Monday, January 2, 2017

The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets: Tom Seaver

The Franchise.  Say those two words to any Mets fan and they'll know exactly who you're referring to.  To get that moniker, a player needs to have seen it all.  He needs to have experienced the highs that go with being the best, both as an individual and as part of a team.  But he also should know what it's like to fail and come just short of achieving his and the team's goals.

During the beginning of his career, the Mets' franchise player experienced a last place finish, followed by a quick rise to the top of the baseball world.  Individual awards would follow, as would the team's fall to mediocrity.  The Mets eventually shocked the baseball world again, only to be the laughingstocks of the league just a few years later.  And through it all, "The Franchise" kept doing what he did best until his best wasn't good enough for the franchise.

Just as the Mets eventually came back from their darkest days, so did "The Franchise", who returned to the team just as it was about to rise from the ashes that had been smoldering for seven long seasons.  And once again, a lower-case franchise blunder allowed the upper-case Franchise to walk away before a last ditch effort to have him end his wonderful career wearing blue and orange came to a crashing halt.

After so many victorious thrills and agonizing defeats, "The Franchise" called it a career after two decades in the game.  But what a career it was.

Call him "The Franchise", "Tom Terrific" or "The Greatest Player in Mets History".  (Getty Images)

George Thomas Seaver became a Met by accident.  Originally drafted by the Dodgers in the tenth round of the 1965 June Amateur Draft, Seaver balked at a $2,000 offer by Los Angeles, as he was looking for a hefty $50,000 sum.  When then-scout Tom Lasorda could only offer $3,000, Seaver walked away from his first professional contract, choosing to stay at the University of Southern California.

Seven months later, the Atlanta Braves selected Seaver in the secondary phase of the January draft and Seaver signed with the team, earning a $40,000 bonus.  But that contract was voided by Commissioner William Eckert because USC had played an exhibition game that the Braves did not know about prior to signing Seaver.  Baseball rules prohibited the signing of college players once their teams had played a game, even if that game didn't count in the standings.  In addition, once Seaver signed the now-voided contract with the Braves, he became ineligible to return to the USC baseball team, putting him in baseball limbo and making him a free agent.  As a result, a special lottery was held to determine which team had the right to sign the former Trojan pitcher.  Surprisingly, only three teams - the Indians, Phillies and Mets - entered the lottery for Seaver's services.  Defying not-so-overwhelming one-in-three odds, the Mets won the lottery, changing their franchise's fortunes forever.

Seaver spent his first season in professional ball at the Triple A level in Jacksonville.  That was his only year in the minors, as he posted a 12-12 record with the Suns, to go with ten complete games, four shutouts and 188 strikeouts in 32 starts.  During that same 1966 campaign, the Mets lost fewer than 100 games for the first time, finally climbing out of the National League basement.  Hope seemed to be on the horizon for New York and that hope arrived a season later, when Seaver was promoted to the big leagues.

The Mets regressed somewhat in 1967, going 61-101 and once again finishing in last place in the ten-team Senior Circuit, but Seaver proved that the Mets had done right in participating in the lottery for his services.  The 22-year-old neophyte set franchise records for wins (16), complete games (18) and strikeouts (170) and was the first starter in club history to post an ERA under 3.00 (Seaver finished the year with a stellar 2.76 ERA), becoming the ace of the staff in his rookie season - one that culminated with the National League Rookie of the Year award.

The 1968 season brought two new faces to the team that would help put an end to the 100-loss campaigns in Flushing - manager Gil Hodges and lefty starter Jerry Koosman.  As manager of the Washington Senators, Hodges ended the club's perennial rendezvous with triple-digit losses and the American League cellar and turned them into a middle-of-the-pack team, as Washington finished in sixth place in the ten-team American League in 1967.  Hodges then returned to his New York roots via a rare player-for-manager trade, as the Mets sent pitcher Bill Denehy and his one major league victory, along with $100,000 in cash to Washington in exchange for Hodges.  The deal became one of the best in Mets history, as Hodges ended up winning more championships as a manager (one) than Denehy won games as a pitcher (zero) after the two men switched uniforms.

Meanwhile, Jerry Koosman, who made his major league debut just one day after Seaver made his in 1967, but couldn't pitch well enough to stay at the big league level, flourished when given a second chance in 1968.  Retaining his rookie status in '68, Koosman surpassed Seaver's stellar debut campaign, winning 19 games, posting a 2.08 ERA and striking out 178 batters.  Seaver was also spectacular in 1968, going 16-12 with a 2.20 ERA and 205 strikeouts, becoming the first Met to reach the 200-K mark.  It would become a staple of Seaver's career.

The Mets finished 73-89 in 1968, prompting Hodges to proclaim that the team would win 85 games in 1969.  He based his prediction on the fact that the team lost 37 games the previous season by a single run.  "If you win half of those," Hodges said, "you are a contending ball club."

Defying the odds, the team did make it to the lofty 85-win plateau, reaching the prophetic skipper's total with three weeks left in the regular season, helped in part by the team's 41-23 record in one-run games.  They then proceeded to win 15 more contests, winning the division title to advance to the inaugural National League Championship Series against the Atlanta Braves - the team that tried in vain to sign Seaver just three years earlier.  Seaver was a huge part of the Mets' success in 1969, winning 25 games - a franchise record that still stands to this day - and nearly became the first Met to toss a no-hitter.  In fact, Seaver retired the first 25 Chicago Cubs batters he faced on July 9 before surrendering a clean single to Jimmy Qualls to break up his bid for perfection.  This is the same Jimmy Qualls who finished his career with 31 hits, or 171 fewer than Seaver had as a batter in his career.  Seaver would take no-hitters into the ninth inning again in 1972 and 1975, but neither of those near no-nos would be as cherished as his "Imperfect Game" against the Cubs in 1969.

Cleon Jones catches the final out of the "Imperfect Game" as Tom Seaver ponders what might have been.  (

Seaver's fantastic season - he also posted a 2.21 ERA and struck out 208 batters - earned him his first Cy Young award.  Seaver would have been the unanimous winner of the award had one vote not gone to Braves knuckleball pitcher Phil Niekro.  But Seaver got the last laugh, defeating Niekro in Game One of the NLCS.  The Mets went on to sweep the Braves in the best-of-five series to win their first National League pennant and a date with the powerhouse Baltimore Orioles in the World Series.

Although Seaver lost the first game of the Fall Classic in Baltimore, he came back with a tremendous performance in Game Four at Shea Stadium, pitching ten innings of one-run ball.  The Orioles' sole tally of the game scored on a sacrifice fly by Brooks Robinson in the ninth inning, a play that is now famous in Mets' lore because of Ron Swoboda's jaw-dropping diving catch.  Upon completing the top of the tenth, Seaver was removed for pinch-hitter J.C. Martin, who reached base on an errant throw by Orioles' reliever Pete Richert, which allowed pinch-runner Rod Gaspar to scamper home from second base with the winning run.

Seaver's complete-game, extra-inning masterpiece gave the Mets a commanding 3-1 lead in the series and Jerry Koosman's complete game win the following day wrapped up the Mets' first World Series championship.  In a span of three seasons, Seaver helped transform the Mets from cellar dwellers to penthouse occupants, and he reflected upon the team's sudden rise to the top of the baseball world in a post-game locker room interview with Mets broadcaster Lindsey Nelson.

"No matter what happened, no matter where we were ... we never put our heads between our legs and we always fought and it's the greatest feeling in the world."

With a nucleus built around the young pitching staff that included Seaver, Koosman, Gary Gentry and Nolan Ryan, the Mets were expected to contend for many years to come.  But the team that surpassed Hodges' 85-win prediction never won that many games again under Hodges' leadership, racking up 83 victories in 1970 and 1971.  The sudden death of Hodges prior to the start of the 1972 campaign shook up everyone on the team, but none more so than Seaver.

"It was utter disbelief," said Seaver.  "I don't think Gil's death had an effect on the team but it had an effect on the individuals... He prepared you for your career - and unfortunately one that turned out to be not having him as a manager."

Seaver clearly was affected as an individual during the 1972 season, his first without Gil Hodges as manager since his rookie campaign.  After completing what was arguably his finest season in 1971, setting career highs in complete games (21) and strikeouts (289), while leading the league in ERA (1.76) and WHIP (0.946), Seaver dropped off a bit under new manager Yogi Berra, completing eight fewer starts, striking out 40 fewer hitters and watching his ERA go up by more than a full run, although 13 complete games, 249 Ks and a 2.92 ERA are numbers most pitchers would love to have.  Not satisfied with his season in 1972, Seaver set out to return to championship form in 1973.  It took his teammates a little longer to join him.

Seaver thrived under Gil Hodges and missed him terribly after he was gone.  (Bob Moreland/St. Petersburg Times)

The 1972 season saw the Mets get off to a strong start (32-13 in their first 45 games) before limping to the finish line (51-60 after their hot start).  The hangover continued into the 1973 campaign, as the Mets were below .500 most of the season.  Although Seaver posted an impressive 2.08 ERA through his first 19 starts, he only had nine wins to show for it.  But from July 18 to September 13, Seaver made sure the team wouldn't saddle him with no-decision after no-decision.

In 13 starts over the two-month stretch, Tom Terrific pitched 118 innings, incredibly averaging over nine innings per start.  Seaver won eight of those starts, posting a 1.29 ERA and 0.90 WHIP while holding opposing batters to a .200/.239/.276 slash line.  Included in those starts was a 12-inning, 12-strikeout performance against the Reds in August and an 11-inning, 12 strikeout game versus the Phillies in September.  When Seaver's streak began, the Mets were still double digit games out of first place.  By the time he defeated the Phillies with his Herculean effort on September 13, the Mets had moved to within 2½ games of first place.  Finally, on September 21, Seaver put the Mets in first for good with a complete-game victory over the Pittsburgh Pirates.  Ten days later, the Mets wrapped up their second division crown in five seasons with Seaver earning the title-clinching win over the Chicago Cubs.

The disappointing (to him) 1972 campaign was no longer in Seaver's rear view mirror, as Seaver's 1973 campaign saw him lead the league in ERA (2.08), complete games (18), strikeouts (251), WHIP (0.976), fewest hits per nine innings (6.8), strikeouts per nine innings (7.8) and strikeout to walk ratio (3.92).  Seaver earned his second Cy Young Award and received MVP consideration for the sixth time in seven years.  But Seaver couldn't help the team win its second championship despite having a stellar postseason.  In four games against the Reds and A's, Seaver pitched to a 1.99 ERA, 1.073 WHIP and had 35 strikeouts in 31⅔ innings, but the Mets lost three of those four starts.  With the Mets holding a three games to two lead in the World Series, manager Yogi Berra tabbed Seaver to pitch the potential championship-clinching game on three days rest rather than going to a well-rested George Stone.  The decision failed miserably, as Oakland won a pitchers' duel in Game Six and then took the seventh and deciding game, defeating Jon Matlack on short rest instead of what could have been Seaver on normal rest.  

Passing a kidney stone is a daunting experience.  But passing up Stone for Seaver was enough to give repressed memories to fans for years to come and served as the beginning of the end for the Mets as we knew them.  In fact, Seaver's long-time teammate, Ed Kranepool knew Berra's costly decision to start Seaver over Stone was wrong from the moment it was made.

"Sometimes managers will affect a short series.  The best team is going to win in 162 games, but when it comes to the World Series, a critical mistake by a manager can affect the game.  Sometimes (managers) are asleep,"  said Kranepool.  "George (Stone) was our hottest pitcher down the stretch.  If they knock him out, big deal, we got (Game Seven) with the whole staff.  Yogi is the greatest guy in the world, he's a sweetheart, he's a nice guy but I wouldn't want him to lead me to war."

With the team still stewing over their bitter defeat in the World Series, the 1974 squad became the first to finish with a losing record since 1968 and the first to lose 90+ games since Seaver's rookie campaign.  Seaver's season was easily the worst of his eight-year career, as he won just three of his first 15 starts with an ERA approaching 4.00 during that time, before finishing his injury-plagued year (he suffered from shoulder and hip pain) with a mediocre 11-11 record and 3.20 ERA.  His poor showing caused him to be left off the National League All-Star roster for the first time and also caught the attention of New York Daily News writer Dick Young, who claimed that Seaver "was an agent of discontent among his teammates."

Brushing off his subpar showing in 1974 as well as Young's comments, Seaver rebounded with his third Cy Young Award-winning season in 1975, posting a league-leading 22 wins and 243 strikeouts to go with a 2.38 ERA and 1.088 WHIP.  His pitching brethren, however, did not follow suit, as the rest of the team combined to go 60-71 with a 3.63 ERA and 1.365 WHIP.

Only Sandy Koufax had ever won three Cy Young Awards.  Until Tom Seaver matched him.  (Larry C. Morris/Getty Images)

The opposite was true in 1976, as Seaver could only manage a 14-11 mark on a team that went 86-76, which at the time was the second-most wins in franchise history.  Although Seaver did extend his major league record with his ninth consecutive season of 200 or more strikeouts - Seaver's 235 whiffs gave him a fifth National League strikeout crown - he was no longer the top winner on the team, as both Jerry Koosman (21-10, 2.69 ERA, 200 strikeouts) and Jon Matlack (17-10, 2.95 ERA, team-leading six shutouts) set new career highs in victories.

The 1976 campaign was also the first without original team owner Joan Payson, who passed away just days after the completion of the 1975 regular season.  Upon her death, ownership of the club shifted to her husband, Charles Payson, and their daughter Lorinda de Roulet, but baseball operations were placed solely in the hands of team chairman M. Donald Grant.  As much as Charles and Lorinda were not really fans of baseball, Grant was not a fan of spending money on his own players or on other teams' players, as free agency had just begun around that time.  This, of course, came into play when it was time to negotiate Seaver's contract.

Prior to the 1976 season, Seaver asked Grant for a three-year, $825,000 contract.  Seaver had just won his third Cy Young Award, joining Hall of Famer Sandy Koufax as the only pitchers to have won as many as three.  Grant would have none of Seaver's demands and threatened to trade him to the Dodgers for Don Sutton if he didn't agree to the chairman's terms.  Eventually, Seaver agreed to a three-year, $675,000 deal that would keep him in Flushing.  At the same time, slugger Dave Kingman had noticed the multi-million dollar contract that the Yankees had offered Reggie Jackson and wanted a comparable deal.  When Grant offered Kingman a paltry $200,000, the Sky King held out for more, causing Grant to blame Seaver for what he felt were exorbitant demands by Kingman, as if Seaver's contract squabbles had coerced Kingman to ask for the financial compensation he felt he deserved.

Seaver and Kingman began the 1977 season unhappy with their deals, but still on the team.  By the time the season was half-complete, that would no longer be the case.

Entering the 1977 campaign, New York tabloid writers were mostly on Seaver's side of the argument, seeing how instrumental "The Franchise" was in the success of the franchise.  One such writer was Maury Allen of the New York Post.

"When you have the best pitcher in the world, you sign him, you don't humiliate him," wrote Allen.  "Grant can't stand opposition from Seaver or anybody."

Unfortunately, one writer stood steadfastly with Grant, and that was all it took to get Seaver to ask for a ticket out of New York.  Going back to 1974, Dick Young of the New York Daily News had always been critical of Seaver and how he affected the Mets clubhouse.  But once free agency began, Young really unloaded upon Seaver, calling him a "pouting, griping, morale-breaking clubhouse lawyer poisoning the team."  On the morning of June 15, 1977 - the day of the trade deadline - Young and fellow Daily News scribe Jack Lang took opposing views on the Seaver vs. Grant feud.

"My unhappiness started with the contract negotiations a year-and-a-half ago," said Seaver to Lang.  "All of a sudden, nine years of performance for the Mets was thrown out the window... They even threatened to trade me if I didn't sign it, so I signed."

That deal would have kept Seaver in New York until 1978.  However, the night before the Daily News article was published, Seaver went directly to owner Lorinda de Roulet, bypassing Grant in the process, and finalized a three-year contract extension that would pay him $1.1 million to remain a Met through the 1981 season.  The next day, in his counterpoint to Lang, Young brought up Seaver's good friend and former teammate, Nolan Ryan.  Young also brought up someone else who was quite dear to Seaver.

"Nolan Ryan is now getting more than Seaver", wrote Young in his article, "and that galls Tom because Nancy Seaver and Ruth Ryan are very friendly and Tom Seaver long has treated Nolan Ryan like a little brother."

A dick and a Dick helped push Tom Seaver out of New York.  (AP Photo/Daily News photo)

Seaver had tolerated years of criticism from Young and had always turned the other cheek rather than retaliate.  But once Young brought Seaver's wife into his smear-fest, that was the final straw for Seaver and his decade-long tenure in New York.  "Get me out of here," screamed a disgusted Seaver.  And with those five words, Seaver backed away from his million dollar extension and demanded to be traded.  By the end of the day, "The Midnight Massacre" was complete, with Seaver being dealt to the Reds for Pat Zachry, Steve Henderson, Doug Flynn and Dan Norman.  In addition, Dave Kingman was shipped off to San Diego for Bobby Valentine, which effectively silenced the two players who were most vocal when it came to how much they should be paid for their services.  Or so Grant thought.

At the time of the trade, Seaver had a 7-3 record for the last place Mets and Kingman was leading the team with nine homers and 28 RBI.  Once the deals were consummated, the Mets went 38-63 to end the season with 98 losses.  Meanwhile, Seaver and Kingman let their play on the field do the talking for them.  Seaver posted his fifth 20-win season in 1977 and led the league in shutouts (7) and WHIP (1.014), which helped him finish in a third-place tie for the Cy Young Award, while Kingman continued to hit the long ball, peaking two years later when he smacked a league-leading 48 homers and drove in 115 runs for the Cubs.

From 1977 to 1982, the Mets finished in last place four times, never winning more than 67 games.  But with the sale of the team in 1980 to Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon, the days of playing in "Grant's Tomb" were soon to be over.  By 1983, the team had brought back Kingman, traded for George Foster, were about to call up top hitting prospect Darryl Strawberry and were soon to acquire perennial Gold Glove winner Keith Hernandez.  One other veteran was added to the mix in 1983 - one that was happy to return now that M. Donald Grant was no longer running the show.

In his first five seasons with the Reds, Seaver posted a 70-33 record, finally completed the no-hitter that eluded him on three occasions as a Met, and had three top-five finishes in the Cy Young Award vote, including a second-place finish behind Fernando Valenzuela in the strike-shortened 1981 campaign.  But Seaver's 1982 season was one of physical pain (shoulder) and professional embarrassment, as the 37-year-old struggled through 21 starts, averaging barely over five innings per outing and posting a 5-13 record, 5.50 ERA and 1.617 WHIP.  The Reds wanted nothing to do with Seaver entering the 1983 season, and the Mets were quick to bring him back to Flushing.

(Focus On Sport/Getty Images)
Seaver posted his second consecutive losing season in 1983, going 9-14 in 34 starts.  Although that represented his worst record in 12½ seasons as a Met, Seaver did improve his ERA by nearly two runs (3.55) and his 231 innings were the most he had thrown since 1978.  At age 38 and in his 17th season in the big leagues, Seaver managed to lead all Mets starters in innings pitched and ERA, as well as strikeouts (135) and WHIP (1.242).  He also tied for the team lead in starts (34), complete games (5) and shutouts (2).  Seaver's return to New York did not help the Mets in the National League East standings, as the team finished the 1983 campaign in last place with a less than spectacular 68-94 record.  However, that still represented the most wins the Mets had recorded since 1976 - Seaver's last full season with the team.  

But the place where the Mets really reaped the rewards of Seaver's return was in the ticket booth.  Whenever a pitcher other than Seaver started for the Mets at Shea Stadium in 1983, an average of 12,284 fans were in attendance.  But in Seaver's 19 starts at home, the average attendance nearly doubled to 23,007 fans.  The Mets had seven home dates during the 1983 season in which they surpassed 30,000 fans.  All seven were Seaver starts.

Despite the obvious attendance boost that Seaver gave the team, the Mets front office failed to protect him in the free agent compensation draft.  Although Seaver was under contract for the 1984 season, the Mets incorrectly assumed that his age (Seaver turned 39 in November), contract (he was due to earn nearly $800,000 in 1984) and his 20-37 won-loss record over the previous two seasons would discourage potential suitors from scooping him out of the compensation pool.  They were wrong.  For the second time in seven years, "The Franchise" parted ways with the Mets, this time going to the Chicago White Sox.

"It's a personal decision," said Seaver about the Mets' decision to leave him unprotected.  "I don't feel betrayed, and I'm not going to blast anybody.  But I'm upset.  It was a mistake, they admit that."

Seaver left New York just 27 wins shy of 300 for his career and two victories away from 200 as a Met.  He then proceeded to go 31-22 for the White Sox over the 1984 and 1985 campaigns, despite the fact that Chicago was a combined 159-165 over the two seasons.  Seaver pitched nearly 500 innings over the two seasons and had 16 complete games and five shutouts, with one of those complete games coming on August 4, 1985 at Yankee Stadium, when Seaver earned his 300th win.  Not bad for a supposedly washed-up quadragenarian.

After splitting the season between the White Sox and Red Sox in 1986 (and watching the Mets win the World Series from the visitors' dugout), Seaver got one more chance to play for the Mets when he was signed by the team on June 5, 1987 after a rash of injuries felled several of the club's pitchers.  But the third time with the Mets was not the charm for the 42-year-old Seaver, as a poor outing in a simulated game on June 20 - one in which Seaver allowed Mets backup catcher Barry Lyons to go 6-for-6 against him with a home run - ended Seaver's comeback and career.

"In my heart, I feel the time has come for me not to play anymore," said Seaver at his retirement press conference.  "I've used up all the competitive pitches in me... I don't know what the future holds for me.  That's what I'll be digesting for the next year.  I'm sure the answer is out there.  I'm not going to rush into anything."

The future for Seaver held many accolades.  First, in 1988, his number was retired by the Mets, making him the first player in franchise history to have his number permanently removed from circulation.  (Casey Stengel and Gil Hodges were bestowed that honor as managers.)  Then, in 1992, Seaver was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, receiving the support of 98.8% of the voters - a record that stood until Ken Griffey Jr. was named on 99.3% of the ballots in 2016.

Tom Seaver.  Hall of Famer.  Baseball Legend.  (Bettmann/Getty Images)

Tom Seaver was named "The Franchise" not just because he's the Mets' all-time leader in the majority of pitching categories.  He received that nickname because he brought life to a dormant franchise.  When he first pitched for the Mets in 1967, Seaver gave fans hope that the team was finally heading in the right direction.  Two years later, he helped deliver a miraculous championship to the masses.  When he left in 1977, the hopes of the franchise went with him and the team embarked through a moribund period that lasted for more than half a decade.  Once Seaver returned in 1983, fans flocked to Shea Stadium to see him pitch when nothing else would bring them to the ballpark.  And until Mike Piazza was enshrined in Cooperstown in 2016, Seaver was the only Hall of Famer wearing a Mets cap on his plaque.

He threw a no-hitter as a member of the Cincinnati Reds.  He won his 300th game pitching for the Chicago White Sox.  But he won his only championship with the New York Mets.  In 20 big league seasons, Tom Seaver experienced all the highs and lows a player can face.  He pitched for winning teams and he pitched for second division clubs.  He also dealt with an untrustworthy front office and the backstabbing media as well as he could.

"The Franchise" will always be loved and remembered in New York.  It's unfortunate that not all of his memories of New York are ones he would love to remember.

Note: The Thrill of Victory, The Agony of the Mets is a thirteen-part weekly series spotlighting those Mets players and personnel who experienced the best of times and the worst of times with the team.  Please come back next week for the latest installment.

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