Tom Seaver Returned To New York A Winner
By Joe Guzzardi
When Washington Nationals’ 23-year-old Juan Soto rejected a 13-year, $350 million contract, he unwittingly exposed why MLB fans have had enough. By today’s ludicrous payroll standards, $350 million isn’t enough money for a kid who grew up in the Dominican Republic where the per capital income is less than $8,000.
But Fernando Tatis signed with the San Diego Padres for $340 million over 14 years. Hence, on the advice of Soto’s agent, Scott Boras, the young star should sit tight, and wait for an even larger offer when, at the 2024 season’s end, he hits the free agent market. A half a billion dollars could await Soto, perhaps from the bottomless money pit known as the New York Yankees, team value $5.2 billion. For Soto and Boras, the old axiom, “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” is – wise though it may be – passé.
Salary squabbles of the multimillion-dollar magnitude, Soto/Boras versus multi-billionaire Nats owners the Lerner family, are a big turnoff to baseball fans. At least the 1977 New York Mets during its very public haggle with its superstar pitcher Tom Seaver gave its rabid followers drama aplenty that played out for months.
During the summer of 1977, Mets’ ownership staggered the baseball world when, after a long simmering salary dispute between Seaver and owner M. Donald Grant, it traded its future first ballot Hall of Famer to the Cincinnati Reds for four then-considered low-level prospects: pitcher Pat Zachry, second baseman Doug Flynn and outfielders Steve Henderson and Dan Norman. At the time, Seaver earned $1.2 million($5.6 million in 2022 adjusted-for-inflation dollars).
The ”Midnight Massacre,” as the trades became known, plunged the Mets into their darkest era. The team finished last in 1977 and lost 95 or more games in each of the next three seasons under manager Joe Torre, who would be fired after a 41-62 record in the strike-shortened 1981 season.
During the 1970s, I lived in Manhattan. I wasn’t a Mets fan, but like all New Yorkers, I followed every movement, allegation and counter-allegation made by Seaver, Grant and Grant’s pro-management tout, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young who spent 45 years on the baseball beat, the last one of them demeaning the Mets’ ace as a greedy ingrate. Seaver had been pleading with the penurious Grant to fork out the necessary money on available free agents to help lift the Mets into contention. Young and Grant may have been the only two baseball bugs in New York’s five boroughs who thought that Seaver didn’t deserve a salary bump.
Further infuriating Mets fans, Grant, besides dumping Seaver and his salary off to the Reds, made two other horrible deadline trades involving key players. Grant ordered general manager Joe McDonald to deal the Mets’ top home run slugger, Dave Kingman, who had also been involved in rancorous contract negotiations, to the San Diego Padres for Bobby Valentine. In a third trade, McDonald sent utility man Mike Phillips to the St. Louis Cardinals for outfielder Joel Youngblood.
Fun fact sidebar: In 1982, Youngblood made baseball history by getting a hit in two different cities, for two different teams, against two Hall of Fame pitchers the same day. As a Mets in Chicago, he singled off Ferguson Jenkins. Then, traded by the Mets to the Montreal Expos, Youngblood hopped a plane to Philadelphia in time to pinch hit a single off Steve Carlton.
To Grant’s dismay, Seaver flourished in his new Cincinnati environment. Over the balance of the 1977 season, he went 14-3 to finish his year at 21-6. Included among Seaver’s wins was what writers dubbed the “Shootout at Shea” that pitted “Atomic Tom” against his former teammate and friend, Jerry Koosman. On Sunday, August 21, a capacity crowd of 46,265 greeted Seaver with chants of “SEA-VER, SEA-VER!” while the stadium organ played “Hello Dolly, we’re so glad to see you back where you belong.”Seaver, who limited the Mets to six hits while striking out 11 in a 5-1 victory, pitched his best; Koosman (8-16), who volunteered for the thankless pitching assignment, struggled and gave up the game’s five runs before being knocked out in the eighth.
After the game, Seaver said, “I’m glad it’s over, very glad. I’m exhausted physically and mentally. It was no fun out there at all.” Koosman added: “It’s tough to pitch against a superstar. You know you’ve got to be at your best. I was kind of disappointed when it got out of hand. But let’s face it. Tom Seaver is the best pitcher in baseball.”
For the Mets, the post-trade era was a disaster. Attendance at Shea plummeted, and the Mets would not have another winning season until 1984. Seaver returned to the Mets in 1983 for one season and pitched effectively. Seaver then had a three-year stint with the Chicago White Sox, and a final year with the Boston Red Sox, but his best years were behind him. His combined four-year American League record was an unSeaver-like 38-35, ERA 3.69.
Seaver again returned to the New York scene when he broadcast Yankees’ games with the irrepressible Phil Rizzuto. The Rizzuto-Seaver tandem was baseball’s odd, but delightful couple. The University of Southern California golden boy and Rizzuto, who often called his booth partner a “huckleberry” while spontaneously extoling the pleasures of the cannolis fans brought him, worked together from 1989 to 1993. Then, after a six-year baseball hiatus, Seaver joined the Mets broadcast team from 1999-2005 before he returned to California to start Seaver Vineyards.
Seaver retired with a 311-205 record with an ERA of 2.86 and 3,640 strikeouts. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1992 with the highest-ever percentage of first place votes for a starting pitcher, 99 percent.
In 1988, the Mets retired Seaver’s number 41. Twenty years later, the Mets invited Seaver to Shea Stadium to throw out the final pitch before the team moved to Citi Field where he also threw out the 2009 Opening Day first pitch.
An ESPN poll that included HOF pitchers Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Bert Blyleven, Don Sutton and Carlton voted Seaver their generation’s best pitcher. Hank Aaron added that in his 12,364 at-bats, Seaver was the toughest he ever faced.
In 2020, at age 75, Seaver passed away in his native California. See the Mets video tribute here to George Thomas Seaver, the player fans called “Tom Terrific.”
Joe Guzzardi is a Society for American Baseball Research and Internet Baseball Writers Association member. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.