The darkest day of my youth was the day the Mets traded Tom Seaver.
It was called Midnight Massacre, as the Mets unloaded the greatest talent they’d ever produced, then and now, to the Reds.
The date was June 16, 1977. I was seven.
Like many Met fans of all ages I cried, sobbed really. I was inconsolable. Utterly devastated. Broken. Tom Seaver was the first great hero of my life and he was gone, shipped to some far off land called Cincinnati.
It was my first, though not last, experience with heartbreak. My heart broke again tonight when I saw the news that he had died on Monday.
Tom Terrific, the greatest Met who walked this Earth, and one of the greatest pitchers of all time, was 75.
The thing about Seaver was that he seemed like perfection in those glorious Met years, carrying a laughingstock of franchise to not just respectability, but to a miraculous world championship in 1969, the year I was born. His delivery was effortless and powerful, not a wasted motion. Nobody was as focused on the craft of pitching as Seaver. I even patterned my delivery after his. Hands up high over my head. Arms coming down to my chest as I turned and raised my left knee skyward, head pulled down, not even looking at the catcher’s mitt, fully aware if I landed my left foot where I needed it, the ball would follow. Then I dropped-and-drived as Seaver always did, before releasing to the plate. I never got the dirt stain on the right knee as he always did, a sign that he was cookin’, but I tried.
His life in New York seemed glamorous, with his beautiful wife Nancy always nearby. The photos of the two of them I can still see. Him leaning next to the stands’ railing, her leaning in from her front-row seat. The Franchise and his First Lady.
“We are heartbroken to share that our beloved husband and father has passed away,” his wife, Nancy, and daughters Sarah and Anne said. “We send our love out to his fans, as we mourn his loss with you.”
When he was traded that June night, that was all gone. Camelot in smithereens. And even though I followed him in Cincy, and celebrated his first-and-only no-hitter, it still hurt. It should have happened as a Met.
I met him once at a baseball card show. He was signing autographs, of course. I got his autograph, too nervous to say anything. I still don’t know why I bought a photo of him as a Red to sign. What the hell was I thinking! I always meant to do something about that. Now, it’s too late.
But I have other memories of Seaver. As an editor at the New York Daily News I was assigned two pieces for our Farewell to Shea Stadium special section, and one was on the stadium’s Seaver Years. I was thrilled. I knew I would finally get to talk to Tom Seaver. And really talk to him, ask him questions about his career, everything.
In doing my research I came across a photo of Seaver and teammate Gary Gentry. It was minutes after the Miracle Mets had finished off the favored-Orioles in five games back in ’69. The field has been trashed. Clumps of grass hauled off, soon to be planted in front yards all over the five boroughs of New York City. Graffiti decorated the outfield wall. And there were Seaver and Gentry, the two pitchers on the mound, calm, reflective, shirts untucked, hair disheveled.
I asked Seaver why he had gone back out there, and he simply said, “Because that’s where it all happened. That was it.”
After all the chaos and champagne, Seaver left the clubhouse to spend a quiet moment on the mound. That was Seaver.
Over the years I would call Seaver from time to time, just to see how he was doing. He talked about his dogs, and what he’d done that day (usually walking his winery) and of course his wife, Nancy. Sometimes he would put Nancy on the phone. She was lovely and honest. When I called to tell her that I was doing a story on how the Mets needed to have a statue for her husband out front of their new stadium Citi Field, she agreed, and didn’t hold back, calling the lack of one “ridiculous.”
“I’m embarrassed for (the Mets). I really am,” she said.
My fear was he would be no longer with us when it was finally unveiled. And now it seems that will be the case. I’m embarrassed for the Mets, too. They changed the name of an entry gate to Seaver 41, but the statue is still missing.
So here I was, having regular chats with my childhood idol and his wife. I would never have imagined it.
But I knew Seaver wasn’t always there. Nancy would say he has his good days and his bad days. He would say that if he could spend some time with his grapes it was a good day.
It started for me when I’d heard him say he’d never met Johan Santana, the Cy Young-winning pitcher the Mets had just traded for. My mouth gaped. And I became distraught. It hadn’t been before that when Seaver and Santana had sat down together for an hour-long interview with Mets broadcaster Ron Darling. The two Cy winners talking pitching. Seaver had no memory of any of it.
That’s when I knew something was wrong. He came out and said he’d had Lyme Disease, but I was sure it was something else. Something much worse. I was sure he had dementia, much like my father had had. One of the last times I spoke with Seaver he’d told me he and Nancy had just escaped roaring wildfires that were fast approaching his Napa Valley home. I’d called to make sure he was safe. He was, and his home was spared.
A year or so later his family announced that he was retiring from public life. I knew our calls would come to and end. I knew it was only a matter of time before he would be gone.
He died Monday of Lewy Body Dementia, and to make 2020 even more painful, of COVID-19 complications as well.
I was wondering if the coronavirus was going to take away one of my heroes, and it has.
He won the Rookie of the Year in 1967, and three Cy Youngs and 311 games and struck out 19 in one game, blowing away the last 10. And of course he’s in the Hall of Fame, inducted in 1992 with a then-record 98.84% of first-place votes.
He had a terrific life.
My heart was broken back in 1977. It’s been broken all over again.
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