The most famous New York Met died Wednesday: Tom Seaver, age 75, cruel disease, too soon. ‘
More than four decades after he was traded away from New York, Seaver still defines the franchise for more than a generation of Mets fans.
He’s held up as the team’s first really good player, the one who lifted them up to respectable and then, in 1969, to champions. It’s hard to find an old-time Mets fan, the fan who went to Shea Stadium when they always played “Meet the Mets,” who wouldn’t give Number 41 all of that.
“The Franchise” wasn’t just a catchy tabloid nickname for Tom Seaver. It was a belief system.
And the funny thing is, if you think about it, Tom Seaver and the Mets were in many ways an odd couple, an incongruous and delightful confluence of opposites.
To oversimplify considerably, the Mets have been their most endearing as slightly ragged scrappers always fighting for respect in a town whose other team, the lordly Yankees, has long taken domination as a birthright.
And here’s Tom Seaver. Golden boy, well spoken, impossibly handsome. A man who approached pitching the way the French approach artisan cheese. After he retired from baseball he started a winery.
This is not to suggest Seaver wasn’t human, or that he didn’t appreciate baseball on the same visceral level as giddy 12-year-olds. Just that there was an elegance about him, and surrounding him, and if you were doing word association with the Mets, “elegance” would probably not make the roster.
The early Mets, through the five years before they signed Seaver in 1967, were a bad team that won the love partly because they were so bad. Willie Mays played there when he was a .211 hitter who was no longer Willie Mays.
The Mets have had good teams and good players. But when you look at arguably their best sustained stretch, the late 1980s, you can’t help thinking about Doc Gooden, who might have been another Seaver and wasn’t.
There always seem to be dangling threads with the Mets, which may still be part of what makes them so endearing to their fans.
Tom Seaver didn’t do loose threads, or at least never seemed to. He came across as an every-hair-in-place kind of guy, on the pitcher’s mound or off.
As a young Dodgers fan whose best chance to see his team live was when they came to Shea to meet the Mets, I felt a deep sense of resignation whenever I saw that Seaver would be pitching that day.
It’s capsulized by one particular game, probably around 1973 or 1974. Davey Lopes led off with a single for the Dodgers and Bill Russell managed to loop a double into short right field by lunging to get his bat on a strike Seaver had thrown over the outside corner at the knees.
Seaver could seemingly throw strikes on the outside corner at the knees all day if he wanted to, watching opposing hitters pound them all into routine ground balls.
In this case, though, we had runners on second and third with nobody out and a couple of good hitters like Steve Garvey coming up. I remember praying that someone would be lucky enough to get another hit and drive those runners in, because I was quite sure we would not be in this situation again for the remainder of the game.
We weren’t. And no, nobody got a hit. Nobody even hit a grounder or a fly ball that could get Lopes home from third. Then Seaver spent the rest of the afternoon mowing us down.
It wasn’t that Seaver made it look easy. You watched Seaver pitching and he was working hard. That didn’t make him any less of an artist, or diminish the elegance of his brushstrokes.
If you had to pick a face for the Mets and someone suggested Tom Seaver, you might at first think that would be like deciding the face of a Saturday night country hoedown should be a violin.
Sounds weird. Except a violin in the right hands is a fiddle, and at a Saturday night country hoedown, a fiddle is just what you need.
Tom Seaver, meet the Mets.