six innings. Win No. 19 was in sight, and it might come on the wings of the first no-hitter in Mets history…the first perfect game in Mets history.

This might call for another book!

Those particular literary wings were clipped as soon as the seventh got underway. Cash walked to end the bid for perfection. Then Vic Davalillo, playing in place of Clemente, stroked a clean single to center that chased Cash to third. There went the no-hitter. Oliver’s run-scoring fly ball to center spoiled the shutout, too. Now there was the matter of holding onto the lead. A runner was on, only one was out and Stargell, who already had 47 home runs (and had been clobbering the Mets literally since the day Shea opened), was up next.

Tom opted for a sinking fastball. His desire was to get Wilver to pound one into the ground and set up an inning-ending double play. True to the way Seaver planned and executed his pitching over the last two months of 1971, that’s precisely what happened: 1-6-3, Seaver to Harrelson to Donn Clendenon.

“That’s exactly what I was trying to do,” Seaver said after the game. “I know that sounds egocentric, but that’s damn good pitching.”

Tom and the Mets stayed ahead. And Seaver returned to flawlessness thereafter. He retired the final six batters to win his nineteenth, 3-1. His only blemishes were that walk to Cash and that single to Davalillo. Because of the DP, he wound up facing just one batter over the minimum.

But he was still one victory under the minimum for what was universally accepted as part and parcel of the definition of greatness…even though nobody was arguing Seaver wasn’t as great a pitcher as could be found. None of us who had grown to love him, though, would be fully satisfied if Tom didn’t get his greatness statistically certified. Tom certainly wouldn’t be. The Mets’ middling ways’ notwithstanding, Tom was not the type to accept pretty good as good enough. Not even very, very good would do it. Thus, three days of rest was not too few for Hodges to give him the ball one more time. It’s not like there were playoffs for which to save him. It’s hard to believe Seaver had to prove anything to anybody by the final game of 1971, but Tom Seaver was the toughest audience Tom Seaver had.

“The numbers come close to saying, yes, George Thomas Seaver is the best pitcher in baseball,” Vic Ziegel wrote as the Mets’ season otherwise limped to its conclusion. “There is, Seaver understands, only one more number he must add to the list.” No. 20 loomed large in the public imagination where No. 41 was concerned.

Unlike Game Four of the 1969 World Series, there was virtually nothing on the line for the Mets as a team in Game 162 of 1971. A piece of third place remained available, and nobody would mind the few extra bucks that would net each Met, but really, this was about Tom Seaver winning a game for Tom Seaver. And for me, at eight, or any age, that was all I needed to hear. You root for the whole team, you root just a little harder for your favorite player. Single-mindedness is what lifts a competitor above his peers, and Seaver’s drive elevated him to a plane where he had few, maybe no peers. (It also elevated the Mets to a World Championship two years earlier, when nobody outside of Baltimore seemed to mind how badly he wanted to win.) Of course Seaver wanted to pitch the final game of the year. Of course Gil Hodges would let him. And of course he’d win it, attaining No. 20 in a brilliant complete game stifling of the Cardinals, 6-1, striking out 13 Redbirds along the way.

I watched that game and I celebrated the last out. Not with anybody and not with lemon-lime soda, but savoring delicious confirmation that nobody could say Tom Seaver wasn’t a 20-game winner and nobody who looked at all of the other numbers — a 1.76 ERA that was lower than everybody’s in the majors, including Blue’s; 289 strikeouts, breaking his own senior circuit righty mark — could possibly say Seaver wasn’t the best at what he did. Make room on the man’s trophy case. A second Cy is surely on its way!

Ah, they gave it to Jenkins. Whatever. I knew Tom Seaver was the best in 1971. I knew it before 1971. I’ve known it ever since. That’s the very important thing.

PREVIOUS METS FOR ALL SEASONS
1962: Richie Ashburn
1963: Ron Hunt
1964: Rod Kanehl
1965: Ron Swoboda
1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice
1967: Al Schmelz
1969: Donn Clendenon
1970: Tommie Agee
1972: Gary Gentry
1973: Willie Mays
1977: Lenny Randle
1978: Craig Swan
1981: Mookie Wilson
1982: Rusty Staub
1983: Darryl Strawberry
1986: Keith Hernandez
1988: Gary Carter
1990: Gregg Jefferies
1991: Rich Sauveur
1992: Todd Hundley
1993: Joe Orsulak
1994: Rico Brogna
1995: Jason Isringhausen
1996: Rey Ordoñez
1998: Todd Pratt
2000: Melvin Mora
2001: Mike Piazza
2002: Al Leiter
2003: David Cone
2004: Joe Hietpas
2005: Pedro Martinez
2007: Jose Reyes
2008: Johan Santana
2009: Angel Pagan
2010: Ike Davis
2012: R.A. Dickey
2013: Wilmer Flores
2014: Jacob deGrom
2019: Dom Smith

7 comments to My Seminal Seaver Summer of ’71

  • Ed P.

    My first live game was in 1971, on my seventh birthday. Seaver was the starter and he gave up 12 hits in 5 2/3. All I remember was that he gave up a triple to Rick Wise, Shamsky caught a foul out by our seats and the guy in front of me barehanded a screaming foul ball. Seeing the green grass of Shea in person was magic. The Mets won that game in 15 and we did not stay for all of it.

  • eric1973

    My first live game was in 1971, on my sixth birthday. We had first row FIELD LEVEL BOX, as any seat was easily available back then, if you were rich enough to fork over the $4.00 per ticket.

    I still have the ticket stub, BOX145A, SEAT 2, and a copy of the check from Manufacturer’s Hanover Trust, 4 tickets totalling $16.25. Must have had a 25 cent service charge, if you paid in advance, by check, dated MAR29.

    Well, the Mets beat the Braves that day, and a look at the box score shows that TOM SEAVER was on the mound, facing off against George Stone. Sorry, but a very un-Seaver-like performance, as he gave up 3 ER, 8H, 5K, 6BB, and a HBP in 7.2 innings. Ron Taylor got the win in 11 innings.

    Anyway, I remember Duffy Dyer walking by my section and giving out autographs. Me being 6, I guess I was too little, and he passed right by me. But I eventually got his autograph, when they had the 1973 reunion at Shea, and a very ill Tug McGraw was driven in from the bullpen, in the old bullpen car. They set up some tables and chairs inside one of the gates, before the event, for autographs, and Ed Kranepool told me that the Mets “only call me when they need me.” Glad they patched things up since then.

    And Greg, I had that ‘How I Would Pitch to Babe Ruth’ book in my sixth grade desk, in 1976-1977. I loved that little red book, and it took me months to finish it.

    Good Times!

  • Henry J Lenz

    Ah,Lums! Cantonese lobster with my parents and sister there every Sunday night in the 60’s. Across the street from Flushing High School. And 10 minutes from Shea. How nice to know he went there after Game 4! Thanks for your wonderful memories of The Franchise. Johnny Bench introduced me to Tom in the press box while I was engineering for CBS Radio in the 80’s. I tried to be professional but my heart was pounding out of my chest :) RIP

  • eric1973

    And speaking of Lum’s, Mike Lum played in that game in 1971.

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  • […] 1965: Ron Swoboda 1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice 1967: Al Schmelz 1969: Donn Clendenon 1970: Tommie Agee 1971: Tom Seaver 1972: Gary Gentry 1973: Willie Mays 1977: Lenny Randle 1978: Craig Swan 1981: Mookie […]

  • […] 1965: Ron Swoboda 1966: Shaun Fitzmaurice 1967: Al Schmelz 1969: Donn Clendenon 1970: Tommie Agee 1971: Tom Seaver 1972: Gary Gentry 1973: Willie Mays 1974: Tug McGraw 1977: Lenny Randle 1978: Craig […]