We tried to brace ourselves for it, knowing this day was coming, but the pain still seared through our bodies Wednesday night, breaking our hearts.
Tom Seaver, the iconic New York Mets star and the greatest pitcher in franchise history, died Monday at the age of 75 from complications of Lewy body dementia and COVID-19, the Baseball Hall of Fame announced.
“No death of a non-family member has ever hit me this hard,’’ former Mets pitcher and executive Ed Lynch told USA TODAY Sports. “He was my hero. To be around him, it was like a student of American history reading about Abraham Lincoln or Frederick Douglass, and then spending part of your life with them. I can’t put in words what it means spending time with a person of that caliber.
“Tom Seaver epitomizes what the Mets were, and can be, but they’re not (right now).
“He was the greatest Met ever, and there’s not a close second.’’
Seaver, who turned the lovable losers into the 1969 World Series champions, publicly revealed last summer that he was suffering from dementia and was unable to attend the 50-year anniversary reunion of the “Miracle Mets.”
Friends and former teammates immediately reached out, and over the past year asked if they could come visit him at his home in Calistoga, California. Sorry, they were told, but the family wanted privacy. They didn’t want anyone to see Seaver dying before their eyes.
The last time his teammates saw him was in 2018 when four members from his ’69 team flew to California and visited Seaver at his 116-acre winery. They reminisced for eight hours, regaling each other with stories from that miracle season. They were alarmed that Seaver could barely remember the season, let alone games. When they departed that evening, they knew it would likely be the last time they saw him.
“That’s so painful because memories are treasures to me and all of us,’’ former Mets outfielder Ron Swoboda told USA TODAY Sports last summer. “The thought of anything sneaking in there, and stealing my memory from me, is just horrible. It’s beyond words how painful it is to see Tom losing his memory.’’
Said former Mets teammate Art Shamsky: “When we left, it was sadness. We all aged. We all lost members of the team. And when we finally said goodbye, you didn’t know if you’d see everyone ever again.’’
Seaver stayed secluded from the rest of the world since last summer, but never was he forgotten, and will be forever immortalized in Mets history.
Seaver, nicknamed “Tom Terrific,’’ was one of the greatest right-handed pitchers in the history of the game, with Hall of Famer Hank Aaron calling him the toughest he ever faced. He was a three-time Cy Young Award winner who won 311 games. He was a five-time 20-game winner. He was a 12-time All-Star. He ended his career with 3,640 strikeouts, ranking sixth on the all-time list. He was a first-ballot Hall of Famer, receiving a then-record 98.8% of the vote in 1992, a mark that has only been eclipsed since by Ken Griffey Jr., Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter.
“Tom was nicknamed ‘The Franchise’ and ‘Tom Terrific’ because of how valuable he truly was to our organization and our loyal fans,’’ Mets owners Fred and Jeff Wilpon said in a statement. “He was simply the greatest Mets player of all-time and among the best to ever play the game.’’
Yet, talking to Seaver over the years at the Hall of Fame ceremony each summer, you would never know he even made his Little League Hall of Fame. He was humble. Gracious. Funny. If he wanted to, he could embarrass you with his intelligence, but never made you feel inferior.
“He was a thinking man,’’ said former Hall of Fame president Jeff Idelson, who was working for the Boston Red Sox’s public relations staff when Seaver was traded to the team in 1986. “He was the first player I ever saw play bridge in the clubhouse. I thought it was odd. Bridge, that’s an old people’s game. But I walk into the clubhouse, and here’s Tom Seaver playing bridge.’’
Yes, just like he was throwing a baseball, he was a master at bridge … and just about everything else in life.
Who would ever believe that a man could be a Hall of Famer in one career, start up another career in 1992, and be equally as successful in the wine-making business? You can ask anyone in the Napa Valley, and they’ll tell you Seaver Vineyards produces some of the greatest Cabernet wine you’ve ever indulged.
“He equated to a baseball season,’’ Idelson said. “He told me, ‘You harvest in the spring, work it all summer, try to position yourself in the fall, and if you have a great crop, it’s like going to the World Series.’
“He was a World Series player with his grapes.’’
His absence was badly missed at Cooperstown the past few years. Every time he came into the Hall of Fame Museum, the first thing he’d do was rub his hands over the plaques of Christy Mathewson, Walter Johnson and Sandy Koufax, and say he couldn’t believe he was in the same building as those immortal pitchers.
The last time I saw him was in 2016 at Mike Piazza’s induction, but he admitted years earlier that he was terrified. His memory was badly slipping. He couldn’t remember games. He couldn’t remember moments. He couldn’t remember entire seasons.
There were times, his friends say, where he was unable to recall things that happened not only hours ago, but even minutes earlier.
He didn’t want anyone to see him this way the past few years, not wanting to expose his frailty, but preserve their own memories of him.
“I’ll always treasure our friendship,’’ Piazza said. “Tom was always rooting for me to get into the Hall. Two of my fondest memories are walking out of Shea Stadium together after the last game, and then when he threw the ceremonial first pitch to me at Citi Field the next year.
“He was one of a kind.”
The last time he was seen publicly at a Mets’ game was in 2013 when he threw out the ceremonial first pitch at the All-Star Game at Citi Field. It was his greatest All-Star moment, he said, since pitching in his first All-Star Game in 1967 at Anaheim Stadium, striking out Chicago White Sox outfielder Ken Berry to end it as the final pitcher used in that 15-inning game.
“Kid, I know who you are,’’ Aaron told him when he introduced himself at that game, “and before your career is over, I guarantee you everyone in this stadium will, too.”
Well, as it turns out, the rest of the world would learn who Seaver was, too, and he left people with memories that will be cherished forever.
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