As I write this, the news of Tom Seaver’s passing is still painfully fresh, if not genuinely surprising. He’d been quite ill for a long time with the dementia and Lyme disease that shared culpability in his demise. I can’t claim that the hero worship I’d felt for him as a child had endured into my own adulthood. He’d developed a reputation amongst fans who’d crossed paths with him as something of a difficult personality, a quality that I couldn’t quite set aside as I thought about him in the years after I could no longer convince myself that I was young. Still, I’d be lying if I tried to pretend that I am not effected by this event. As an older man I might not be able to see him solely as a ballplayer; as a kid there was only number forty- one, taking the ball every fifth day, offering Met fans a respite from the hopelessness of our chosen burden.
If you’re not a baseball fan it’s hard to describe just how impactful Tom Seaver was as a pitcher. Rookie of the Year (1967), winner of three Cy Young Awards (1969, 1973, 1975), he made twelve All-Star Game appearances (1967-1973, 1975-1978, 1981), lead the league in strike-outs five times (1970, 1971, 1973, 1975, 1976), and earned run average three times (1970, 1971, 1973), amongst other superlatives. All of that is extraordinary, yet an inadequate representation of what he meant to me. As a young boy, baseball was my favorite thing to do, talk or think about, and as a fan of the Mets, Seaver was frequently the only source of pride I had. More often than not, the team had a losing record in games he didn’t pitch. Looking back, it makes sense that he was the first person I can remember wanting to be. In the passing of time the reality of my life intruded and I realized that I would not be playing in high school, no less the major leagues. As disappointing as that was, on the simplest level that fantasy persisted. For years after I had last played an inning of organized ball, I thought of him every time I had a catch with a friend. And then, at some indeterminate point, I stopped. Not that I forgot who or what he was.
Starting at age seven I have loved baseball, and in that span of a half century there has never been a day when I didn’t think he was an absolute immortal. His status as such was not just the opinion of a besotted child, but the consensus of virtually everybody who has ever written or spoke about the sport. From professionals like Bill James and Roger Angell, to countless impassioned barroom “experts”, Tom Seaver was on every shortlist of the game’s great pitchers. Even so, the years turn, and little by little, we put away our childhood. I still throw a baseball occasionally, but can’t possibly recall the last time I imagined myself as anything other than a poorly aging man who last had a decent arm around the time Jimmy Carter was busy screwing things up. Sitting here, in the peace of a late Wednesday night, I wonder if things might be different in the next few days.
Labor day is almost upon us and the five day forecast promises us, for what it’s worth, a pleasant weekend. In between grilling far too much food and winterizing my pool, my stepson and I will probably have a catch. Nothing too adventurous, just two men tossing a baseball around for fifteen minutes or so. Although not any sort of ritual for us, it’s a common enough occurrence that the emotional resonance it generates is undeniably sweet but vague. Somehow, I think this Saturday may be different. Right around the time that the last of the leftovers end up in the fridge, I will slip my hand into a thirty-five year old Rawlings fastback glove and grip a Wilson baseball along the seams. And when I ready myself to throw it, I will try and coax one more Tom Seaver-esque moment out of my increasingly creaky body. Instead of simply rocking back and stepping forward, I will go through a full windup and then use my right leg to push myself towards my stepson. The classic drop and drive motion that took George Thomas Seaver all the way from Fresno, California to Cooperstown, New York and the baseball Hall of Fame. If I try hard enough, maybe I can remember what it was like to think that I might join him there too, one day.