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Remembering Tom Seaver (1945-2020)

There is too much cruel coincidence happening in the world these days. On August 28 Jackie Robinson Day turns out to be the day that actor Chadwick Boseman, 43, who played Robinson in the movie "42," died after a long secret battle with colon cancer.  (To keep his memory vividly alive, check out the YouTube video of Boseman's 2018 Howard University commencement speech). 

 

Then, a few days later on Wednesday Sept 2, moments after sitting in on a fascinating Zoom New York Giants Preservation Society interview with Fresno-based baseball writer Dan Taylor, word comes that Fresno native Tom Seaver, 75, had died after a long illness. 

 
It was in Fresno where Seaver grew up. After a nondescript high school baseball career, he enlisted in a six-month program in the Marines where he grew into his powerful body.

 

He enrolled at Fresno City College where his coach Len Bourdet, a veteran of Iwo Jima and still alive at 94, exclaimed, "He went in as a boy and came back as a man." Another Marine, Seaver's first Mets manager Gil Hodges, loomed as another great influence on him. 

 

(Many thanks to Dan Taylor for these insights - his book on the late great baseball scout George Genovese "A Scout's Report" is required reading for anyone who wants to understand baseball.) 

 
I didn't live in New York when Seaver rocketed to fame as the Mets' 24-year-old 25-game winner for the world champion 1969 Mets. But who didn't know about "Tom Terrific"? He was a crossover star writ large.  Even my mother and most non-baseball-loving mothers knew about Seaver.  

 
So I was thrilled in 1983 to get the assignment of working with him on the instructional book "The Art of Pitching".  I appreciate that Tyler Kepner quoted from it in his warm appreciation in the Sept 4 print NY Times (still available on nytimes.com)

 

1983 was the year Seaver came back to the Mets from the Cincinnati Reds where he had been traded in 1977.  Free agency had arrived in baseball after the 1976 season, and Met management didn't want to re-sign Seaver because . . . well, poor decisions by Mets management haven't changed much over the years. 

 
At 38, Seaver knew he was in the latter stages of his career but he still exuded professional pride and cared deeply about playing the game the right way. I also learned quickly that he could also be a world-class needler.  

 
The best example happened on a freezing late April night at Shea Stadium. Seaver was pitching in shirt sleeves - if his uni top were a buttoned variety (and not a grotesque polyester pullover), the top button would have been opened, his longtime homage to Willie Mays. 

 
In the stands behind home plate, yours truly was dressed for the Arctic - heavy winter coat, thick scarf, and knitted cap pulled down over most of my face. 

 
Seaver wound up throwing a three-hit shutout and I congratulated him after the game.  "I saw you," he said. "You looked like Nanook of Israel." Nanook was my nickname from then on.

 
I have another fond early memory from working on the book in spring training.  He rented a lovely beach house on the ocean near St. Petersburg. One afternoon he took me on a drive to a building I must see near Clearwater Beach. "It may be the largest structure in the world," he said.  

 
I was indeed impressed because it was two blocks long and two blocks wide.  Finding out the location of that house has become a kind of Rosebud sled for me.  If anyone knows, please use the contact form on this website. (And BTW I'm interested in who Sweet-Lou is who entered a wonderful comment on my last blog.)

 

Like most baseball fans, I was shocked when the Mets didn't protect him in the professional free agent compensation draft in the winter of 1983. There again Mets management shooting  itself in the leg.  

 
So Seaver wound up with the White Sox where he pitched creditably in 1984 and 1985. Which leads me to my last memorable experience with #41. 

 
I covered Phil Rizzuto Day in August 1985 for WBAI Radio at Yankee Stadium. It turned out to be Tom Seaver's 300th MLB victory - he earned it on his first try, another sign of his greatness under pressure.  

 
After the game I talked briefly to Tom's father, Charles Seaver, a great golfer in his day who also played football and basketball at Stanford. I saw first-hand that the athletic genes and love of competition ran deeply in the Seaver family.  

 
So did the love of art and architecture. Seaver's late brother, also named Charles, was a sculptor. And Tom often went to museums on the road, occasionally corralling a teammate or two to join him.  

 
I just read a wonderful reminiscence on line from a neighbor near the winery in Calistoga where he spent his happiest years after baseball as the proprietor of GTS Vineyards.  To his friends in northern California, he was simply "Tom who used to play baseball."  

 
I am glad that his suffering is over but he will certainly be missed. George Thomas Seaver will certainly not be forgotten. Though he took great pride in these numbers, he was far more than 311-205 .winning percentage .603, and remarkable walk-strikeout ratio 1390-3640.  

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Three Cheers for Christian Yelich, RIP Bobby Winkles, & More

I hope everyone who reads this post is coping somehow with the coronavirus crisis that likely will not subside any time soon. 

 

I ache for those of you who have lost loved ones and have not been able to mourn and grieve adequately because of the failure of our public health system. That problem starts at the very top of our government where there is no leadership and no sense of responsibility.

 
Let me begin the baseball part of this post with a shoutout to the caring gesture of Christian Yelich, the star Milwaukee Brewers' right fielder.  Earlier this month he wrote an empathetic letter to the seniors at his alma mater, Harvard-Westlake High School in Thousand Oaks, California outside of Los Angeles - the same area where Kobe Bryant perished with his daughter and others in the helicopter crash.

 
"This is just a small chapter of your life that's just beginning," Yelich wrote.  
There will be better days ahead, Yelich assured them, once games resume and the best of them move on to higher competition. "Most importantly," he advised, "play for all your teammates that no longer get to do so, and never forget to realize how lucky you are!" 

 

(Three top pitchers in MLB today graduated from Harvard-Westlake - the Cardinals' Jack Flaherty, the White Sox's Lucas Giolito, and the Braves' Max Fried.) 

 
Pretty heady stuff from Yelich, the 28-year-old former NL MVP whose injury late last season likely cost the Brewers a chance to advance to the World Series for only the second time in franchise history and the first since 1982.   

 
Speaking of that 1982 World Series, I caught Game 7 on MLBTV last week. If the Cardinals hadn't scored insurance runs in the bottom of the 8th, I think that game would be considered an all-time classic. 

 
It was fascinating to see future MLB pitching coaches Pete Vuckovich and Bob McClure hurling for the Brew Crew.  Vuckovich was a gamer to end gamers and got out of many jams to pitch Milwaukee into the bottom of the 6th with a two-run lead.


Showing championship mettle, the Cardinals answered immediately with four runs, two charged to Vuckovich and the others to McClure. Keith Hernandez delivered the two-run tying single off his former high school teammate in the SF Bay area.  

 

St. Louis left fielder Lonnie Smith, who nine years later would be the base-running goat in the 1-0 10 inning Braves loss to the Twins, was a big part of the Cardinals' rally in this game.  It was nice to see Smith in one of his better games - we shouldn't forget he was also a big part of the 1980 Phillies championship season.

 

Future Tampa Rays batting coach George Hendrick made a key throw in this game nabbing future Hall of Famer Robin Yount aggressively trying to go from first to third in the fourth inning on a two-out single to right field by another future Hall of Famer Paul Molitor. 

 

Hendrick is widely considered to be the first player to wear his uniform pants low, starting a trend that remains the fashion in today's baseball. (Not to me but that's another story for another time.)

 

Hendrick was never comfortable talking to the press and so became controversial.

But as Joe Garagiola sagely noted on the broadcast, all Hendrick wanted is to be judged by what he did on the field.

 

I hadn't heard Garagiola and partner Tony Kubek announce a game in a long while and they were good.  So was Tom Seaver, commenting from downstairs near the field.  

 

Garagiola certainly had a gift for colorful description. When Ted Simmons clearly would have been out at home on a grounder to third base, Joe quipped, "He would have needed a subpoena" to get there. Fortunately for Ted, the ball rolled foul. Oh, those little things that make up every baseball game and maybe that's what we miss most of all right now.  

 

An interesting sidelight to this game was that future Hall of Famer Simmons was catching for Milwaukee, and the former Brewer Darrell Porter was catching for St. Louis.  

 

(Note:  Simmons' induction into Cooperstown on the last Sunday in July is still scheduled, but a final decision from the Hall of Fame on whether the ceremonies wil go on as planned is still awaited.)  

 

I haven't watched many of the All-Time Game broadcasts on MLBTV but they are nice to have to pass time until the real thing returns.  Certainly we cannot expect live baseball in a normal setting until next season at the earliest.

 

I did watch ESPN's broadcast of Ali-Frazier I on Saturday night April 18.  What a brutal battle that was, with Frazier the deserved winner.

 

I didn't realize that Burt Lancaster had done the TV color commentary with light-heavyweight champion Archie Moore and venerable Don Dunphy doing blow-by-blow.  

 

Lancaster was very enthusiastic but not particularly insightful.  He was one of our more athletic actors, a star in track and field and I think gymastics too at the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School.

 

On a concluding sad note, here's a farewell to Bobby Winkles who passed away at

the age of 90 earlier this week.  Winkles put Arizona State University on the map as a baseball power.  He amassed a record of 524-173 from 1958-1971, and won three College World Series, 1965-1967-1969.

 

He coached such future MLB stars as Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson, Rick Monday (the first pick in baseball's first amateur free agent draft in 1965), Gary Gentry a key part of the 1969 Mets, and Sal Bando, the glue on the Oakland A's 1972-74 champions.

 

He had an under .500 record managing in the majors for the Angels and A's but he was a memorable baseball lifer who later worked in player development with the White Sox and Expos and also broadcast games for Expos from 1989-93.

 

Winkles hailed from Swifton, Arkansas where he grew up with future Hall of Famer George Kell.  His home town was so small, Winkles liked to say, the city limits sign was placed on the same telephone pole.

 

After starring at Illinois Wesleyan U. in Bloomington, Illinois, he signed with the White Sox.  Alas, the middle infielder was stuck behind future Hall of Famers Luis Aparicio and Nelson Fox and never reached the majors.

 

He found his calling in coaching, and in 2006 he was elected in the first class of inductees into the National College Baseball Hall of Fame.  Somewhere in the great beyond, one of the best Walter Brennan imitators is rehearsing for his first celestial gig.

 

(For younger readers, Walter Brennan was one of the great Hollywood character actors.  I remember him warmly as Gary Cooper's sidekick in "Meet John Doe" and Lou Gehrig's sportswriter-confidant in "Pride of the Yankees".) 

 

Well, that's all for now, and more than ever in these uncertain times, always rememeber:  Take it easy but take it!

 

 

 

 

 

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