News of Tom Seaver‘s death came out on my 44th birthday. That makes me too young to have seen him in his original Mets tenure, or to have had a reaction to his 1977 trade to the Reds. I went to my first Major League ballgame in 1983, but a family friend took me to Yankee Stadium and not Shea. I never saw him pitch, not in person, not on TV.
And yet, I still became a big fan.
My first memory of Tom Seaver in uniform is of him on the steps of the visitors dugout at Shea Stadium during the 1986 World Series.
The NBC broadcast made a point to show him, there with the Red Sox despite a knee injury preventing him from pitching. Shortly after that World Series, I did a book report on him that established my fandom, making him my favorite player I never got to see play. I’d like to think that, had his 1987 comeback attempt with the Mets succeeded, an 11-year-old me would’ve been able to convince my parents to take us to one of his first starts.
So instead, I saw just about every other significant remaining moment, filling in the blanks of the past with video highlights once they started becoming much more accessible.
We went to his 1988 number retirement, a hot July day that saw us looking down from the upper deck before (ugh) a loss to the Braves. I still remember the echo of his voice as he said, “A lot of people want to know what I would do to thank everybody, how you going to say it, how you going to put the top on it? And I came to a decision a long time ago that if my number was ever retired, there would be one way that I wanted to say thank you to everybody – everybody that’s here on the field, everybody that’s in the stands, everybody that’s home watching on television. If you just allow me one moment, I’m gonna say thank you in my own very special way. And if you know me, how much I love pitching, you know what it means to me.”
And with that, he ran out to the mound in his beige suit, a spring in his step as if he was about to warm up and pitch in the game, the cheer from the crowd as if it expected him to do just that. He stepped on the pitching rubber in his dress shoes, turned toward home plate and adjusted his jacket. Then he stood ramrod straight – a hint of the Marine still in him – and smiled before taking not one bow, but several, first toward the crowd assembled at home plate, then toward the fans in the first- and third-base stands.
In January 1991, I wrote to the Hall of Fame to ask about tickets to the 1992 induction ceremonies. I must’ve seen coverage of the Class of 1991 announcement and wanted to get a jump on things. The letter I got in return informed me that tickets were free.
A year later, Seaver broke Ty Cobb’s record by being elected to the Hall of Fame with 98.8% percent of the vote. My parents – my mom in particular – are Mets fans and agreed to change our summer vacation plans, so they found a cabin that could sleep six of us — them, my sister and me, as well as a friend for each of us. We watched in the August heat from the fields and hills surrounding the Clark Sports Center – where the ceremony was held while renovations were done on the Hall itself, a shift in venue that would become permanent – as he reflected on his career and thanked his family once again.
Tickets for the Hall of Fame Game the day after the inductions were sold out, but my mom waited in the standby line – at one point taking note of all the Mets who emerged, in full uniform, from the first-base dugout to visit the only men’s room at Doubleday Field, the public one accessed only from outside the ballpark. She procured three tickets, one each for my friend Matt, myself and herself, though she had to sit with the wife of the man who sold her the seats, leaving Matt and me to take care of ourselves. Those tickets gave us a good view as Seaver and fellow inductee Rollie Fingers threw out the ceremonial first pitches.
And I saw the last game at Shea and the first game at Citi. The only significant Seaver appearance since the end of his career that I think I missed in person was the 2013 All-Star Game. But I had met him at an autograph session at Citi Field the year before.
“Who’s your favorite player?” he asked a kid no older than 10 in front of me.
“You,” the boy replied.
“Nah,” Seaver responded. “I’m too old,” or something to that effect.
That kid was probably just trying to win flattery points, but I don’t doubt that he at least had a working knowledge of Tom Seaver’s career and importance to the Mets, their fans and their history. His dad would not have paid the cost of the ticket the promoter was charging for the autograph session to make his son spend a snowy January afternoon at the Caesar’s Club if the boy wasn’t up for it himself.
Tom Seaver’s legacy is absolutely that of The Greatest Met of All Time, his nickname “The Franchise” well deserved – and earned on the field. When he was introduced at his induction ceremony, the text of his plaque was read aloud. I distinctly remember it being the first time I heard the word “formidable,” and I later took note of it when I gazed upon the plaque in person. It was used to refer to the Mets, but to this day hearing that word still makes me think of Tom Seaver’s plaque – and of Tom Seaver himself, because it and its use on his plaque describes not only the Mets teams he led from 1967-77, but the man, the athlete, the competitor himself. Rest in peace, George Thomas Seaver.