Tom Seaver made being Mets fan cool
The news last week that 74-year-old Hall of Fame pitcher Tom Seaver is suffering from dementia and is retiring from public life shook the city of New York and Mets fans, both of whom have been given a lifetime of memories by one of the greatest right-handed hurlers to ever pick up a baseball.
Those memories won’t be wiped away by age. They are stories to pass down from one generation to another, like my father passed down to me the stories of Pete Reiser and Dolph Camilli and perhaps his favorite Brooklyn Dodger, Jackie Robinson.
I don’t know what life still has in store for me, but I would hope if I have a short list of memories to hold on to in the future, one of them is a particular moment in time in 1989 when I batted against my childhood hero.
I grew up in Brooklyn in a National League house. My uncle Rocco drove Ralph Branca in a convertible for a Dodgers parade. My father took me to Ebbets Field, just a few blocks from our neighborhood, when I was 4 years old. And when the Dodgers and Giants left Brooklyn for the West Coast, there was no New York baseball in our house save for my infatuation with Mickey Mantle.
So when the Mets were born in New York in 1962, baseball was reborn in the Loverro house. I saw the Mets play at the Polo Grounds their first two years and was there for the opening of Shea Stadium in 1964. I dug through trash cans for Borden’s milk cartons to get enough Mets coupons for free general admission tickets.
They were losers but lovable losers. It was cool to be a Mets fans then. They were the anti-Yankees. Instead of U.S. Steel, they were a Flushing Meadows scrapyard. But something happened in 1967 when Seaver arrived as a rookie and won 16 games on a team that finished in 10th place with 61 victories. There was a sense of pride that began to replace the punch lines. And when he won 16 again in 1968 on a 73-win team, you knew it was real, and you could, for the first time, show off a Mets baseball card and say, “He’s ours. He’s our guy.”
Then 1969 came, man walked on the moon, the Mets won 100 games and the World Series, Seaver won 25 games and the first of three Cy Young awards, and all things seemed possible. It was the first true love of a passionate fan base a love that never fades.
It’s never faded for me. When the Mets committed the treason of trading Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds in 1977, I became a conscientious objector and didn’t return until the team was sold in 1980 to Nelson Doubleday and Fred Wilpon. I was there at Opening Day in 1983 when Seaver came back to the Mets and faced the Phillies and Steve Carlton.
I managed to weasel my way on the field at Shea in 1988 when they retired Seaver’s number. I was there in Cooperstown, New York in July 1992 when Seaver, with 311 career victories and 3,640 strikeouts, was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.
And I was there in 1989 when Seaver came to Baltimore as host of a traveling baseball art show called “Diamonds are Forever.” As part of the promotion, Seaver would pitch to media members at Memorial Stadium.
I was a news reporter and editor at The Baltimore Sun, three years before I would become a sportswriter at The Washington Times, and managed to get the invitation for the paper.
I was not a particularly good baseball player and did not want to embarrass myself. So for a week, I went every night to the Rocky Gorge batting cages to take swings a lot of them.
It rained the day of the media promotion, so the event was moved to the batting tunnel inside the stadium. There were about 15 of us, and I was last in line. I remember watching much better players ahead of me struggle to make contact, as the ball landing in Orioles coach Elrod Hendricks’ glove sounded like an explosion.
Finally, it was my turn. I stepped in, and there was Tom Seaver, ready to deliver a pitch to me. We could have stopped there, and it would have been a moment to remember. I kept my composure and, as the first pitch whizzed by, was stunned that I could see it. I checked my swing, and Hendricks said, “Good check.”
Good check! It was as if Gil Hodges himself had come down and blessed me.
I swung at the next pitch and managed to foul it off meekly. As good as I felt then, I might as well had hit the “Here” flag at Memorial Stadium, where Frank Robinson once hit a ball out of the ballpark.
Then lightning struck. I hit the third pitch for what would have likely been a slow ground ball to second. I was Ted “Bleeping” Williams now.
Seaver stops and yells into Hendricks, “We know what he likes. Let’s see what he doesn’t like.” To which I respond in an out-of-body experience, “I’m ready. I’ve been going to the batting cage all week for this.”
He lets go of the pitch and I see the ball right in front of me, looking like a grapefruit. But when I swing, the ball is down around my ankles. Everyone busts up laughing, and Seaver says to me, “I bet they didn’t have that pitch at the batting cage.”
You could have buried me right there beneath Memorial Stadium and I would have been fine.
I saw him later that night at the reception at the Baltimore Museum of Art. I had the ball that I hit, and he graciously autographed it for me, one of the few such items I have. But what he gave me was a memory that I pray will always bring a smile to my face. And I pray that Tom Seaver will still have moments to remember that will make him smile. He gave that and more to a generation that will always be in love with the great Seaver.
⦁ Hear Thom Loverro on 106.7 The Fan Wednesday afternoons and Saturday and Sunday mornings and on the Kevin Sheehan Show podcast every Tuesday and Thursday.