They are as comfortable together as you and your old Met sweatshirt. Ordinary, familiar, maybe a bit faded, frayed, and worn, like a battered ball tucked in a worn-out glove. It’s like they were made to go together, one somehow not complete without the other. Cold ice cream and hot fudge.
They met forty years ago and became fast friends, a friendship steeled over time, immune to lapses that sometimes stretch past decades. But, when circumstance brings them together again, they reconnect without missing a beat, the same vaudeville like routine; tiresome, threadbare, even childish to those who love them but as comfortable and secure as a baseball clubhouse where both once resided many years before.
One is Tom Seaver, the greatest pitcher of his age at least in the opinion of his contemporaries; guys like Bob Gibson, Don Sutton, and Jim Palmer. 311 career wins. a lifetime earned run average of 2.86, more than 3,000 strikeouts, 3 Cy Young Awards and a 98.84 Hall of Fame percentage, the highest mark ever recorded in first round balloting for the Hall.
The other – Pat Jordan, one of America’s leading baseball writer’s, his work found in the “Best American Sports Writing Anthology Series” seven times. Jordan, too, knows baseball from the inside, once the most heralded pitching prospect in the game, signing to play for the Milwaukee Braves with a bonus at the time believed to be the biggest ever committed to a signee of the Braves. After leaving baseball, Jordan put pen to paper recounting his minor league odyssey and authoring “A False Spring”, his memoir that was ranked by Sports Illustrated as the 37th Greatest Sports book ever written.
It was baseball, it was pitching, and it was the fact that as young men they both resided in Greenwich, Connecticut, that brought them together, sports legend and sport’s writer.
In Jordan, Seaver found a sports journalist he could talk turkey with, a guy who as an ex-pitcher understood the finer points of pitching mechanics and the physical and emotional toll that came with taking the hill. In Seaver, Jordan could catch a glimpse of the baseball pitcher he always hoped to be but never became.
Seaver and Jordan make an odd couple, two fiercely competitive men, who long ago forged a bond going to war against each other, one-on-one, on the hardwoods of the basketball court of a Greenwich YMCA. It was ‘no blood, no foul basketball,’ the only style of hoops both men knew how to play, brutal and exhausting, with each combatant leaving the court bruised and battered after victory was finally claimed.
Neither would give ground to the other then. Neither gives ground to each other now.
I learned of this unique and compelling friendship reading Jordan’s lengthy article, “The Constant Gardener” in a December edition of “Sports on Earth.” The famed baseball writer, now 73, called on Seaver, 69, after a two decade hiatus, wanting to do one more interview, write one more story about baseball’s pitching genius. The end result, a remarkable tale, a narrative about baseball, about family, about aging, about goals accomplished and goals still to achieve, but to me a story of a delightful friendship between two talented and proud guys.
Seaver and Jordan are a duo of contrasts. Seaver is an artistic man, free flowing in general but obsessed with specifics and detail with the things he loves. On the surface, Jordan is more neat and ordered, life’s events scheduled item by item, but beneath the surface there dwells an abstract and deep, free thinker.
In his “Sports on Earth” piece, Jordan describes he and Seaver as Frick and Frack, Oscar and Felix, Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid with Seaver the long suffering Sundance perpetually burdened with Jordan’s Cassidy- like incessant questioning, interruptions and delusions of past glory. Seaver’s daughter Anne simply calls the squabbling pair “Dumb and Dumber.”
Jordan’s tome is packed with baseball. Early in the account Seaver meets Jordan for breakfast in a cafe in Calistoga, California. Like he did every day when he pitched in the major leagues, Seaver opens a newspaper and spreads out the sports section. At one time, Seaver would scour the box scores hoping to glean insights about batters he would face later in the season. This time, Seaver is reading a recap of the most recent game in the American League Championship series between Detroit and Boston.
It’s not long before Seaver throws up his hands knocking the cap off his head and grabs his hair like a frustrated teen. “Why did they take Scherzer out?” Seaver screams at Jordan. The former pitching great couldn’t believe what his eyes had told him. Detroit’s ace Max Scherzer was throwing a masterful game, a two-hitter through 7 innings, and the Tigers had a commanding, 5-1, lead on the Red Sox. But, Scherzer was removed from the game, and the Red Sox would rally to win, 6-5.
Jordan answered the query telling Seaver the Detroit ace’s pitch count was too high. “Pitch count? Pitch count?,” wailed Seaver. “Baseball’s not brain surgery. You don’t look for a reason to take him out. Guys like him and Verlander. Their three set-up men and closer don’t equal them or they’d be starting pitchers!” Seaver insists. “I’ll tell you, you wouldn’t be able to get Bob Gibson off the mound in the eighth inning.” Seaver tells Jordan.
The very idea of pitch counts governing time on a pitcher’s mound is hard for a guy like Tom Seaver to fathom. Seaver was a blue collar pitcher, a pitcher brought up to believe you finished what you started. Jordan explains that Seaver started 647 games in his career and completed 231 of them. Tom Seaver pitched until he couldn’t get anyone out anymore.
With that kind of major league pitching resume, it’s easy to understand why Tom Seaver believes young pitchers in the modern baseball era hurt their arms not because they throw too many pitches but because they throw too few. In Seaver’s world view, pitchers strengthen their arms by throwing.
The Jordan piece is filled with rules from the Seaver book of pitching. “Pitching is simple,” Seaver stressed to Jordan. “If you dissect pitching seven days till Sunday, you’re done.”
“The first pitch in every inning is the most important,” Seaver went on. That pitch had to be a strike. The first batter of every inning had to be the most important. That batter had to be an out. A pitcher can never walk the potential tying run on base, especially by an intentional walk insists Seaver. In fact, when he was pitching with the White Sox and Tony La Russa was his manager, La Russa came to the mound and told Seaver to walk the potential tying run intentionally. Seaver refused. “Tony always thought too much until I trained him,” Seaver explained to Jordan.
Another Seaver maxim is that a pitcher should never get beat in a crisis situation with anything but his best pitch. Of course, that was easier for a guy like Seaver to carry out when his out pitch was a 98 m.p.h. fast ball.
Finally, Seaver implored pitchers to always consider their W.C.S., that’s their Worst Case Scenario. In any outing if a pitcher is faced by his worst case scenario, Seaver says he better have a plan outlining what he intends to do.
Then, as he does often in the piece, Seaver tells a story. He was pitching for the Mets against the San Francisco Giants. Seaver’s worst case scenario was facing Giant slugger Willie McCovey with the bases full. You guessed it, that’s the exact scenario Seaver faced in the late innings of the game with every based occupied and Big ‘Stretch’ McCovey sauntering up to the plate.
Making Seaver’s predicament even worse, he runs the count on McCovey to 3-2. What happens next is what Seaver calls his all-time favorite moment in baseball. As Seaver goes into his stretch, the situation really caught him, and he wasn’t totally sure what to do. So, Seaver keeps checking the runner at first. Everyone in the park knows that runner is trapped like a bird in a cage. With the bases loaded, he can’t go anywhere, so they wonder what in the world is Seaver up to.
Seaver is undeterred, continually checking the runner, refusing to look in at McCovey and make eye contact. Seaver is hoping to distract the Giant slugger, to confuse and disorient him, to make him anxious in anticipation.
When Seaver finally delivers the ball to home plate he throws a changeup. Strike three!
Twenty years later at a Hall of Fame event in Cooperstown McCovey approached Seaver and asked, “Tom, why the hell did you throw me a changeup in that game?”
McCovey knew like everyone else that Tom Seaver was one of the most methodical pitchers in the game. He had his rules he always followed. But, this time Seaver went by instincts and broke his own rule.
You may wonder why Jordan calls his piece, “The Constant Gardener.” Jordan spends pages discussing Seaver’s artistic side, a side he first nurtured through gardening. Seaver used gardening to help ease the stress that comes with pitching major league baseball games and loved the countless possibilities that came with arranging flowers in different patterns. Seaver brought that same creativity and aesthetic flair to his work in his vineyards. And, Seaver loves art and his next pursuit will be to paint.
For Tom Seaver gardening, his winery, his painting aspirations, and pitching a baseball are one and the same, aesthetic enterprises that bring pleasure. In fact Jordan reports that the labels on Seaver’s wine bottles read; “May you enjoy this wine as much as I enjoy the journey of bringing it to you from day-to-day, month-to-month and season-to-season.” Seaver surprised me when he told Jordan that if he had to do it all over again, he would not play baseball but would be an artist instead.
There is so much in this piece to savor, like one of Seaver’s fine wine’s. What I enjoyed the most was the tireless banter between these two old friends. Again and again throughout the piece they bicker with each manufactured spat often ending with Jordan telling Seaver that he, not Seaver, had the better fastball of the two.
“And, together, we won 311 major league baseball games.” Seaver would always counter. The last word would be Jordan’s, “Yeah, I tell everyone that.”
The imagery of the two aging men, both limping walking down a sloped section of Seaver’s property, grabbing hold of one another for support and balance is lasting. Seaver’s collection of baseball’s his most treasured a scuffed Little League ball, the ball he used throwing a perfect game is another special image.
Of course, Jordan, unwilling to allow Seaver the satisfaction of the moment tells the former Met great, that he pitched four perfect games in Little League, and in the last no-hitter struck out every batter he faced. Seaver stared Jordan in the eye nodding his head and saying, “Yeah, well, you gotta move on, Big Boy.”
Towards the beginning of the piece, Jordan tells of a request he made of Seaver to send a picture to his grandson. Seaver responds by sending the boy an autographed picture of him dressed in his Met uniform. At the bottom of the picture Seaver scribbled, “From Tom Seaver, your grandfather’s friend, to Adam. Then Seaver wrote something about Adam’s grandfather being a terrific pitcher too. Perhaps, all those barbs Pat Jordan flung at the Franchise really got through.
Jordan’s piece is crafted excellently. I simply didn’t want it to come to an end. That’s why it has drawn me back four or five times. Like Tom Seaver hopes to put paint to a canvas some day, Pat Jordan puts words to his canvas to tell a tale that baseball fans will love and Met fans will cherish. Check it out.