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TOM TERRIFIC AND HIS MYSTIC TALENT

July 24, 1972
July 24, 1972

Table of Contents
July 24, 1972

Slamming The Door
Playbook
Tom Terrific
Part 3: The Olympic Games
Baseball
Harness Racing
Basketball
Merckx
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

TOM TERRIFIC AND HIS MYSTIC TALENT

The pitching wonders he works did not come swiftly or naturally to Seaver; in fact, the modesty of his skill was the making of the man

I don't ever think about it," he says. "Philosophically, that is. Why do I do it? What does it all mean? That doesn't interest me. I only know it excites me. It's the one thing I do in my life that excites me." Tom Seaver, untanned, wearing a gray T shirt and baggy Bermuda shorts, is standing on the sand in Madeira Beach, Fla. He is holding a piece of string to which is attached a kite that is only a speck far off in a cloudless sky. The sky is aswarm with the flap and caw of sea gulls. Big, grayish, heavy-breasted birds, they must beat their wings furiously, stomachs heaving, necks straining forward, so that for one brief moment they can level off and glide with a hard-earned and uncommon grace.

This is an article from the July 24, 1972 issue Original Layout

"Aren't they fascinating!" says Seaver. "The way they work at it! I could watch them for hours. I'd love to fly like the gulls. But I can't. So I pitch. If I couldn't pitch I'd do something else. It wouldn't bother me much. But if I could pitch and I wasn't, that would bother me. That would bother me a lot.

"Pitching is what makes me happy. I've devoted my life to it. I live my life around the four days between starts. It determines what I eat, when I go to bed, what I do when I'm awake. It determines how I spend my life when I'm not pitching. If it means I have to come to Florida and can't get tanned because I might get a burn that would keep me from throwing for a few days, then I never go shirtless in the sun. If it means when I get up in the morning I have to read the box scores to see who got two hits off Bill Singer last night instead of reading a novel, then I do it. If it means I have to remind myself to pet dogs with my left hand or throw logs on the fire with my left hand, then I do that, too. If it means in the winter I eat cottage cheese instead of chocolate chip cookies in order to keep my weight down, then I eat cottage cheese. I might want those cookies but I won't ever eat them. That might bother some people but it doesn't bother me. I enjoy the cottage cheese. I enjoy it more than I would those cookies because I know it will help me do what makes me happy.

"Life isn't very heavy for me. I've made up my mind what I want to do. I'm happy when I pitch well so I only do those things that help me be happy. I wouldn't be able to dedicate myself like this for money or glory, although they are certainly considerations. If I pitch well for 15 years I'll be able to give my family security. But that isn't what motivates me. What motivates some pitchers is to be known as the fastest who ever lived. Some want to have the greatest season ever. All I want is to do the best I possibly can day after day, year after year. Pitching is the whole thing for me. I want to prove I'm the best ever."

Tom Seaver is the youngest pitcher in the history of baseball to sign a contract for more than $100,000 a season. He has averaged 19 victories a year for the New York Mets. At the age of 27, after five full seasons in the major leagues, he had won 95 ball games. Walter Johnson, who won more games than any pitcher in this century, won only 80 in his first five seasons. Grover Cleveland Alexander, second to Johnson, won 70 games by the time he reached his 27th birthday; Sandy Koufax, 68; Bob Gibson, 34; Warren Spahn, 29.

Thomas George Seaver has one of those smooth, boyish. Middle American faces that would be a burden to some men. He possesses the handsomeness so prized in the 1950s of Pat Boone and Tab Hunter. It is a temptation to describe his face as having too little character when you would more rightly mean too few characteristics. It is a face of undistinguished parts, which are subordinate only to a single clear impression of uncluttered good looks.

Seaver stands 6'½" and weighs 210 pounds from November to February when he indulges himself with an occasional breakfast of fried eggs and beer, and he weighs 205 pounds from March to October when he allows himself no fried eggs and beer. He has a squarish, heavy-chested body that tends to fat but is deceptively muscled. His arms, shoulders, chest and thighs are thick with muscles acquired from years of lifting weights. He believes, unlike most pitchers and coaches, that a selective program of weight lifting will add speed to a pitcher's fastball. As a high school senior in Fresno, Calif. he stood 5'9" and weighed 160 pounds. He was the third-hardest thrower on his team. He did not pick up speed until he began lifting weights in college and had grown three inches and put on 30 pounds. Because he has worked so diligently in developing those parts of his body that relate to his talent, Seaver is highly critical—one might almost say contemptuous—of less conscientious players. He will say of a teammate whose chest is noticeably undeveloped, "Do you know he hit 20 balls to the warning track last year! Twenty! Another 10 feet and they would have been home runs. I know I'd find the strength to hit those balls another 10 feet."

Although he is not conscious of it, Seaver shows his disdain for men who he feels have not fulfilled their potential. For Seaver, a man's talent is not just a part of the man. It is the whole man, or at the very least a mirror of the whole man. Treating one's talent carelessly is indicative of a weakness in character. He once said of a former pitcher who was reputed to have dissipated a promising career, "What a fool he must be. To throw it all away like that. If you don't think baseball is a big deal, don't play it. But if you do, play it right." Seaver avoids such men, as if their weakness were a contagious disease. He prefers the company of people like Bud Harrelson and Jerry Grote, fellow Mets who have made the fullest use of their talents, no matter how meager.

Despite Seaver's weight lifting, there are certain parts of his physique that are noticeably undeveloped. His waist, for instance, is thick. It is a constant subject of kidding for his wife, Nancy, who will say, "He has an old man's waist. Really, he does. He is a lot like an old man, you know." This kidding does not bother Seaver, since he knows a tightly muscled waist will add nothing to his talent, and as with most things that do not add to his talent, he gives the matter little attention. (The perfect way to chill a relationship with Seaver is to make a slighting remark about his talent. No matter how much in jest that remark might be, he will grow silent as a stone while the laugh dies in the jester's throat.)

Seaver is not a vain man. He could no more lift weights in front of a mirror to build an Adonis' physique than he could tell an obscene joke. He dresses neatly but without distinction in the clothes he receives from Sears, Roebuck and Co., with whom he has a contract. He seems to have no desire to call attention to himself, and if he is at all conscious of the image he presents in public, it is only up to, never beyond, the point when it offends his own sense of propriety. The only attention he seeks is on a pitcher's mound, and even there he does not demand it for himself, but for his superb and unquestioned skill.

"After I won 25 games in 1969," he says, "I got caught up in a lot of publicity. People who had never met me were making judgments about me, and things were happening that I had no control over. Then I had this fabulous realization—at least it was fabulous for me—that I had to cut this stuff out of my life. I had to return to myself, to what was most important to me, to be the best pitcher I could. Now, I don't care about publicity. I don't worry about what people say. I can relax and be what I am. And what I am, basically, is a dull guy. No one interviews me much anymore. Even my success is kind of dull, at least to everyone outside of myself. But to me it is fascinating.

"I used to think you could reach a point with success where it would become a bore. Too routine. But now I know that just as I'm refining my pitching, I'm refining the pleasure I get from it. A victory used to give me pleasure, and then a well-pitched inning, and now I get great satisfaction from just one or two pitches a game. I get in a situation where I have to apply everything I know, mentally and physically, on just one pitch. It all comes down to this pitch. I have to think what I should do and then make my body do it. That is a beautiful point to reach for an athlete. A light goes on in your head and you realize that everything you've done in your life has been for this moment. Things you've been building for years, things you never knew you were building, are right there to be used. Suddenly, you're the most confident person in the world. You sense you can achieve perfection for just this moment. That moment is a thrill for me. It's not a jubilant type of thrill, but a great satisfaction in knowing that for one specific moment I can achieve perfection in something I've devoted my life to."

Seaver has reached this stage in his development as an athlete (a point few men ever reach) because as a youth he was blessed with only modest size and ability. He says of himself then, "I was small and didn't throw very hard. In my senior year of high school I won six games and lost five. I've never been the star of any team. Even at USC I had to work hard just to be a starter. Pitching has always been hard work for me. I never had anything handed to me. At 14 I was already aware of my physical limitations. I had to adjust. This appeared to be a burden then, but obviously it has helped."

Pitching became for Seaver, at that very early age, not only a physical activity but a mental one. He was forced by the limits of his talent to become conscious of those aspects of his craft which, although secondary to sheer ability, were at least within his power to cultivate. He discovered, for instance, that hitters fed off pitchers' mistakes. So he would try to make no mistakes. If he could not throw his fastball past hitters, he could at least throw it in a spot where they could not hit it solidly. If he could not strike out hitters, he could at least refuse to walk them. "Walking hitters bothered me even then," he says. "It was so—free."

Seaver learned that the control and quality of his pitches were directly related to his pitching motion. He became conscious of his delivery—not as a stylized routine that could hide his deficiencies and assuage the demands of his ego—but as something that could be cultivated, created even, in a way that would increase his skills. He began to listen when anyone talked about pitching. And if the comments made no sense, he still retained them for a moment in the future when they might make sense and he could use them.

Seaver learned back then how it felt to be shelled in one inning and have to walk out to the mound to begin the next. "You want to quit," he says. "You feel it's all so hopeless. You have to force yourself to forget and start over as if it never happened. Some guys can't do that. They are always fighting things beyond their control."

Such experiences helped Seaver develop an outlook in his youth that has become the cornerstone of his philosophy of pitching and (if Tom Seaver could ever admit to having something so grandiose—and he couldn't) his philosophy of life as well.

"I decided to let my talent dictate what I was on a given day," he says. "I learned to adjust to it, to its limits, to what it told me about myself. I couldn't do more than I was physically or mentally capable of. If I tried to throw harder than I could, the ball went slower than it normally would. I couldn't fabricate conclusions in my mind about how to pitch to a batter if my mind wasn't ready for them. I couldn't force things. Sometimes in a game I'll concentrate so hard on my motion, trying to get it right, that I have nothing left for the batter. Then I let the catcher call my pitches. I surrender that mental load. It is one less thing I have to worry about. When I get my motion organized I'll take the load back. But if I tried to perfect everything at once, I'd end up perfecting nothing."

The qualities Seaver honed as a youth are precisely those any athlete must have if he is to excel. However, the pattern through which he acquired them was the reverse of that which most ballplayers follow. The first discovery a young athlete often makes is that he has natural ability—to hit, run or throw—which allows him to glide with little effort or thought to a point where that talent, alone, is no longer enough. Faced with fading success, he then must begin cultivating the control and discipline which his early explosion of raw talent had made unnecessary. Sandy Koufax is an example of such an athlete. He reached the major leagues on the strength of his extraordinary left arm, and then struggled for six years to develop the qualities (control and expertise) that his arm had made unnecessary earlier. Only when he acquired them at the age of 25 did he become a great pitcher. Because of the absence of any such raw talent, Tom Seaver was forced to start developing those same qualities at 14.

When Seaver graduated from high school he received no professional offers and so he enlisted in the Marine Corps. When he finished his military service and enrolled at USC two years later, his body had matured, and his fastball with it. The Dodgers offered him a $2,000 bonus, which he declined in favor of college baseball. About this time he began training with small weights on the advice of a friend, Jerry Merz, who told him the added strength would help prevent a sore arm and give his fastball more speed. "I knew a lot of people in the sport felt weight lifting hurt pitchers," says Seaver, "but it seemed logical that it would help me then, and it still does, so I did it."

In one year Seaver's fastball became explosive. When USC's baseball team scrimmaged the Los Angeles Dodgers, Seaver found himself pitching successfully against major league hitters when only three years before he had been having difficulty retiring high school hitters. Major league teams now began scouting him. He eventually signed with the Milwaukee Braves, who lost him shortly thereafter because of a contract irregularity to the New York Mets.

By now Seaver was as complete a pitcher as was possible for a man his age. He possessed not only superior speed, but stamina, control and self-discipline; unlike most young pitchers he would not have to spend valuable time in the future acquiring them. In fact, he possessed them to such a degree that within two years of his signing he would win 16 games for the 10th-place Mets, be voted to the National League All-Star team (to which he has been selected every year he has been in the majors), be the National League Rookie of the Year and two years later be voted the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the league. Today, Seaver is generally acclaimed by baseball professionals as the best pitcher currently in the game. And some now say he is the best ever.

"I appreciate my talent more than most," says Seaver. "I had to put a lot of hard work into it. Some guys never know the gift they have." And because his talent is more conscious creation than gift, because it is his by acquisition, not inheritance, Seaver possesses it, rather than is possessed by it. He has a greater understanding of what it is; of how he acquired it; of how he should retain it; and, most important, of how he should continue to refine it.

On April 21 this year Seaver defeated the Chicago Cubs 2-0 for his second shutout victory in as many starts in a season that was just a week old. His opponent was Burt Hooton, the 22-year-old rookie who had pitched a no-hit, no-run game five days before. Against Seaver, Hooton was impressive. In seven innings, he allowed the Mets six hits and struck out nine with his baffling knuckle curve. He issued three bases on balls. Hooton's performance could best be described as that superior effort which, when produced against Seaver, is just enough to reward its producer with internal satisfaction and a graceful loss. Seaver had been better. He allowed the Cubs four singles while striking out nine. His brilliant performance received less attention than did Hooton's, since it is of the kind one expects from him these days. But it was astonishing when one considers that it had come shortly after Gil Hodges' death, after a prolonged strike during which Seaver was preoccupied as his team's player representative, after a succession of inactive days that had interrupted his accustomed schedule and after an unpleasant spring training during which he experienced the first sore arm of his career. Yet, Seaver's fine performance was not surprising to those who knew the meticulousness with which he had prepared for it.

Two nights before, he had been scheduled to pitch against the Expos in Montreal. The game was rained out, and he was rescheduled to pitch against Hooton and the Cubs on the 21st. When the Mets returned to New York the night of the 19th, most of the players went directly home from LaGuardia Airport. Seaver, however, got a ride on the team bus to Shea Stadium, which was deserted and in darkness. He went directly to the locker room, put on his uniform, filled a bucket with baseballs and began the long walk across the diamond to the right-field bullpen. He moved with his graceless and plodding plowman's walk, his weight falling on his heels and his head listing to his right as if, with each ensuing step, it might collapse upon his shoulder. When Seaver reached the bullpen he stepped onto the warmup mound and began throwing baseball after baseball against the screen behind the plate. His throwing was illuminated only by the lights from the parking lot. He warmed up quickly but carefully in the mild night air. He was accompanied only by the sounds of his own exertion, and of baseballs plunking against the screen and dropping softly to the ground.

He threw with great effort. His speed and curve and control came slowly, and only after much grunting and cursing in the darkness. He threw with a tightly constricted motion that seemed small compared to the loose, spread-out deliveries of pitchers like Gibson and Koufax. Constricted, yet thoroughly planned, for Seaver has worked diligently to cut away "all the excess crap my motion does not need." He has excised no vital parts; his motion is a perfect compromise between flamboyance and deficiency. If it is not so esthetically pleasing as it could be; if it does not approach the grace of those gulls, still, it is mechanically perfect, and it is perfection, not grace, that Seaver seeks, since he long ago decided only this was within his grasp. It is a powerful motion, and there is a point in it when Seaver seems to pause for the barest of seconds before exploding toward the plate. He turns sideways, his left leg raised waist-high and bent, his glove and ball hand cupped close to his chest, his shoulders hunched about his ears. He seems to be withdrawing into himself, to be at that single moment in time and place where he and his talent come as close as they ever can to merging into one. He describes this pause as "that point when I pull myself together, mentally and physically, to put everything I have into the pitch." He needs that moment of intense concentration because—let it be stated once again—neither his delivery nor his pitches are a gift. They do not lie there, polished gems, waiting only to be dusted off for use. They are rough stones that must be painstakingly recut and repolished with every use. And since his success lies not in the overwhelming brilliance of any one gem (he does not have the greatest fastball, the greatest curve ball, the greatest control), but in the proper balance of a host of lesser ones, the recutting must be flawless. The slightest imperfection in one stone destroys the delicate balance of them all in a way that it never would to a more gifted pitcher.

For example, when Seaver pulled the muscles in his legs recently, it affected his performances to a much greater degree than it might another. The sore legs prevented him from running wind sprints, which in turn contributed to a loss of stamina. The result: in a six-week period he failed to finish nine straight games. His weakness in late innings affected his pitching rhythm, resulting in a loss of speed and control.

This brief period of decline frustrated Seaver. "It was like starting spring training all over again," he says. "I was out of shape. But you expect to be out of shape in the spring. When it happens during the season you begin to think about it over dinner. Eventually, I began to wonder if I had lost something. It is always there in the back of your mind when you are not pitching the way you know you can. No matter if you know what the reason is, there is always the fear you might be wrong. God, if it isn't this, if it isn't my legs, what is it!"

But Seaver's crisis was over by mid-June. Once his legs had healed, he reverted to type, completing five of his next six starts and raising his record to 12-5. One of those games, against San Diego, was a one-hitter, the fourth of his big-league career. From Seaver, fans and writers do not expect mere quality, they expect excellence, and therefore much was written about the decline (Seaver was 5-3 in his bad weeks), one which, if experienced by any other pitcher, would hardly have been noticed.

To be a great pitcher, Seaver must be flawless in a way Sandy Koufax never had to be, and it was in the pursuit of perfection that Seaver felt he had to labor that April night in the dark Met bullpen. He threw until he reached the same level of effort and concentration he would have needed against the Expos in Montreal. He continued at this pace for a while and then went home. It was almost 10 p.m. When asked why he put himself through such an inconvenience, he said, "It was my day to throw. I always throw on my day to throw." Two days later, supplied with precisely the edge he both needed and had created, he beat Burt Hooton.

Because of such dedication to detail, it would seem the only thing that could prevent Seaver from reaching the goal he has determined for himself is an event beyond his control—such as the arm injury he experienced this past spring in St. Petersburg. It was a particularly frustrating injury for two reasons: it was the first sore arm of his career, and he could point to nothing as its cause. He had proceeded with his sixth spring training at the same pace he had proceeded with the previous five. "You have to control yourself during the first weeks so as not to get hurt," he said. When he felt sharp pain in his right shoulder, therefore, he was more than a little confused. He was constantly after the team physician, Dr. Peter La Motte. He would raise his right arm over his head, dig the fingers of his left hand into the place where his arm and shoulder met, and say in a high-pitched, almost whining, voice, "What is that?" The doctor, a relaxed man who always looks as if he just returned from nine holes of golf, would begin a lengthy clinical explanation about a bruised muscle. Seaver's face would immediately cloud with that exasperated look it so often has when he has no interest in the turn of a conversation. He would listen a few seconds and then restlessly interrupt the doctor. "But I want...I want it to feel..." and his voice would trail off in frustration.

After a few days, the shock of his injury diminished and Seaver's voice lost its panic. It became curt and passionless as he forced himself to approach his injury as he did all things relating to his talent—as an experience to be understood and absorbed for future use. His questions to the doctor became less pleas and more interrogations. "Which muscle is bruised? How did it get bruised? Will it get worse if I throw?" And finally, when it had healed and he had once again taken his place on the mound to pitch batting practice, he would be able to say: "I don't know many parts of my shoulder and arm, but I know this muscle, the teres major. It was bruised because I began throwing too hard too soon. I had not taken into consideration that I am getting older. I can't proceed during the spring at the same pace I did at 23. I have to expect my body to break down a little with each year. After all, I've pitched almost 1,400 innings in five years. I can't go on forever without a sore arm. I just have to be more careful in the future."

Seaver mastered the experience of his sore arm, rather than letting it overwhelm him, because he has a mind that is acutely sensitive to experience. It is this sensitivity and his ability to adjust to what his mind tells him about himself that has made him the pitcher he is today. He seems disinclined to work out things without a basis of experience: he had to have a sore arm before he could adjust to its lesson. He seems ill at ease with abstractions, which he regards as not a part of "the real world I live in."

Because this sensitivity has proved so valuable in the perfecting of his talent, he is careful to bring it to bear only on experiences "in the real world," and only on those experiences he has decided are of the first importance. "I'm a very introspective guy," he says. "I spent all winter trying to discover what happened to me at the end of 1970 when I finished so poorly. I decided I couldn't pitch with only three days' rest. That discovery made me feel like a genius."

Seaver is not so introspective about experiences unrelated to his talent. It is not that he places no value on them, but that he feels they exist complete within themselves, and to analyze them would be a waste of energy which could quite possibly kill the pleasure he gets from them. Those experiences, like the watching of the gulls ("Aren't they fascinating!"), are to be savored as curiosities that help fill the void between his bouts with his talent.

"I don't have the stamina and mental concentration to live my life with the same intensity I do baseball," says Seaver. "I'm not a perfectionist in everything. For instance, a few years ago I built a wine cellar in the basement of my home. I used small fireplace flues as holders for the bottles. I laid out 20 flues in each row and 20 rows in all. It was repetitious work but it didn't bother me. Every flue was a victory, and every row was a 20-game season. The entire 20 rows was a career of 20-game seasons. I loved it. When I finished I began to panel the room. I'd paneled most of it when I came to a water pipe that stuck out of the wall. I couldn't focus on how to panel around that pipe. It was beyond my ability to comprehend. I got bored with it. Eventually, though, I did panel it all, but still, the wine cellar is far from perfect.

"But I can live with its imperfections. Some guys couldn't. They have to find out about themselves before they get on that train to New York in the morning. They're always digging deeper than things are. They dig so deep they forget to enjoy life. I enjoy my life. I don't live it at the same pace I do baseball. I can do nothing all day, and it's fabulous. I really could watch those gulls for hours, or just play dominoes with my wife, or watch Sarah, my daughter, play with her toys. In the winter I like to get up in the morning and sit by a fire. Sometimes I read the paper and sometimes I do nothing but sit by the fire. What do I think about? Ha, I think about how fabulous it is to watch wood burn. I don't have to pull every weed out of my garden. I don't have to win every basketball game at the YMCA. Maybe I deliberately don't tap this competitiveness in me. Maybe I'm saving it for baseball. It must be like an energy source that has its limits. If I use it up on too many things I'll have nothing left for baseball. Maybe I deliberately leave a few weeds in the garden. I really don't know though. I never think about such things."

TWO PHOTOS