Tom Seaver Was Great Even When the Mets Weren’t

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In early April 1983, with Tom Seaver back on the Mets after a six-year exile, I went to see him pitch the season opener at Shea Stadium. My father, as was often the case, came with me. We had been rooting for the Mets, together, since their inaugural season 1962, and we did not have much to show for our two decades of shatterproof loyalty.

But so what? We did have Seaver, the biggest hero of 1969, and here he was again, wearing his No. 41 again, and we jumped right into the loud welcome-back that embraced him as he walked from the bullpen to the dugout before the game, stopping along the way to hand a baseball to someone in the stands.

The sun was out, the chilly April winds at Shea had calmed, at least briefly, and Seaver — yeah, Seaver — was on the mound. But as we sat in our seats a couple levels up from the field and waited for Seaver’s first pitch, we realized that water was starting to drip from the overhang above us, narrowly missing our heads and hitting the concrete below with a staccato rhythm.

To be blunt, there is often some leaking pipe when it comes to the Mets. It’s just the way it is. Yankee fans as old as I am have file drawers filled with team heroics from the last 50-plus seasons. I have a pamphlet for the Mets.

Even now, in this improvised 2020 season, with seven-inning doubleheaders and extra innings starting with a runner at second base, the Mets have stayed in character. They are under .500, as they often are, even though they have a lineup with some good hitters and possess one of the best pitchers in baseball in Jacob deGrom. Drip, drip, drip goes that leak.

Not that Seaver ever heard any of that dripping, at least not when he was on the field. In that 1983 opener, he pitched six scoreless innings at the age of 38 against a Philadelphia Phillies team that would go on to the World Series that year. The Mets won the game, 2-0, one of just 68 victories they would notch that season. Seaver, meanwhile, would end the year with a 9-14 record and a 3.55 earned run average, decent numbers on a forgettable team. He made a robust 34 starts and pitched five complete games, an unheard-of figure for pitchers these days.

It was more than enough to expect Seaver to keep pitching for the Mets in 1984. But in January, the team’s front office made a colossal blunder, leaving him unprotected in baseball’s free-agent compensation pool. The Chicago White Sox grabbed him.

The Mets thought no team would take an aging pitcher. They were wrong. “Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maximum culpa,” Frank Cashen, the Mets’ general manager, said at the time. Drip, drip, drip.

Seaver would go 15-11 for the White Sox in 1984 and 16-11 the following season, when he also won his 300th game — at Yankee Stadium, no less. The suddenly improved Mets would spend those two seasons losing intense division races to the Chicago Cubs in ’84 and the St. Louis Cardinals in ’85.

Could they have used Seaver in those seasons? Of course. By 1985, the Mets’ roster included Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Darryl Strawberry, Ron Darling and an unhittable Dwight Gooden. They would win 98 games and still finish second in the National League East.

With Seaver on board, the Mets might have finished first. The victory parade up Broadway a year later, when the Mets won the second of their two championships, might have taken place 12 months earlier. And Seaver would have become a remarkable bridge between the two brief bursts of excellence in Mets history.

Oh well, let it go. For in the wake of his death at the age of 75, we can appreciate all over again the astounding triumph he, more than anyone else, produced for the Mets in 1969. It was the season in which he came within two outs of a perfect game in a July showdown with the Cubs at Shea, loudly declaring that the Mets, a source of great comedy for much of the 1960s, were now for real. Everyone in baseball heard him.

It was the season in which, two months later, in another showdown at Shea, the Cubs threw a pitch right at the Mets’ leadoff hitter, Tommie Agee, knocking him off his feet in the bottom of the first inning. Seaver, his teammate Ron Swoboda recalled in a 2019 interview with The New York Times, immediately jumped up in the dugout, yelling: “You don’t want to do that!” Everyone on the Cubs heard him.

In the top of the second, Jerry Koosman, who, like Seaver, spent all of that September pitching one complete-game victory after another, drilled the Cubs’ Ron Santo with a pitch. The Mets won the game, 3-2. The next night, Seaver beat the Cubs, 7-1.

The Cubs were about to be left in the dust. The Mets were on their way to a championship.

Even now, 51 years later, it’s hard for me to fathom what Seaver and the Mets did that season, for I am the kind of fan who often just hears that drip. But I can also still hear that roar from 1969, which was sometimes filtered through my car radio, where I managed to track the Mets for hours on end while I was going to school in Buffalo. And I can still hear that joyous ovation Seaver received 14 years later as he walked in from the bullpen to start his all-too-brief reunion with the Mets.

With Seaver gone, that’s the Mets’ sound track I’m playing in my head. All that other Mets noise can wait.

Jay Schreiber is a former deputy sports editor at The New York Times who oversaw baseball coverage for two decades.

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