Thirty-three years ago, back when Major League teams used to schedule exhibition games in the ballparks of their minor league affiliates, Tom Seaver made his final appearance in a Mets uniform.
The defending world champions announced an agreement with their all-time wins leader on June 6, 1987. Seaver had been at that World Series the previous October; unable to pitch because of a knee injury, he watched from the visiting dugout as his Red Sox fell to his original organization. After the season, he turned down $610,000 to return to Boston, had surgery on his right knee in November, then received no compelling offers through the winter and into spring training.
(There was — gasp! — in inquiry from the Yankees. “But they weren’t willing to offer me a contract,” Seaver said at the announcement of his return to the Mets. “I didn’t want to go down there to make the team.”)
Two months into the season, the Mets needed help. After a 5-1 win over the Pirates at Shea Stadium on June 5, they were just 26-25, six games behind the Cardinals (with the Cubs and Expos also ahead of them). They’d lost pitchers Dwight Gooden, Bob Ojeda, David Cone, Roger McDowell and Rick Aguilera for signifcant stretches (or, in the case of Ojeda, for the season) and hadn’t found any worthwhile offers on the trade market.
So general manager Frank Cashen called The Franchise. Seaver, 42, figured he’d be up to speed in three to four weeks, which — if all went well — would give the Mets a veteran arm for the final three months of the season.
“There’s no sentiment involved in our decision,” Cashen said at the time. “It has nothing to do with marketability. If I didn’t think he could pitch, he wouldn’t be here.”
The plan was to start Seaver in an exhibition game against Triple-A Tidewater the following week, then use simulated games to get him ready to face big-league hitters. That game against the Tides was the only planned public outing in his comeback.
“There’s a need here and I honestly believe I can help,” Seaver said. “I’ll give it a try. If it’s not there, I’ll go home.”
He gave himself two weeks.
“If by then I don’t feel in my own mind I can help the team, I’ll retire,” he said.
Seaver pulled on a Mets uniform for the first time since 1983 on Monday, June 8, in Chicago, pitching batting practice before the opener of a three-game series. After two days to rest, he’d take the mound for his first game in nine months. His Major League return had even been penciled in: June 20, at home against the Phillies, just two weeks after his announced return.
But first he had to prove he could retire Triple-A hitters.
And so with a day off between games in Chicago on Wednesday afternoon and in Pittsburgh on Friday night, the Mets overshot the Steel City to face their Tidewater affiliate in Norfolk, Va. Seaver got the ball in front of a sellout crowd, donning a gray pullover jersey with “New York” in cursive script — the club’s road uniform for just this one season.Embed from Getty Images
Things did not go well. In just 2 1/3 innings, Seaver allowed seven runs on nine hits. He struck out two and walked one on 58 pitches, 37 of them strikes. Still, he took some positives from the outing: The walk was to the first batter he faced; he felt he threw the ball well and had command of his pitches; and he reported himself to be pain-free in his arm, shoulder and knee.
“I thought he threw the ball good,” manager Davey Johnson said. “You got to remember the hitters have a three-month advantage on him.”
After the game, it was decided that the return to a big-league mound would be pushed back at least a week, and Seaver would, as planned, use simulated games to steady himself. The first one came five days later in Montreal; he threw 88 pitches in “the equivalent of five or six innings,” but still had a ways to go after allowing around 13 hits and an estimated six runs.
“It’s a matter of whether I’m happy with my work,” he told The Montreal Gazette,” and there are some things I’m satisfied with and others I’m dissatisfied with.”
After four games in Montreal, the Mets returned home for the first time since bringing Seaver back into the fold, and another simulated game was scheduled for Saturday, June 20 — the original target date for his official return.
Scratching him from facing the Phillies was a good idea.
A quartet of Mets reserves touched him for four (or six) runs on eight (or 10) hits in four innings that took 60 (or 61) pitches (simulated games often feature simulated scorekeeping). One of those sailed over the fence off the bat of rookie catcher Barry Lyons — one of his six hits in the simulation.
“I’m going to make the simulated All-Star team,” Lyons quipped. But when asked to assess Seaver’s performance he answered simply, “It’s tough to get game situations out of things like this.”
Seaver, naturally, was discouraged.
“I’m not very pleased,” he said. “I’m not going to go to the mound [in a Major League game] throwing like that, that’s for sure.”
And he wouldn’t take the mound in a competitive atmosphere — simulated, exhibition or otherwise — again. By the next day — two weeks and a day after his announced return — he had decided to retire.
“This is a young man’s game,” he said at his retirement press conference at Shea on June 23, “and to compete on that level, I just did not feel I could do it. There are a lot of emotions in this decision; a lot of sadness. But I had a beautiful 20-year career. It was a lot of work but it brought joy to a lot of people.”
There are no official statistics, but based on newspaper reports, in his final three “outings” for the Mets, Seaver pitched 12 1/3 innings, allowing 19 runs on 32 hits. Considering those numbers were put up by rookies and backups — names like Bill Almon, Terry Blocker, Mark Carreon, Kevin Elster, Clint Hurdle and Dave Magadan came up in searches — it’s clear he had reached the end.
“I made the decision because I actually felt I was regressing rather than progressing,” he said. “I knew where I should have been after pitching three times.
“In my heart,” he said, “I feel the time has come for me not to play anymore. I’ve used up all the competitive pitches in me. I want to thank the New York Mets for giving me the opportunity to find that out.”