33 years on, Tom Terrific still Mets' biggest icon

Hall of Famer Seaver mattered more than any player in the team's history

May 27th, 2020

It was right around this time, late May 1987, that announced he was trying one last comeback with the Mets. He had left them twice before, once in June in 1977 when ownership traded him to the Reds seemingly because of spite and money, and then again after the '83 season, when the Mets had brought him home for one season and then lost him by exposing him to a compensation draft. He went to the White Sox after that, where he won his 300th game, against the Yankees on a Sunday afternoon in August. It wasn't old Shea Stadium where he did it. It was across town at Yankee Stadium. But it was New York, where Seaver was one of the most important players in the city's baseball history.

Seaver, now living at his vineyard in California and out of the public eye, would eventually retire for good in June 1987, almost a decade from when the Mets had traded him. At least he retired as a Met, one who was the face of the franchise and the star when the Mets became the Miracle Mets and won a World Series in 1969, seven years after the team came into existence. And Tom Seaver was more than that. Seaver was the one, more than anyone else, who really made New York feel as if National League baseball was back to the city, 10 years after the Dodgers and Giants had left for California.

Seaver was more than one of the greatest right-handed pitchers of all time. The young Seaver was as glamorous and gifted for the Mets as the young Mickey Mantle had once been on the other side of town. Seaver was that kind of star. Even pitching just 11 1/2 seasons for the Mets, he still became "The Franchise." He mattered more to them than any player in the team's history. And he made them matter.

During this time without baseball, we have dealt with history, the lifeblood of the sport, the way its history connects generations in a way that the history of the other major team sports does not, and never will. Seaver, 75, made a ton of it, ultimately winning 311 games in the big leagues, and he was nearly a unanimous selection to the Hall of Fame. He is very much worth remembering as we move up on the anniversary of his retirement.

"This is a young man's game, and to compete on that level, I just did not feel I could do it," he said at the time.

The season before, he had been with the Red Sox, traded to them by the White Sox and winning five games before a right knee injury forced him out of the season, one that ended with the Red Sox facing the Mets in the World Series. So Seaver was with them when he watched the Mets come back to win the last two games of that Series at Shea Stadium.

But the next spring, Seaver decided to take one more shot. But finally, after one last simulated game, he decided to call it quits. His official retirement came on June 22, 1987. He had been traded away from the Mets on June 15, 1977. There was a symmetry to that for Mets fans, the ones who had never gotten over seeing him pitch in another uniform, in Cincinnati or Chicago or Boston. He was theirs. Watching Seaver pitch in another uniform, even past his prime, must have been what it was like for Bulls fans watching Michael Jordan play out his career with the Washington Wizards.

''There are a lot of emotions in this decision; a lot of sadness," Seaver said at Shea the day he finally said goodbye to baseball. "But I had a beautiful 20-year career. It was a lot of work, but it brought joy to a lot of people.''

At his best, even graded against the primes of Jim Palmer and Steve Carlton, Seaver was the best pitcher in the game. He struck out 19 one time. He got to the ninth inning with a perfect game once, before Jimmy Qualls of the Cubs broke it up. He won 25 games in 1969, against just seven losses, the year the Mets won the Fall Classic against the Orioles. A couple of years later, he was 20-10 and had an ERA of 1.76. He pitched in two World Series for the Mets, in '69 and in '73, when the Mets lost to the A's in a tremendous seven-game series.

The night the All-Star Game came to Citi Field in 2013, with then-Mets pitching star Matt Harvey starting for the National League, Seaver was there, in an orange "National" jersey, to throw out the ceremonial first pitch. David Wright caught it. When it looked as if it might come up short of the plate, Wright was out of the catcher's box like a sprinter to catch it before it hit the ground.

I was with Seaver right after that, heading up to the suite level at Citi Field, joking that it had sure looked like a strike to me. He told me that not only was his arm shot, so were my eyes.

Then I asked at Citi Field about his memories of old Shea Stadium when he was young.

"My world was between the lines," he told me. "My world was the 60 feet, six inches between me and home plate, it was the 90 feet to the bases, it was those distances on the outfield walls. I didn't care about the ballpark as much as I remember the world between the lines."

There is no way of knowing what Seaver remembers now. Mets fans remember.