Saturday, January 07, 2006

Who Could Be The Next Tom Seaver??

This is the first in a series of entries that will focus on some of the great Mets players over the years, as we wait for that first pitch of the spring, or another of Omar's transactions, whichever comes first.

Okay, the easy answer to this question is "no one." This question, however, begets the question "why ISN'T there a next Tom Seaver?" (This column is dedicated to the other 2 Tom Seaver lovers in my life- my dad and Jonathan! Seth used to love him, but he roots for the Yanks now so we won't mention him- until Tuesday's column when I discuss Jerry Koosman.)

First, let's look at what made Tom Seaver so great. Besides the fact that he came along at a time that coincided with the rise of what had been a beloved doormat under Casey Stengal, Seaver brought with him many tangible and intangible qualities that pitchers today just don't have. Before anyone throws out the name ROGER CLEMENS, let's just say that he's a freak of nature and as much as I am loathe to admit it (Piazza lover that I am), he could possibly be the most dominant pitcher of all time in spite of the fact that his E.R.A. is still over 3.00 lifetime, and he pitched for a lot better teams than most of the ones Seaver was a part of. But for all his greatness, he's no Tom Seaver.

Seaver possessed a love for the game that cannot be matched today. He loved taking that ball every fourth or fifth day, and you were guaranteed 7 or 8 innings, at the least, of tough competition each and every game. He was a bulldog on the mound, and he was the epitome of the thinking-man's pitcher. You could see the joy in everything he did, and the disappointment if he failed to be merely "human" that particular day. Seaver was always eloquent, and my dad and I always loved hearing him on Kiner's Korner (we still love hearing any game that he announces.) When Seaver left the mound, he left everything he had on that pitching rubber, and you knew that you got your money's worth as a fan, and certainly the Payson's got their money's worth as the owner's of the team. Admittedly, Seaver pitched in an age of more innocence and less media intrusion, but his combination of personality, all-American good looks and amazing pitching acumen remains a rare combination.

We've heard all of the second coming comparisons, Mets and non-Mets alike, whether it was Tim Leary, Doc Gooden, Mark Prior, Scott Kazmir, etc. Each comparison had validity, but so far, no one has come close to touching Seaver's accomplishments. It's amazing that Dick Young, the late columnist with the NY Daily News, nearly single-handedly ran Seaver out of town, seemingly because Seaver had the audacity to ask for a raise at a time when he was virtually the only marketable player on a fading Mets team. Instead, in a day that will live in infamy for Mets fans of my generation, on June 15 1977, M. Donald Grant had GM Joe McDonald trade the franchise to the hated Reds for a sad combo that included --- can you guess who? - (Answer at the end of this column) Like the line from Don McLean's "American Pie", that was the day the Mets music died (until 1986, anyway).

Seaver, Carlton and Palmer were seemingly the last of their breed- pitchers who spent the majority of their careers with a single team, growing to become icons in their respective cities. Carlton was the best pitcher on the worst team probably in history. Palmer was like Ole' Man River for the Orioles- he just kept rollin' along. And Seaver WAS the Mets franchise, as he remains the one Met who took a team on his back and forced them to greatness, kicking and screaming. These players made a lot of money in their day, but nothing in comparison to what the players of today make. The Cubs Mark Prior, the oft-injured former USC grad (like Seaver), recently voided the option year of his contract, making him eligible for arbitration. He will make more in one season than Tom Seaver made over a 19 year career, and he has missed practically more games than he has started. Dwight Gooden threw his career away on drugs, but still made millions while doing it. Tim Leary's career never took off after injuring himself in his first game, so we never knew what he could do, and sadly, we won't personally get to see if Kazmir will even come close (that's Tampa's pleasure now). [Editor's Note: The reason why I put Prior in with the other three players, even though he was never a Met, is because when he came out of USC he was compared heavily to Seaver, in make-up, pitches, intelligence, etc. We can't take credit for drafting him, but the comparison was made by the media which is why he's included in this post.] Gooden was a media darling for a few years, before the drugs took over his life, and Prior has had some major press in Chicago, but Seaver's arrival on the Mets was one of the few times that expectations have exceeded hype. How many pitchers will ever reach over 300 wins again, especially in the day of the 5-man staff (not to mention the plethora of pitching "specialists" that didn't exist 30 years ago)? How many will average nearly 35 starts a year for 19 years? Strike out over 3600, including 9 straight years of over 200 per year? Possess an E.R.A. of under 3?! Or, most of all, how many pitchers can steal the heart of a town, a town that lost 2 of their 3 baseball teams less than 10 years earlier, and still own it nearly 20 years since he retired? I proudly wear Seaver jerseys all the time. When I turned 40, my dad and I went to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, and he bought me a 1983 Seaver jersey. Days later, Jonathan sent me a #41 Pinstriped-Home jersey for my 40th (they both know me so well). This year, my wife bought me a couple of Seaver t-shirts, and the collection grows over the years. Pitchers today aren't marketed, as it's only glamorous, in this age of the long-ball, to be a home run hitter. It seems as though the only pitching coach in baseball that has similar views as those of coaches of 30 years ago is Leo Mazzone, currently with the Orioles, and we all marvelled at the way his staffs with Atlanta were always in top physical shape (outside of fluke injuries) and we marvelled at how he could develop youngsters while seemingly curing journeymen pitchers of whatever bad habits ailed them. Pitchers don't have the same between game throwing regiment as they used to, they don't work on their legs the same way, and they are not asked to pitch as long or as often, so their muscles aren't as strong as pitchers of 30 years ago, hence the usage of illegal suppliments becoming so prevelant among pitchers today. 95 mph fastballs are now the norm, and you might find a staff of 3 or 4 starters who can bring heat that fast. However, 30 years ago, when pitchers were more crafty, and there were less of them in the majors, those who threw 95mph+ were far more rare. I'm not a pitching expert, but I can see the huge difference in the quality of pitching today versus 30 years ago. And please don't think it's just because players today are better athletes, because if that was the case, wouldn't pitchers also advance in a similar fashion? I love Pedro as much or more than any Mets fan, but it's sad that at such a young age, with so few innings pitched and games completed in comparison, that he's already edging into the twilight of his career at the age of 34. He has a lot of strikeouts, an amazing lifetime E.R.A., and less than 50 complete games and 2600 innings pitched. Seaver's numbers? Merely 231 complete games and 4782 innings! There's no denying Pedro's greatness, and I love my #45 jersey (yes, I have one of those, too), but there's still no comparison between even Pedro and Seaver.

Although it's been nearly 20 years since I last saw him pitch, those perfect mechanics will never leave my memory, the sound of his goofy laugh will never leave my ears and those hundreds of games that I was fortunate to see him pitch has left me with a lifetime of great memories and smiles. My kids know all about Seaver from their dad's craziness, as do Jonathan's, and it's a proud legacy that we have passed on. Jonathan's incredible son, Matthew, knows all about Seaver, but he had no choice because if there is one person in this world who even loves Seaver more than I, it's Jon. I WISH that there was another pitcher like Seaver today, so my kids and future grand-kids, as well as all of today's fans can experience what our generation did. I only hope that Dontrelle Willis has a long career with the Marlins, and stays with them for another 10 years (unless the Mets can steal him of course), so that he can have a lasting impression on Marlins fans and baseball youth the way Seaver did (that is also, of course, if the Marlins remain in Florida. If they move to Vegas, please don't hate me if I go to see every game he pitches). So bring on all of the Mark Prior's you can assemble- they won't ever stack up to the legacy of Mr. George Thomas Seaver.

Quiz Answer- The Mets received Pat Zachary, Dan Norman, Doug Flynn & Steve Henderson for Seaver- believe it or not. Can you imagine the A's getting Marlon Anderson, Eric Valent, Victor Diaz and Victor Zambrano for Barry Zito? Well, that's a better mix then the Mets got for Seaver!!

Coming Soon: What Would Jerry Koosman Be Worth Today???

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