March 7, 2019
CLEARWATER, Fla. — The rain was falling in sheets outside Citi Field, there was some lightning in the forecast, but the weather wasn’t about to dampen the mood of the man standing in the middle of the Mets’ Hall of Fame. This was an April night back in 2010, and Tom Seaver was staring at a video compilation of his career as a Met.
“Look at that young man throw a baseball,” he said, cackling, then commenting about the patch of dirt that, as always, appeared on his right knee whenever he was performing at his finest. “Get after it, kid. Get after it.”
Around the room were scores of mementos of the greatest of all Mets careers: his Hickok Belt as the outstanding athlete of 1969; replicas of the three Cy Young Awards he won in 1969, ’73 and ’75; a few team photos of the ’69 Mets and the ’73 Mets. Every time he saw something he stopped, and he shook his head.
When he saw a picture of Gil Hodges, tears formed and his voice choked. “There is the man who put this franchise on the face of this earth,” said the man who himself used to be called “The Franchise,” and who helped Hodges perform that wondrous work.
And then George Thomas Seaver of Fresno, Calif., and Flushing, N.Y., said something that, right now, only breaks your heart.
“Think about me,” he said. “I was blessed with some ability, and with a great right arm. And now, for the rest of my life, I’ll have some of the greatest collection of memories anyone who ever played this game has ever had.”
Yes, that’s a hard one to hear right now, because his family issued a press release on Thursday that said Seaver “has recently been diagnosed with dementia. Tom will continue to work in his beloved vineyard at his California home but has chosen to completely retire from public life.”
No other Met in history is responsible for more memories than Seaver, from his Imperfect Game against the Cubs in the fabled summer of ’69 through all the one-hitters and shutouts (to say nothing of the acre of games he lost 1-0 and 2-1). The day he was traded away in 1977, the franchise stopped breathing for six years.
The day he came back — Opening Day 1983, throwing six dominant innings against the Phillies at Shea — he was welcomed as exiled royalty might have been, the eternal King of Queens, and on that day he said, “This will always be home.” And every time he returned, it was home. Even when they built the new house across the parking lot.
“This is just another kick to the gut,” Art Shamsky said over the telephone Thursday afternoon. “Just another reminder that we’re all a little bit older than we used to be.”
It was in May 2017 that Shamsky and a few of his teammates from the ’69 Mets — Buddy Harrelson, Jerry Koosman, Ron Swoboda — took a trip to Seaver’s home in Calistoga, Calif., and it is that mini-reunion that serves as the spine of Shamsky’s forthcoming book, “After the Miracle.”
Seaver’s friends and old teammates already knew that in recent years Seaver’s short-term memory had been affected. When they landed in California, they reached out to Seaver’s wife, Nancy, to see if Seaver was having a good enough day to greet his old friends.
“He’s been looking forward to it,” she said.
When Seaver was young, he was the brash face and voice of a team that had never known success. On May 21, 1969, he threw a three-hit shutout in Atlanta, and before the press was let in, Seaver — all of 24 years old — warned his teammates the writers would want to celebrate the fact that, at 18-18, the Mets had just visited .500 for the first time ever that late in a season.
“That isn’t what they should be writing,” Seaver told them. “We’re a better team than that.”
For decades his teammates have told that story, and that day at Citi Field in April 2010 Seaver told it himself.
“Nobody could ever accuse me of never having brass — um, of not having courage,” he said. “Thankfully I had teammates that could back up my words.”
And those teammates had a superstar pitcher who won his last 10 decisions of that miracle season, who became the first Hall of Famer in team history, who had their backs every time he smudged his right knee on the pitcher’s mound at Shea. He remains an icon for Mets fans, who for years have rightly bugged and begged ownership to build a statue outside Citi Field to pay Seaver back for all the things he brought them over the years.
Mostly, for the memories.