Nature’s first green: an open letter to Tom Seaver
You must remember this.
At least I hope so, perhaps on a good day. I read about your dementia on Thursday, your “retiring from public life.” But maybe, just maybe, amid the descent into darkness, a shaft of light occasionally shines through.
So take a little walk with me down memory lane. It was only 50 years ago. A heartbeat really.
We were both kids back then. You were 24. I was 8.
We had a lot in common. You were a right-handed pitcher for one New York baseball team, the long-woeful Mets. I was a right-handed pitcher for another, making my debut for the “Green Team” in Allenwood Little League.
George Thomas Seaver, you were my hero.
I remember so many things from that year. I was there on Opening Day on April 8, 1969. (I have the ticket stub to prove it, the one that was part of the collage you would refer to as a “#1 Poster.”) I was there with my father, an old Brooklyn Dodgers fan who liked to tell me about the Boys of Summer from his own childhood. He particularly liked to talk about Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella, who once said, “You’ve got to play it like a man, but love it like a boy.”
You embodied that spirit, Tom. You were the fiercest of competitors on the mound, a 5-alarm fire blazing from 60 feet 6 inches away. But off the mound you seemed to have such a youthful spirit, that playful giggle often peppering your interviews.
To my great disappointment, you gave up two runs in the first inning that day to the Montreal Expos, who were playing their first game as an expansion team. Despite a 4-run rally in the bottom of the ninth, the Mets lost, 11–10. It certainly didn’t seem like the 1969 season was going to be anything special.
But as the spring gathered, as all the vibrant green of the year’s youth burst forth, the Mets started to win. You led the way, dropping and driving, the trademark dirty right knee, the fastballs exploding into Jerry Grote’s glove. You would win 25 games before the year was over.
My heart pounding almost out of my wool uniform, I came in from third base as a relief pitcher in my first Little League game and faced one batter. He swung and missed at all three pitches — all out of the strike zone — and I believed that I was on my way to joining you with the Mets.
Never in a million lifetimes will I forget the “Almost Perfect Game” you pitched against the first-place Cubs on July 9. School was out, and my parents let me stay up and watch the game on our small black and white television. I was transfixed as you mowed down batter after batter. In the ninth, after you retired leadoff hitter Randy Hundley, I shot from the ground like a little rocket. I thought the deed was done.
The next batter was light-hitting Jimmy Qualls, who would manage all of 31 hits in an undistinguished 3-year career in the big leagues. But one of those hits, the most piercing and awful of them all, came that night, a soft opposite-field liner between Cleon Jones in left and Tommie Agee in center. I can still feel the plummeting pain as that ball landed on the spongy green at Shea Stadium.
So much else was happening in that summer of 1969, of course. There was Neil Armstrong’s “one small step.” There was Woodstock. The Stonewall riots. Squadrons of young men flying off to the jungles of Vietnam. Richard Nixon’s first year in office.
I was oblivious to it all. My world was the Mets, and you, Tom Terrific.
You weren’t pitching on the night of September 24, when the Mets beat the Cardinals, 6–0, to clinch the National League East championship. I was there with my dad. He’s always been kind of a button-up guy, high integrity, play by the rules. But that night he let me spill over the railing to join the celebration. I harvested a small clump of sod from near the mound where you worked your magic.
Nature’s first green is gold, Robert Frost once wrote.
Her hardest hue to hold.
I kept it in a paper bag for years, long after it had dried and grayed.
It just seemed like anything was possible then. There were no limits. If you could dream it, you could do it.
A few weeks later, the Mets — the Mets! — were going to the World Series. And my dad somehow snared tickets to Game 4. They were in Section 38, Row V, the very top row of Shea Stadium. I watched through binoculars as you threw darts to Grote, while Frank Robinson dug in at the plate.
That game…the tense, taut, pitching matchup with Mike Cuellar. So much riding on every pitch. The Mets with the 1–0 lead until the 9th. Brooks Robinson up with runners on first and third and one out. My audible gasp when I saw the line drive blasting out toward the right-centerfield gap. But there was Ron Swoboda at full sprint, diving headlong, the ball somehow sticking into his backhand glove at full extension. The sure 2-run double or triple was just a game-tying sacrifice fly.
Then in the 10th, pinch hitter, J.C. Martin, batting for you, laid down a bunt to try to get Rod Gaspar to third. Pitcher Pete Rickert’s throw caromed off Martin’s wrist and rolled into right field, while Gaspar sprinted for home. To my sheer delight, the Mets were just one win away.
In the car on the way home, we listened to the postgame show, and they pointed out that the replay clearly demonstrated that Martin was out of the baseline when he was struck by the ball. I asked my dad about 50 times if the win was still going to count. I just didn’t want to lose something that felt so precious.
Several weeks later, after the Mets had won their championship, the team was on the junket tour, and my mom saw that you would be appearing at the Abraham and Strauss department store in Manhasset to do a promotion for Braggi Cologne. About to turn 9, I became a huge fan of cologne.
My mom and I made a collage of the Mets season, and she agreed to pluck me out of my third grade classroom early that day.
I was the first person of several hundred on line. I waited and waited and waited, and then…there you were. You signed the collage with these words: “To Martin, Best Wishes and you have made a #1 poster — Tom Seaver.” Before I reluctantly left, I summoned the courage to beckon you down to my height and whispered these words into your ear:
“When I grow up, I want to be just like you.”
Didn’t quite happen, of course. My own pitching career topped out in 1977 at the high school JV level.
Many years later in 1992, when I was covering local sports for the Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass., I convinced my editor to let me drive out to Cooperstown, N.Y. to cover your Hall of Fame induction. The Gazette back then was an afternoon paper with a late-morning deadline, and I stayed up deep into the night crafting the story. In the morning, to my horror, I could not get the story to send from my Radio Shack TRS 80 computer. I had to slowly dictate the story to one of our secretaries, carefully spelling out any word that I thought could conceivably be misspelled.
As my pulse returned to a survivable rate, I drove home. Three hours later, I picked up the paper to see my story refer on two separate occasions to the “Sy Young Award.”
Tucked into the two and a half pages of acknowledgements in my 2010 book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door: Six Minor Leaguers in Search of the Baseball Dream, is the name “George Seaver.” Nobody has ever asked me about it, but in case you were wondering…mystery solved.
I’m not a kid anymore, Tom. There is plenty of gray in my beard. But I wanted to tell you that I remember all of that stuff. I remember it in my heart. I still have the collage.
Best wishes to you, too.