There was one last great baseball day in New York for Tom Seaver, even if it came in the Bronx instead of Queens, even though he was wearing a White Sox uniform when he won his 300th game. This was on an August Sunday 35 years ago. No. 41 would turn 41 in November of that year. But he had enough arm and enough stuff and enough Seaver still in him to beat the Yankees, 4-1.
No. 41. About to turn 41. Winning 4-1. When it was over that day, and he had heard Yankee Stadium sound the way old Shea Stadium had for him once, we talked about those numbers with him and Seaver laughed and said, “Is there a lottery office open somewhere?”
The news came out on Wednesday night that Tom Seaver had died at the age of 75, after living out the last years of his life at his beloved vineyard in Napa Valley, still suffering the effects of Lyme disease, and lost in the fog of dementia. So he had been stripped of all the fine, bright memories he made for the rest of us, not just for Mets fans and not just for New York, but for all who love baseball. He leaves all of those memories with us now, like this amazing parting gift. Or maybe we should call it Amazin’.
He was and is one of the enduring giants of his game, arriving in New York City 10 years after the New York Giants had left for San Francisco and the Dodgers had left Brooklyn for Los Angeles, and bringing National League baseball back to New York City with him. He was the Mets’ greatest star 50 years ago, when they became the Miracle Mets of ’69, just seven years after winning only 40 games in their first season of existence, in 1962. Tom Seaver was still the Mets’ greatest star when we got news of his passing on Wednesday night. And always will be.
He is the one against whom all great New York pitchers, before and after him, will always be measured. He really was the city’s ace, for all times. He was 311 career victories and he was three Cy Young Awards and he was five 20-win seasons and he was two World Series appearances, in 1969 and ’73. The real king of Queens, N.Y.
And on the day when he won his 300th in the Bronx, he turned a Yankee Stadium crowd into a Seaver crowd. Again: He was 40 that day. Going on 41. But he started 33 games for the White Sox and won 16 against 11 losses and ended up with an ERA of 3.17. This was the baseball version of a lion in winter. By the end of that Sunday afternoon, on the wrong side of the city, he heard a Yankee crowd at Yankee Stadium chanting his name again and again.
He would say later that usually after he threw his first pitch, his pregame nerves would disappear. But not that day. Not the day he won his 300th, an occasion toward which he had begun moving when he was a rookie in 1967.
“One of the few times I ever felt like that was against the Cubs in ’69 when I almost had the perfect game,” Seaver said, of the night when Jimmy Qualls of the Cubs broke up that perfect game with a single in the top of the ninth. “I felt like I was levitating on the mound. I remember my father was there [at Shea Stadium]. He had come east on a business trip and [my wife] Nancy picked him up at the airport. And I couldn’t feel the ball come off my hand like I usually did.”
And with all of that going on, with history in that right hand along with the baseball, at the age of 40, in his 19th season in the big leagues, he pitched a complete game and allowed a single run to the Yankees. One last time in New York, he was Seaver.
Of course he never should have been traded away from the Mets. Of course he should have been a Met his whole career the way Mickey Mantle and Joe DiMaggio and Derek Jeter were Yankees their entire careers. He never should have spent any of his prime in Cincinnati or Chicago. His last innings in the big leagues should have been with the Mets in 1986 and not the Red Sox. He should have been on the Mets side of old Shea when they came back and won Game 6 of the World Series and gave Mets fans their greatest night since October of ’69.
When he came back to Citi Field in 2013 to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at the All-Star Game, I stayed with him from the field all the way to the suite level and asked him what his emotions were when he heard the roar of a Mets crowd one last time.
“Just one emotion,” he said. “I was home.”
“But Shea’s gone,” I said.
“Not tonight it’s not,” Tom Seaver said.