For 10 years and two months as a New York Met he had created dramatic moments that others could savor with him, but this one Tom Seaver decided to reserve for himself. The significance of his first start for the Cincinnati Reds did not elude him. "I was beginning the second part of my career," he would say a couple of hours later. "I wanted to look around and remember what I saw." And so he stood on the mound at Montreal's Olympic Stadium for an extra minute, taking it all in, all the sights and sounds that told him he was now a Red. Only then did he get ready to throw his first pitch.
And how he threw. Seaver pitched a complete game, a shutout, a three-hitter, a 6-0 victory. He struck out eight and did not walk a Montreal batter. And at the plate, he had two hits, including a bases-loaded single that drove in two Cincinnati runs.
The transaction that enabled Seaver to make the quantum jump from the Mets to the Reds was only one of many that shifted 40 players in the hours before last Wednesday's trading deadline, but as befits Seaver's stature as the premier pitcher in the National League, his trade was by far the most important and controversial. Not only were the defending world champions given a significant boost in their drive to overtake the flagging Western Division-leading Los Angeles Dodgers, but the Reds also did it without surrendering a first-rank player. To get the 32-year-old Seaver from the Mets, the Reds gave up Pitcher Pat Zachry, 25, Utility Infielder Doug Flynn, 26, and minor league Outfielders Steve Henderson, 24, and Dan Norman, 22. There was not even any cash involved, no player to be named later.
Usually when the big stars of baseball change uniforms they do it in tandem: home-run champion Rocky Colavito of Cleveland for batting champion Harvey Kuenn of Detroit in 1960, for example. However, the seemingly one-sided Seaver deal was not unprecedented, and history suggests there may someday be a measure of solace for enraged Met fans. Four years ago the Cubs traded Ferguson Jenkins, a six-time 20-game winner, to Texas for two young infielders, one of whom, the then-untested Bill Madlock, won the 1975 and 1976 batting titles. The classic trade of this kind—and one that closely parallels the Seaver deal—occurred in 1916. In spring training, Centerfielder Tris Speaker, who had led Boston to the world championship the season before with his seventh consecutive .300-plus batting average, was holding out for $12,000 when he was shipped to Cleveland for cash and two unknowns. Speaker had 11 superior seasons for the Indians and was elected to the Hall of Fame. But luckily for the Red Sox one of the unknowns, a young pitcher named Sam Jones, turned out to be good enough to win more than 200 big league games.
June 26, 1977
Like Speaker 61 years ago, Seaver is in the prime years of a glorious career; also like Speaker, his hassling with management precipitated his removal at a startlingly low return in players. Seaver's dissatisfaction was more than financial, however. In light of last winter's free-agent signings, he considered himself underpaid at $225,000 a year, but he was also disturbed that the Mets had not been diligently seeking the hitting and fielding help they so obviously need. Seaver had personally recommended Gary Matthews, but the Mets, despite attempts by their management to make New York fans believe otherwise, failed to make a competitive offer for the San Francisco outfielder. Matthews went to the Atlanta Braves instead.
"The money was always secondary to my loyalty to the Mets," Seaver told SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Kent Hannon last week. "The people who think I was bitter about not making more money or who think I was trying to force a trade by asking that my contract be renegotiated won't believe me. But for the record, my loyalty to the Mets and my desire to make them competitive always came first. I don't think I've shown myself to be a greedy person."
Seaver's disagreement on these points with Met Chairman of the Board M. Donald Grant and General Manager Joe McDonald was so intense that it spilled like hot lava into the New York press. Seaver even charged that constant criticism directed at him by Daily News Sports Editor and Columnist Dick Young was one of the reasons he wanted to leave the team. Nevertheless, Young's support of Grant and McDonald—the Met executives perceive Young as their man in the press—was not much different in degree from the boosting of Seaver that appeared in the other two New York papers. On the day Seaver was traded, Young—whose detractors have claimed his views are colored by the fact that his son-in-law works in the Mets' front office—wrote that the pitcher was "very deceptive" and "very greedy." The next afternoon Maury Allen of the New York Post responded, "It is Young who forced the deal, who urged Grant on, who participated strongly in the unmaking of Tom Seaver as a Met."
Whoever was responsible for Seaver's departure, Met fans were furious. Even before the negotiations were completed, they flooded the Shea Stadium switchboard with complaints. The night after the trade, they welcomed the team home from a road trip with signs reading BURY GRANT—BRING BACK OUR TOM and with leaflets suggesting a boycott of home games until Seaver returned on Aug. 19 with Cincinnati. "On that occasion," the flyer read, "we urge all true Met fans to attend that game to show Tom our appreciation for the many magnificent performances he has given us."
There were so many of those during Seaver's decade with the Mets that he came to be called The Franchise. In 1967 he was Rookie of the Year; in 1969, '73 and '75 he won Cy Young Awards. His 200 or more strikeouts in nine consecutive seasons is a major league record, as is his 2.48 career earned run average among pitchers who have worked at least 2,000 innings. But the best measure of Seaver's stature was his record of 189 victories and 110 defeats. He won 63% of his games as a Met, and he led a team that had been perennial last-place finishers to two pennants and a world championship. The club's percentage when someone else was pitching during those 10-plus years was only 47%.
At the time of the trade, Seaver was 7-3 and the Mets were 26-34, a last-place team going nowhere. The players New York received from Cincinnati are not likely to improve the club much. Zachry was 3-7 on his arrival, and Flynn was batting .250. Henderson has taken over in left field for the Mets because he has exceptional promise. He may be the Sam Jones of this deal. Norman was immediately dispatched to the Mets' farm club at Tidewater.
However these young players turn out, they are not the men the Mets really wanted. McDonald told the Met television audience, "This may not have been the best deal we could've made, but we were restricted in whom we could talk to." The restrictions were the result of Seaver's status as a "10-and-5" man—10 years in the majors and five straight with the same club. This gave him the right to veto a trade, and he had told the Mets he would only accept one of the National League powerhouses: Cincinnati, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.
"We were hoping to get a front line player like Ken Griffey or George Foster from the Reds or Ron Cey or Steve Garvey from the Dodgers," McDonald says. "But nobody would agree to anything like that. Everyone knew that Tom was unhappy and that we were limited in whom we could talk to, so we were in a difficult bargaining position."
The disagreement that led to the trade began during Seaver's lengthy and often stormy contract negotiations in the spring of 1976. Seaver wanted to be the highest-paid pitcher in baseball (which he deserved to be) and to pursue an active role in the Major League Players Association (which was his right). This distressed Grant, a conservative, paternalistic man who is used to having things very much his own way. The Payson family, which owns the team, has given Grant broad authority to run it, and Grant has always acted in a strong, thoroughly obstinate manner. He is tightfisted with the Mets' money. In an interview with SI's Melissa Ludtke, Grant recalled telling Seaver at the time, "I know that a lot of people who are capitalists have to belong to unions, but I don't believe it is possible to be a capitalist and a leader of the union."
Capitalist-union leader Seaver eventually signed a three-year contract full of complex incentive and penalty clauses. The disagreement seemed settled until the start of spring training this year when Seaver ill-advisedly reopened the debate, charging unfair treatment the previous spring. He failed to mention that the Mets had not exercised their contractual right to cut his 1977 salary 20% because of his failure to meet certain minimum performance standards. (Seaver's '76 record was a mediocre 14-11, but in his losses his teammates provided him with a measly total of 15 runs.)
The Mets also refused to put Seaver's salary in line with the higher levels created by free agentry. Baltimore, for instance, had done this for Jim Palmer, who is the American League's Seaver. Accordingly, Seaver's income from baseball had dropped below that of at least 25 other players. The day he was traded the Mets' board of directors was still considering his request for a three-year extension of his contract at a higher salary and a $250,000 bonus in 1979, but the question became moot when he called to say, once and for all, "I want out." Seaver's decision was spurred by a Young column which implied that Seaver was demanding more dough in order to placate his wife Nancy, who was supposedly upset because the Angels' Nolan Ryan, a close friend, was making more than Seaver. But it is doubtful the Mets would have acceded to Seaver's request. Rules, after all, are rules.
As for Seaver's demands for better support on the field, they certainly had merit, but as a player he was in no position to dictate club policy, no matter what his stature or how inadvisable that policy seemed to be.
Late last Wednesday afternoon, as the trade deadline neared, Seaver worked out with the Mets before their evening game in Atlanta, but he knew he was on his way out, because earlier in the day he had signed a release that gave the Mets clearance to wrap up a deal with Cincy. Seaver said emotional farewells to his three oldest friends on the team, Pitcher Jerry Koosman, Shortstop Bud Harrelson and Catcher Jerry Grote, and while the Mets were beating the Braves, he took a flight to New York, where Nancy met him at the airport. They drove to the Warwick Hotel in Manhattan rather than return to their home in Greenwich, Conn. Seaver learned of the trade and its details while watching the 11 o'clock news. After 10 years, his career as a Met was over.
In Atlanta, meanwhile, a letter containing Seaver's parting words to his old teammates was read aloud on the bus after the game by Manager Joe Torre. "I'll be rooting for you guys always," he wrote.
The next night in New York Torre said trading Seaver was for the best. "I didn't want to trade Tom," he said, "but an unhappy Tom Seaver could hurt us, and Tom was very unhappy. He's a superstar with a lot of clout, and it could be disruptive."
It was difficult for those who knew Seaver well to view him with such detachment. "I roomed with him for eight years," Harrelson said. "I'm very sad. I've cried several times. He was my best friend." Harrelson even asked Equipment Manager Herb Norman if he could take Seaver's locker, but Norman told him that it would be assigned to Zachry. As for Seaver's No. 41, Norman promised that he would never assign it to another player. "As far as I'm concerned, it's retired," he said.
Grote, who had caught most of Seaver's important victories, including what Seaver calls "my imperfect game" (8‚Öì innings before he let a man on) said, "Everybody knew it would happen, but even then it floored the hell out of us. It was like knowing that an elderly person is going to die, but when it finally happens, you're still surprised."
Seaver did not depart in vain, at least not in Koosman's opinion. "Mr. Grant runs the club, and Tom couldn't deal with him on an equal level," Koosman said. "It's like he made himself a sacrificial lamb. He was speaking for himself, sure, but also for the team. We'd both stay awake in our rooms and think about everything that was wrong with the club and the things we thought that could be done to help it."
If a change had to be made, Seaver was glad it sent him to the Reds. For one thing, Cincinnati is the only team in the league against which he does not have a winning lifetime record. "Career-wise, this is probably the best thing that ever happened to me," Seaver said, relishing the thought of all the speed, power and Gold Gloves in the Cincy lineup. "I won't change my pitching style though, just because I'm with another team. I consider pitching an art form. I love to do it. It makes me feel creative. I'll be the same pitcher, but I am looking forward to watching this team when I'm in the dugout."
Seaver said he did not mind that he would be playing for the same salary that he made in New York. The Reds also have a policy against renegotiating, but General Manager Bob Howsam did agree to knock out the penalty clauses in Seaver's contract. "Playing for the Reds, the money's going to be there one way or another," Seaver said, visions of playoff and World Series shares dancing in his head.
When Seaver, a Met travel bag in hand, reached the Reds' dressing room Friday, the first player he saw was Pitcher Fred Norman. "I'm here to raise the pitchers' batting averages on this team," Seaver said prophetically.
A moment later he ran into broadcaster Joe Nuxhall, who was giving up the No. 41 he wore while pitching batting practice. "They were considering giving you 41 A," Nuxhall said with a laugh.
When Seaver reached his cubicle, he began putting on his scarlet and gray double-knit road uniform. The pants, size 34, were too small, but Seaver is not likely to be too big for his britches on this club. His three Cy Youngs are outnumbered by the five Most Valuable Player trophies held collectively by Johnny Bench, Pete Rose and Joe Morgan.
The Reds, who had streaked from 13½ games out of first to 6½ games out in the preceding two weeks, felt they would catch the Dodgers without Seaver, but they were very glad to have him. As Rose was telling interviewers in another part of the dressing room, "Sometimes you get a big name on the way down. But Seaver's not slipping. It'll be exciting playing third on Saturday."
It was. Seaver's only problem was a bout with butterflies in the first inning. Although he retired all three Expos, Morgan said to him on the way to the dugout, "Hey, slow down. It looks like you're rushing it a little bit. Looks like you're nervous." Seaver turned to him and said, "You're darn right I'm nervous."
The rest of the game went splendidly, and afterward Seaver said. "That's a beautiful team I'm playing with. It's a real treat." "How was the uniform?" someone asked him. "It fits," he said, aware of just what he was saying. "It fits perfectly."