RIP Tom Seaver, baseball great and more
If a sculptor were looking for a model for a statue of a baseball pitcher, he would be well served to use Tom Seaver (coincidentally, the younger brother of a sculptor). Seaver exuded an image of physical prowess, combined with a rare intelligence and maturity. His commanding aura was so pervasive that the great Reggie Jackson once said of him, "Blind men go to the ballpark to hear him pitch."
Like many American boys, George Thomas Seaver loved baseball as he grew up in Fresno, California. However, his performance on the diamond even in high school gave no indication that he would ever play professionally, let alone make the major leagues. After graduation, he spent a year in the Marine Corps, where he matured both physically and emotionally. He enrolled in Fresno City College when his hitch was up, then transferred to the University of Southern California, where he blossomed into a star on the mound. The hapless New York Mets won the right to sign him in a 1966 lottery; within a year, he was pitching in the majors and earning Rookie of the Year honors. Describing him, one coach said delightedly, "He's got a twenty-two-year-old arm and a forty-year-old head."
Seaver was to pitching what Mickey Mantle was to hitting. He had a compact, powerful delivery that wasted no motion and concentrated all its energy on the task – namely, throwing a baseball past a hitter. Unlike Mantle, he was never seriously injured during his career, and his mechanics had much to do with that. His remarkable discipline gave him the ability to master a wide variety of pitches, and he controlled them the way Toscanini controlled his musicians.
Seaver was the leader of the 1969 "Miracle Mets," a team of untested kids and a handful of journeyman veterans who were 100-1 underdogs to win the World Series at the start of the year. With Seaver showing the way, the Mets blew past the favored Chicago Cubs late in the season, then quickly dispatched the Atlanta Braves in the playoffs. They stunned the powerful Baltimore Orioles in the Series, winning it in five games. Seaver won the fourth game in a masterful, magical performance. The Mets' victory was a feel-good story at a time when America desperately needed one.
Seaver was not only ace of the Mets; he was the face of the team as well. Handsome and clean-cut, with a sense of humor and a degree in public relations, he was an ideal spokesman. He was complemented in this assignment by his wife, Nancy — a pretty, vivacious blonde who was his biggest and most visible cheerleader. Nancy not only relished her public role, but performed it every bit as well as Tom played his. Tom spoke often about how much it meant to him to have Nancy rooting for him from the boxes at Shea Stadium and how much she contributed to his success. After they started a family (they had two daughters), they quietly retreated from most public appearances outside games. Their love for each other was passionate and mature.
After a career that included 311 wins, 3,640 strikeouts, three Cy Young awards, a plaque in the Hall of Fame, and his number retired by the Mets, Seaver returned to California and grew grapes, putting out a nice Cabernet according to critics. He took as much pride in tending his vineyard as he had in pitching. But in 2017, word spread quietly among his friends that his memory was fading. A television documentary filmed at that time showed him working and enjoying his life, but not quite all there mentally. In March 2019, his family announced that he had dementia, that it was advancing, and that he was retiring from public appearances. It was a sad development for a man whose intelligence and mental toughness had been as much a part of his success as his physical gifts. Fortunately, his beloved Nancy was there to care for him during his long goodbye.
Tom Seaver was not only part of one of the greatest American sports stories ever; he lived a rewarding life and was partner in a wonderful American love story. We should celebrate him — and Nancy — for that.