Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 10, 2020

The Pitcher Who Lifted A Franchise To Glory

He was “Tom Terrific” before a certain quarterback, late of Foxborough Massachusetts, was even born. When he was labeled “the Franchise” the nickname was far more apt than it would be in later years for the NBA’s Steve Francis, or NASCAR’s David Reutimann, or journeyman pitcher Francisco Liriano. To understand the depth of loss felt by fans of the New York Mets last week, when word came that a year and a half after withdrawing from public life following a diagnosis of Lewy body dementia Tom Seaver had died at the age of 75, one need only look to the words used by Mets broadcaster Keith Hernandez, who said of Seaver, “he is the greatest Met of all time.” Not Hall of Famer Mike Piazza, or original manager Casey Stengel, or a more recent face of the franchise such as David Wright. It was the burly right-hander to whom Hernandez, Seaver’s teammate for one season, gave pride of place.  

Fans far beyond Queens see his greatness in statistics built over two decades in the major leagues. National League Rookie of the Year in 1967, three Cy Young Awards, twelve All-Star appearances, 311 wins, 3,640 strikeouts, a career ERA of 2.86, and, of course, a plaque on the wall in Cooperstown. But while all those numbers resonate with Mets fans, whose support for the boys of Flushing Meadows has yielded far more anguish than joy over the decades, the essence of Tom Seaver lies in a single season, 1969. What Seaver and the Mets did in that year truly was the miracle that became that squad’s nickname.

Born as an expansion franchise in 1962, the Mets lost 120 games in their inaugural campaign, then quickly set about proving that such futility was no fluke. The team recorded more than 100 losses in each of its first four seasons, with its best effort a “mere” 109-loss year in 1964. Going into the 1969 season the Mets had never come close to a winning record and had finished either ninth or tenth in the National League every year.

Seaver’s arrival in 1967, after one season in the minors, was full of promise. He went 16-13 on a club that lost 101 games, accumulating an excellent WAR of 6.0. He also threw 251 innings, a reminder of how expectations for starting pitchers have changed. These days entire rotations on some clubs will lack even a single starter who goes 200 innings in a season, and with the pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign ensuring that no pitcher will come close to that mark, it will be an even decade since Justin Verlander, then with the Tigers, matched Seaver’s workload. But still the Mets were the doormat of the National League in 1967. The following year showed slight improvement, for both Seaver, who improved on his rookie season in ERA, win percentage, FIP and WAR, and for his team. The Mets posted a franchise best 73 victories, though another season well below the .500 mark left them 24 games out of first place, and better than only Houston in the final NL standings.

Then came 1969. The roster was little changed from the previous year, but further expansion meant the advent of divisions in both leagues, so a ninth or tenth place finish was no longer possible. Still, most pundits forecast New York as no better than the fourth best squad among the six in the new NL East. The prognosticators appeared prescient through most of the season’s first two months. By late May the Mets were five games under .500, stuck in fourth place and already nine games back in the standings. Then the team ran off eleven straight wins, capturing all but the first contest of a home stand and adding to the streak at the start of a West Coast swing. Seaver was the winning pitcher in three of the eleven victories. That put the Mets into rarified air, a team with a winning record! While that was a decidedly different posture for a franchise that had become a national joke in its early days, it was one to which the Mets quickly grew accustomed.

But while the team, and Seaver, kept winning games, the front-running Cubs were every bit as good. The result was a steadily improving record but little progress toward first place. As late as mid-August New York was still ten games adrift of Chicago. The Cubbies though had their own, much longer, history of futility with which to contend, and that seemed to weigh on the team from the North Side. By the time the Cubs arrived at Shea Stadium on September 8 the lead was down to 2½ games. Jerry Koosman, Seaver’s left-handed partner in the rotation, won the first match of the two-game set 3-2. One night later the Mets gave Seaver plenty of run support, not that he needed it. He won his 21st game of the season, allowing just five hits and one run as New York closed to a half-game with a 7-1 triumph. When the Mets swept a doubleheader from the Expos the following day, the NL East had a new first place team.

New York finished that year with 100 wins. Seaver owned 25 of them, including each of his final ten decisions. Then he got the postseason party started by beating Atlanta in the first game of the NLCS. He wasn’t perfect, losing the first game of the World Series against the Orioles. But he rebounded with a heroic effort in Game 4, holding the Baltimore bats at bay over ten innings until the Mets finally walked off in the bottom of the 10th when O’s reliever Pete Richert’s throw to first on a sacrifice bunt sailed high and wide, allowing Rod Gaspar to score from second. The 2-1 win put the Mets on the brink of a title, and one night later the miracle was complete.

These are the Mets of course, so even the stories of the team’s heroes are filled with angst. In what fans still refer to as the Midnight Massacre, Seaver was shipped to Cincinnati at the trade deadline in 1977, the culmination of a contract dispute with Donald Grant, who chaired the club’s board and regularly leaked disparaging comments about Seaver to New York Post columnist Dick Young. So it was in a Reds uniform that Seaver recorded his 3,000th strikeout, fanning Hernandez, who was then playing for St. Louis.

Seaver returned to New York in another trade prior to the 1983 season. Just like when he was a rookie, the Mets were a bad team, but Seaver still posted the win on Opening Day, beating a Philadelphia squad that would play in that year’s World Series. Then the front office left him unprotected in that autumn’s free agent compensation draft, thinking no one would want an aging hurler with a big contract. But the White Sox did, meaning that while Seaver did win his 300th game in Gotham, it was in the Bronx as a visiting pitcher, not in Queens as the home starter.

Now he is gone, one more star from another time extinguished, one more hero consigned to memory. But for Mets fans those memories of Tom Terrific and the miracle of ’69, along with the knowledge of what the Franchise meant to their franchise, will always be clear. The greatest Met of all was the one who led the amazing squad that gave those fans their first taste of absolute joy.

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