The athlete's life is such a limited one, and he is, perforce, so typed, that it seems he is forever the same being: a large block number with a person draped around it. For example, most classically there is Pete Rose. Two decades later, on a different team, after many different positions, after triumph and turmoil, a publicized divorce, the deflowering of a flattop and his public cologne-ing, there remains only the singular vision of...Pete Rose. And nothing on God's green earth is going to monkey with that comfortable verity.
Oh, to be sure, everybody grows up some, and for athletes who last we traditionally have ceremonial updatings. These personal invoices usually appear in the regenerative year following an uncommonly bad season. They explain the star's Comeback! So-and-so has a new stance, or a more understanding new (choose one) organization/coach/little woman, or a better conditioning program, or a more congenial partnership with The Almighty, or a tonsillectomy.
But such revelations about an athlete don't indicate any real growth on his part. To the contrary: The proclaimed change is merely a convenient deus ex machina that has gotten him back to precisely where he was, to exactly what we had come to expect of him—hitting .320, winning 20 games, whatever. Goodness gracious, the last thing we want is for our sporting heroes to confuse us with any sort of transmutation—decay, most especially. More accurately, comebacks are go-backs.
What makes those light-beer commercials so dear to us is that the great old players return in the flesh exactly as we so fondly recall them. It is ultimate comeback. Easiest job in the world, 1990: to write the Pete Rose light-beer commercial.
But what will they ever write for Tom Seaver?
You can't freeze him in 30 seconds. He had the temerity—the rudeness—to change as he went along, and when he's gone, for all his records and all his fame, we'll look back and we'll have no idea what was there. Say "Tom Seaver" and, quick, what comes to mind?
Whatever, you probably didn't respond with "fireballer," as you would have with Feller or Koufax or Gibson or Gossage. Yet, of course, that's exactly what he was—still is, in many respects, even at age 36, his low, hard one having wasted away only from 98 mph to 94 or 95. Seaver has all sorts of fireball records—19 strikeouts in a game, 10 in a row, 10 seasons of 200 or more, nine of them in a row, the fifth pitcher to pass 3,000 lifetime and so on—but he's not at all what we think of when we envision a strikeout king. The prototype there is Nolan Ryan, Seaver's old Met teammate, who for all his glorious whiffs can barely win more than he loses. Fireballers are like big-breasted beauties, endowed with one anatomical bounty that too often obscures development elsewhere in the body. However, even at his fastest, Seaver always had the image of a thinking artist rather than a hurler. "There are only three physical elements to a pitch," he says. "Velocity, movement and location—and the least important of these is velocity. Still, pitching is using what you have to work with on any one day. Somebody can say, well, that pitcher's just a thrower because all he used was 100-mph fastballs. But that can be pitching too if that's what you happen to have best on that particular day."
And as Seaver is a strikeout king who wasn't supposed to be, so is he a Californian who prefers the East...and now works in the Midwest, where he might as well be an alien in on a green card, so inexplicable is he to the good burghers of Cincinnati. And as businesslike as he may be, there was a moment years ago when he permitted himself to be the official Cinderella Kid, because he understood that his Mets of 1969 were more of a mystical experience than anything else, and he was best suited to assume the lead in the fantasy.
As ever, once Seaver made up his mind, he played it to the hilt. He worked Vegas after the World Series. And he was the first Cinderella ever to be so solicitous as to let his spouse ride shotgun on the pumpkin. Her name is Nancy, but so often did the words "Tom's lovely wife" precede her name that the phrase seemed to be part of her moniker, too. He even allowed an ad to be placed in the business pages of The New York Times that offered him and his lovely wife Nancy "for those situations that call for young Mrs. America or husband and wife sales appeal." Among other things, they did play-by-play on a Turkey Day parade.
But when that fancy had run its course, Seaver resumed his natural posture and never really let the public get a piece of him again. For that matter, even then, even when it was Tom Terrific and the Amazin' Mets, when Tom and his lovely wife Nancy owned the world, there was still a certain distance and preoccupation evident. She says:
"I was always Nancy to the crowd, but even that year he was Tom Seaver—Tomseaver—always a little more formal, always Tomseaver. We lived in Bayside in Queens that year, upstairs in a furnished apartment in a two-family house, and the neighborhood kids would come over, and they'd chant, 'We want Tomseaver, we want Tomseaver!' Cab drivers would see me walking down the street, and they'd call out to me, 'Hey, Nancy, how's Tom?' But a cab driver would never call out like that to him."
It's almost as if he positioned you that way, as a buffer?
"Oh, I'm sure you could say that. Tom was always so mature. He always has his wits about him. He's a very introverted man—do the fans understand that?—and he gives a lot more thought to things than even he realizes he does. I was the immature one then. I was content just to be the lady of the moment, to get a taste of all those things that two kids from Fresno never get. I never stopped to ask him about goals. But Tom always has known what he wanted and where he was going."
Seaver was once the player rep of the Mets, which probably hurried his banishment from New York, and he's still active in the players' union, attending most of the negotiation sessions since the strike began. But apart from the strike, which affects all players, this summer is one of the few times in Seaver's career when he hasn't been in transit of a sort. The reason Seaver has always been so hard to grasp is not just because he defends his privacy so and not just because he cloaks himself in different personas—although that, as we shall see, is in fact true—but also because he has never been content to stand in one place and because circumstances have providently helped him remain a moving target.
There are only two stages of the player's existence that old No. 41 hasn't passed through. With others, there may be, in the middle, some shifting of the order that makes it different from Seaver's, but nonetheless, here's the Complete Life of the Ballplayer, from sandlots to pension plan:
V. Established Star
VII. Superstar cum Celebrity
VIII. Disappointment (?)
IX. Comeback Kid (!)
XI. Controversial Leader
XII. Trade Bait
XIII. Appreciated Elsewhere
XV. Restored (El Comebacko Segundo)
Seaver is now resting at XVI, rather gracefully, with a 7-1 record and a 2.07 ERA at the time of the strike. Because he has had only a nagging pulled muscle in his left leg this season, there isn't any evidence that he is ready to descend soon to that depressing XVII. "My one statistical goal is 300 wins, but I'm not going to keep after it if I have to struggle," he says. "It's no fun to go out there and not be able to pitch well. That would be too frustrating." So, with 252 wins, he will indefinitely keep, in the vernacular, taking his turn.
It is worth understanding, too, that for all his years on the mound, Seaver hasn't turned into some grizzled junk specialist who has lost the flame and stays in the game only with tattered skills and emery boards. As sure as his countenance is still as unlined as it is unruffled, as certain as his every hair is in place and is of the same shade of brown, so is he still very much a fastball pitcher. Seaver's father says his boy had a natural slider even as a Little Leaguer, but Seaver now finds that sometimes the slider takes too much out of him and he cannot go with it. So he'll use the change more, turn the big curve over to lefties—pitching is what you have best on that particular day—but, ultimately, he'll still have to do more things with the fastball. The point of having a 94-mph fastball—just as it is with a 98-mph fastball...or an 88, for that matter—is to know when to throw it at all 94 mph. On his best turns, Seaver estimates that if he throws 125 pitches, all but five will be thrown exactly where he wants them, moving as he wants at the velocity he wants. This isn't to say some batter still won't hit one of the right 120 or miss one of the wrong five, but it's to show how precise Seaver can be.
The reason Seaver has metamorphosed less than most fastball pitchers is that so much of his throwing power comes from his whole body instead of just his wing. Harry the Hat Walker, the National League batting champion in 1947, who for more than four decades has studied pitchers as hounds do coons, watched the young Seaver when he first came up and concluded, "He's the most compact pitcher I have seen"—an appraisal no one would dispute today. It's no coincidence that Seaver's injury this year has been to his thigh. Unlike most pitchers, most of his disabilities have been to his lower portions. "Look," he says, pointing to his bottom half, "if I had to translate the things done to this part of my body to this one"—a sweeping motion across his chest—"I wouldn't even...you know...."
You wouldn't even still be pitching?
"I found that out for sure last year."
That was when he suffered his first notable arm injury, tendinitis in his shoulder, and for the first time had to consider "the frightening possibility" that he might have to give up pitching.
Just as the image of the fireballer doesn't fit Seaver, neither does he resemble what pitchers are supposed to look like: lean, long-limbed fellows, kicking high, parabolic motions; one sees Sutton or Guidry or, above all, Seaver's incipient Hall of Fame contemporary, the glamour-puss Palmer, lithe, ribbon-muscled, sexy.
But: turns. Palmer was a World Series winner at 20 in 1966 while Seaver was still in the minors, but when Seaver made the Mets in 1967, Palmer's arm was hanging by a thread, and he was given up for lost, shuttling through the bushes. Palmer, of course, was one long arm who certainly did come back, but still: Seaver started at least 35 games and pitched at least 250 innings in each of his first seven seasons.
And if life's mysteries may be revealed through choice of underdrawers, never will we do better than Palmer and Seaver. The former: We know well enough what cloaks his shadowy loins. The latter: Seaver prefers serviceable modest boxer shorts to cover all of his thick, milkcan thighs. Six feet one, he now weighs a blocky 212, and his chest and arms are round and solid.
A couple of days a week he does a series of arm exercises with 10-pound weights. Nancy worries about his fleshiness and the threat of a double chin. But, hang vanity. Seaver still recalls the first time he came to Cincinnati. It was 1967, and the Reds played in Crosley Field. The phenom on the mound was a youngster named Gary Nolan. Seaver observed Nolan in growing, sad confusion. "Even when Tom was a young pitcher, he was an analyst," Nolan Ryan says. Suddenly, Seaver turned to Harvey Haddix, the Mets' pitching coach, who was sitting next to him. "Harvey," he cried out, "that kid is going to break his arm." Nolan was a terrific pitcher for a couple of seasons, but then he was in and out, and his arm was gone for good by 1977. Seaver is now, at 36, the Reds' pitcher, grubbing it out, still pitching with such technical perfection that he must wear a kneepad on his right, trailing, leg, because he comes in so low, scraping the earth, dirtying his pristine Cincinnati whites. Yes, he's technically perfect, but he's too stubby compared to the beau ideal. But...turns.
Thus, by all odds, there is no reason to expect that Seaver won't win another 48 for his 300. No, he won't ever hang around as a scuffler just to achieve his goal, but neither can we conceive of him abandoning the mound and smartly stepping over into the rest of his life with all the intellectual cool he purports to bring to this decision. Baseball—pitching—is too much his "joy," a word he often employs. Or maybe some of it has a lot to do, secretly, with what Bill Bonham says.
Bonham is another righthanded pitcher on the Reds, whose lifetime record is 75-83, 4.00 compared with Seaver's 252-142, 2.59. Also, unlike Seaver, his upper body is crisscrossed with the surgeon's seams, and he was even sent slumming to Class A last year with a shoulder problem. But like Seaver, Bonham is a college graduate. Why does he keep struggling? Why does he go on peering in for the sign? He smiles. "Once you get out, the moment you step away, you lose 20 years," he says. "As long as I play, I'm still young." Had Faustus been a pitcher instead of a doctor, it really wouldn't have mattered whether he was 75-83 or 252-142.
It is always assumed, even by Seaver himself, that he will move into broadcasting after baseball, but given how he has studied and delighted in the game, wouldn't he more likely stay on board? Cincinnati is an organization run by a former Ice Capades executive, and the whole enterprise has the tidy regimentation of the chorus line; Seaver, an industrious, dependable role model, fits right into this precision act. It is certainly not to the dismay of the Reds' front office that its pitching staff is now known for having a number of Seaver "clones."
Besides, Seaver is something of a natural older-brother type, without any other outlet for this tutorial disposition. He's the baby of his family, born several years after his three older siblings came in a cluster—he wasn't an afterthought, merely a "mistake"—and he and Nancy have no boys, two daughters.
"Tom's exactly like me—he's hardnosed," says Pete Rose. That's the ultimate compliment, coming as it does from one whose own proboscis is certified so hard it's all but petrified by now. "If it's the right thing to do, he'll put you right down on your ass. But he's a gentleman, too. Tom has always taken the time for younger players."
Tom Hume is perhaps the most obvious little-brother figure. Hume is hardly an innocent, being a 28-year-old reliever, co-winner of the 1980 National League Fireman of the Year Award, but Seaver watches over him. For example, early this season Hume relieved Seaver in a game at Houston, with the Reds leading 4-1, two men on and Cesar Cedeno up. Hume got two strikes on Cedeno and then, to Seaver's utter amazement, he grooved a pitch that Cedeno promptly blasted to kingdom come to tie the game.
Afterward, Seaver was furious at Hume—and for a lot more than the fact that Hume's lapse had cost Seaver a victory. He gathered up Hume and Bill Fischer, the pitching coach, and took them out to a bar. "Damn it, Humey, you make me mad," he bellowed. "Haven't you listened to anything I've ever told you about pitching?"
Hume, chagrined, lowered his head down into his Coke. "I got up 0 and 2, and then I didn't know what to throw."
"So you threw him nothing, right out over the plate!"
"Listen to me," Seaver went on, "I've never been a relief pitcher, but when you come into any game, as you walk to the mound, you decide three things right then—what you're going to throw on your first pitch, what you're going to throw if you get ahead, and what you're going to throw if you get behind. O.K?"
A short time later, against the Dodgers, with Seaver watching from the dugout, Hume came in and yielded a leadoff double to Steve Garvey. Ron Cey was up. Sitting there, watching. Seaver thought to himself: "I sure wouldn't give this sonuvabitch anything to hit. Make him go for a real bad pitch or walk him. Then they got to try and bunt on AstroTurf, or we're set for a DP."
As the crowd booed, Hume threw four pitches off the plate. Seaver smiled, chuckling to himself. Hume got out of the inning with a double play. Seaver could hardly wait until Hume was seated in the dugout before he ran over and confronted Hume. ("I was demanding, really rude," he says now.) He said to Hume, "Did you know what you were doing out there with Cey?"
"Well, I really didn't care if I walked him," Hume replied.
"Yeah!" Seaver screamed, and he banged his younger friend on the back.
"People ask me after a shutout, 'Was that fun?' " Seaver says. "And the answer is no. No, it was not fun. Because fun is such a minuscule word for the satisfaction of what I'm doing. Fun is needling a teammate, laughing in the clubhouse. Pitching is far beyond that. I have a sense of satisfaction after a good game, not one of joy.
"But I'll tell you what great joy is: pitching well for an extended period of time, turn after turn. Oh, that's an extremely good feeling.
"What I love about pitching is that it's such a joint exercise—physical and mental. That's why it's so challenging. And the rewards—well, anyway, the results—are simple because they're so immediate. When you're not going well, it seems like forever to the next start and a chance to redeem yourself.
"Then, when it's finally time to warm up, I just want to get loose, throw all my pitches. But I never know what I have till I actually have to face someone. Anybody who watches me warm up and says, 'Seaver has a live fastball tonight' or something—well, if they know, good for them, because I don't. The only barometer I trust is how the hitters do against me. The reason why I don't depend on my own judgment warming up is because lots of times in the past I've thought I was really firing, and then the lead-off man was able to pull my fastball, and I had to stop and think, 'Wait a minute, you must be shorter [i.e., slower] than you think you are, because you know this guy and he shouldn't be able to get around on you like that if you're really throwing as fast as you think you are.'
"So, as quickly as I can, I want to decide the best I have to work with. I start to break down the game: What's the easiest way to set up their hitters with what I have tonight? That's what gives you so much satisfaction. It's one-on-one, but not the way people imagine it, me against the hitter. No, it's me against what I'm trying to accomplish.
"And, of course, you can't let up, but that applies more to concentrating than the actual throwing of the ball. You must have the ability to block everything out. Forget that the second baseman just muffed a double-play ball or that the umpire is missing them or that your wife just charged $700 at Bloomingdale's. After a game in which I didn't have my good stuff and had to think more, I am more exhausted mentally than I ever am physically.
"By now, there's nothing anybody can write about my pitching, one way or the other, that affects me. But I'll tell you, my ego can still be bolstered just by opening up the paper the next morning and looking at my pitching line in that box score. Especially if I know I didn't have my best stuff, if I look there and I see something like a 9 4 2 2, just a couple walks, I know damn well what I've accomplished.
"Pitching is a physical art form, I think. I know that it's going to be very difficult to find something that will supply me with as much fulfillment and satisfaction for another 25 years, because baseball's been the one thing I've loved since I was a little boy, and I haven't yet come close to finding anything as rewarding as pitching. Baseball is just so beautiful when it's played right. God, but it can be a beautiful thing out there."
When Seaver leaves the park, he may not bring the game home, but he always brings the pitcher home. The private Seaver is animated by the same kind of determined efficiency that piston-drives the one on the mound. For example, when Seaver was traded in mid-1977, after a rancorous period in New York, Nancy found a condominium in a new complex outside Cincinnati. Seaver went out to inspect the furnished model. It was attractive, if not quite him—sort of a quasi-Oriental motif. But O.K. "Give me this one, and we'll take it today," he said.
"But this is just the model," said the salesman.
"I know. It's what I want." That way, the family could move right in, no furniture to buy, less detail and upheaval for all of them. It would be easier to concentrate right away.
There are not many loose edges to Tomseaver; he stays close to the ground in all his endeavors, and in the off-season he rarely ventures far from home and hearth. "Once the season's over, I don't even like to go to the market," he says.
When Seaver was growing up his family was a close one, little Tom joining the three older kids and his parents for dinner every night—"not everybody going off in all directions," recalls the father, Charles, a retired executive and a Walker Cup golfer, who seems to have contributed both concentration and athleticism to his youngest child. And as Seaver has become the devoted father himself, so he remains the dutiful son. Talking by phone to his parents back in Fresno, he makes sure to provide his mother, a bridge devotee, with a careful recitation of a particularly interesting hand he played the night before with some teammates, just as he would fill in someone else on a big Reds game.
The natural orderliness of Seaver's life, overlaid by the inexorable rotation of his professional being, has produced, for him and his family, a most patterned existence. Everything is in time, in its turn. The Seavers always return to the same domicile during spring training to heighten continuity. When the season starts, Nancy and the girls remain in Greenwich, Conn. until school is out; once when the schedule permitted Daddy to swing back to Connecticut for a day, he so upset everybody's routine—school, church, club activities, tennis, etc.—that his three ladies actually implored him not to come home next time.
In the months after the 1970 season, Nancy and Tom decided to make a grand motor tour of the U.S. Although they visited everything from the Grand Canyon to the Baseball Hall of Fame, Seaver allowed afterward that his "biggest thrill" may have been watching the corn harvest in the upper Midwest. "Corn is the basic product of this country's heritage," he said, "and I couldn't help but be struck by the sight of the farmers taking from the earth what they had spent the summer growing."
Nancy says now: "He's not at all a talker at home, but I'm intuitive, which is lucky. We never even discussed having children."
However ideal this marriage may be, there is a large part of Tom that is absolutely unknown to Nancy. That is the teammate Seaver. Baseball is a split personality, the team game played by individualists, and those who survive it long must, in some respects, be Janusian.
"Look at Rose," Seaver says. (How curious that, with Seaver, we keep coming back to Rose. The two men are so utterly different in every way, except the baseball way; or perhaps, more simply, as the game's litany goes: They Know How to Win.) "No one has ever been more interested in his own accomplishments than Pete, but at the same time, show me someone who's more of a team player."
So with Seaver. It's especially revealing that though he was an instant success on the field when he first joined the Mets, he seemed to make an even greater impression with his attitude. He had never even heard of Marvelous Marv Throneberry, that paradigm of fabled Met buffoonery, and he refused to laugh at the team's reputation for inept high jinks. This was the first right turn toward the world championship, and Gil Hodges, New York's strong new sobersided manager, was perhaps the first, save Seaver himself, to notice that the Metsies always seemed to play a little better when young Tom took the mound.
But Seaver was hardly a clubhouse scold. On the contrary. The pitcher who is so into himself and his task, nearly insular on the mound, is transformed, around the lockers, into a regular old cut-up. It's a shame today's ballplayers don't ride trains and loll about hotel lobbies, so that Seaver could tie underwear in knots, short-sheet beds and light hotfoots. As it is, he's full of pranks and deprecating banter—the needle—and is excellent—who would ever guess this?—at dialects. He does a terrific New York accent and a full run of the usual ethnic put-downs. Shooting a TV commercial a few weeks ago, Seaver suddenly clicked his heels on camera and barked to the German director: "You vill fix ze light, Verner, and you vill do ziss right avay. Do you hear me?" It was very good stuff.
There is also, around Seaver, more of the usual give-and-take about clothes, because he doesn't incline to the prevailing ballplayer style, Pullover Chic, which is founded on two-tone synthetics and too many chains. Instead, Seaver tends to dress as if he's masquerading for the 15th reunion at Yale. Here we have him, carrying The New York Times, departing the park in pale yellow sports jacket, preppy golf shirt, checkered pants, tasseled loafers. This unusual sartorial conceit, generally viewed as droll in ball-park precincts, encourages almost everyone to let Seaver have it. "Oooh, Seaver's going out to dinner tonight," the elevator man coos.
"Yeah, where'd you get that tie, for Christmas?" Seaver counters, while emitting his famous laughing screech. As Lindsey Nelson, the former Mets broadcaster, has it, "When Seaver laughs, he makes dogs whine."
When not acting the ringleader in clubhouse badinage, Seaver joins the Reds' bridge circle. Away from the park, he goes fishing with the country boys on the club, and last year when his Labrador bitch had a litter, he presented puppies to three of his Reds outdoor pals. It is, perhaps, most instructive of all that Seaver also chews tobacco—the ultimate expression of baseball's classless camaraderie. In fact, Seaver has a chaw in his cheek most of the time he's around the park—except when he's pitching. Work isn't to be confused with fellowship. Often when Seaver heads out to pitch, or even just to practice, he says, "I have to go to my job now."
He can switch aspects in a flash. In the warmth of the clubhouse, where an outsider can all but feel the male bonding taking place, as if there were actual strips of tape being extended from player to player to player, Seaver is loud and properly scatological. John McNamara, the Reds' manager, laughs, remembering the time a couple of small-town radio reporters were around asking stupid questions. Seaver, taking a cue, followed the poor electronic devils about and, feigning talk with friends, spewed out the worst vulgarities at the top of his voice whenever the reporters opened their microphones to try to interview somebody.
Now, this day in '81, a familiar laundryman walks into the clubhouse. From his locker, Seaver glances up and hollers, "Hey, Dago, where'd you put them bleeping things at?"
Wait a minute: Put them bleeping things at? This, from George Thomas Seaver, USC graduate, executive's son, Greenwich, Conn. clubman? Then he turns back to complete a formal interview question, even effortlessly making sure to insert a heck for a hell.
It is this smooth adaptability that has led some critics to blast Seaver for being too facile, a phony. Even Nancy is buffaloed. "This clubhouse prankster—I'm shocked by the things I hear about that person," she says, not quite laughing. "It's a side of Tom I just don't know at all, and that offends me because, of course, I'm supposed to know him best."
Yet to watch Seaver in everyday action is not to witness anything forced. If you're lucky enough to be 36 and still playing a game, then damn it, there's a time to play. The various parts of Seaver's life may be more compartmentalized than most people's, but there's nothing hypocritical about where he draws the lines. "I think I have a very good understanding of what particular people enjoy," he says. "For example, I'm a good needle, but I almost never make a mistake and get on a guy who doesn't want it to happen. I simply look for different sorts of friendships with different individuals. Everybody has something special to offer, and that's what I try to bring out."
The circumstances of his upbringing surely have something to do with this. His father was a vice-president of the largest independent raisin-packing company in America, and Seaver spent much of the broiling San Joaquin Valley summers hanging around the country club pool, but he never had his own car, and winters he had to sleep in an unheated portion of the house, making sure to keep his dog on the bed to help him stay warm. So, Seaver grew up utterly secure in his well-being, but not so wealthy that he didn't have to learn to adjust to the folks around him.
Generally speaking, the Americans who can adapt the best are not those John Q. Publics from right smack in the middle, who are trapped dead in the water, hostage to their own proud commonness, but those from either the upper-middle or the lower-middle classes, who can see the top or the bottom growing up, but who aren't constrained by having scraped either extreme.
Athletically, Seaver's life was tempered too, because after a spectacular start as a Little League hero, he stopped growing and was merely one of the boys for the balance of his adolescence. Unlike most big stars who never needed the team, Seaver did. You see? As a senior in high school, he was only something like 5'9", 145, with a 6-5 record that failed to interest any college team, much less any professional organization. "I went to the other high school in Fresno," Nancy says. "I think I saw him once on the basketball team, but he was so short I almost missed him. Honestly." (Need we point out that everybody dismissed the diminutive teen-age Rose, too, except for the Reds, who gave him a shot as a favor to a hometown kid?)
Like his older brother Charles, who swam for the University of California, Seaver worked as a laborer in the raisin-packing plant for half a year after graduating from high school and putting in six months with the Marines. This is unadulterated ugly ducklingana: He emerged from all this four inches taller, 45 pounds heavier and able to chew tobacco. Soon thereafter he became a winner at Fresno City College, also raising his academic average, snowed the beautiful Nancy and got a scholarship to Southern Cal, where he would be the star pitcher on one of the premier college teams in all the land. It happened that fast, and at the start of his second spring at USC, he junked college, went pro and had Nancy follow him across the country to Jacksonville to marry him. He was cocksure.
She was terrified and cried much of the time in Jacksonville, and even when they got to the bigs the next year, to a $125-a-month furnished apartment in Flushing, she remained lonely. Jealous, too, envious of her husband's new glory, his opportunities, his traveling and, of course, fearful "of all the horrible stories you always hear of women on the road."
By contrast, he was magic. "I went through an extended period while growing up of not even being able to think about becoming a major league player," Seaver says. "Suddenly I was a prospect. Overnight. And I wasn't about to flub my opportunity. I've always had a good sense of reality, a good perspective. I didn't want to stagnate in college. And so I seized the moment. I signed. And I guess I was right: 18 months later I was pitching in the All-Star Game. No—16. Sixteen months later I was pitching in the All-Star Game."
It's so easy for so many star athletes to, in Seaver's term, stagnate. They are forever prospects. They are ready-made prospects when they are 12, and nothing ever daunts them or makes them doubt; certainly, the pretty girls don't overlook them. Seaver probably keeps on changing because he was forced to keep changing then. Growing up, it was his goal to be a dentist, to learn to play the piano. Hey, Tomseaver, where'd you put them bleeping things at?
The Seaver condominium outside Cincy, the one with the in-place Oriental decor and the geraniums outside that he faithfully waters while the family is back in Connecticut, is almost exactly as far, by Interstate, from Riverfront Stadium as the Seaver dream house in Connecticut is from Shea Stadium. The condo lies by a fairway, in a golfing development in which Jack Nicklaus has an interest. It's hard by the College Football Hall of Fame and a huge amusement park, so that an ersatz Eiffel Tower looms on the horizon, but the Seavers' immediate surroundings are all green, in an area known as The Greenery off Clubhouse Drive, on a street named for a tree, alongside other tree-named streets.
"Heck, yes!" Seaver says. "Playing in Cincinnati has been a definite plus for all of us. It's a different part of the country, and you get a different flavor of people."
It remains more of an arranged marriage than a love match, though, and the Queen Citians keep a discreet distance. Except maybe for the one week Johnny (Double No Hit) Vander Meer chucked all goose eggs, Cincinnati has always been a hitters' town, anyway. And perhaps no one there is confident enough to think that Cincinnati should try to appropriate something that belonged so much to New York. San Francisco was the same way with Willie Mays when he was posted there. In restaurants, the people don't approach Seaver; the uniformed guard at the stadium drive-in checkpoint often doesn't recognize him; and Seaver realizes that in one way he is always a letdown: "The press and everybody else here would prefer me to be more childlike with my emotions."
But they will never get that. That's gone. Oh, maybe not really gone: The vision of the Mets' experience endures for the Seavers, like the recollection of a first love that hangs on, making everything in the present suffer by comparison with the sainted (and flawed) golden memories. "I had such a horribly empty feeling when Tom got his 3,000th strikeout earlier this season," Nancy says. "The accomplishment was there, but not the thrill this time."
But if his relationship with Cincinnati is very correct, Seaver does enjoy the reduction of attention that comes with playing outside New York. And after all, he still makes roughly half a million a year and his contract with NBC lasts through this year. Besides, the sort of celebrity that money buys has never been that important to Seaver. It runs in the family. One sister spent two years with her husband, who was working in the Peace Corps in Nigeria; his older brother—identified affectionately within the family as "the one who lives on a mountaintop"—makes furniture.
The Mets clearly miscalculated when they made such a big to-do over Seaver's request for contract renegotiation in '77. "The issue of money was so insignificant," Nancy says. "If they knew Tom, wouldn't they have understood that? We had our dream house, the kids were in good schools, we belonged to a club. If the refrigerator broke, there was no worry. I could buy a new one tomorrow. When you're happy, how much more money do you need than that?"
She smiles, but not the broad one that used to go with the tam-o'-shanter. Then Nancy was the gee-whiz side of Tom—"Where I grew up, whitewash was the talk of my neighborhood"—but now she is the stylish half. "With him, it was a matter of loyalty," she goes on. "And his loyalty was thrown into his face. Tom was hurt badly. I don't think, even now, he'd like to admit how much. He wanted to live and die at the Mets' stadium. And they jilted him."
Still, even with all that, Seaver didn't break down and demand to be traded until he read a New York Daily News column, seeded, he believes, by the Mets' management, which he thought dragged Nancy into the fray. When he heard about that, Seaver literally ran to a phone, screaming into it to a Mets official, "That's it! Get me outta here! Get me outta here!"
There was a certain symbolism, too, that it was a family matter that propelled Seaver out of New York. It's a town for singles and couples, and the Seavers were a whole family now, no longer just the package deal in which Nancy was systematically included in everything. "He desperately wanted me to be acquainted with the game," Nancy says. "He never wanted to have to make a choice."
You or baseball?
She nods. "So we took advantage of everything and had five wonderful, uncluttered years together." And then Nancy understood it was time for something else, and the children came in their turn.
Now she is at home. It's a converted barn, tasteful and full of light, tucked away on seven acres in the most wooded section of Greenwich. This is the suburbs, too, but it's not suburbia, not an Eiffel Tower as far as the eye can see. And she's still a ballplayer's wife, but she's not Tom Seaver's lovely wife Nancy anymore, and Gil Hodges is dead, Marvelous Marv is frozen forever in a light-beer commercial, and her husband pitches for a team in Ohio. "My wife has changed a lot since back then," he says. "She has children. She has developed a home. She has her own interests. You see, I was her interest then. I was her hobby. But now she's happier. Nancy has the greatest life in the world."
Nancy says: "The only thing lacking in my life is that I'd like a lot more of him. But he's worked very hard at his family, and now we're separate from baseball. I've been turned into his private life. Over the years he has become more guarded about himself, too. He's so very thoughtful, but basically not all that much fun at home. But then, you should see Tom at a party. Oh, he's so funny. The stories! He can make everybody laugh all night."
It's a matter, ultimately, of deciding what's the best you have to work with this particular time and going with that. Of course, it's also understanding that there is a world of difference between the pitcher and the pitchman.
During the strike, Seaver has been neither the pitcher nor the pitchman. "It's been better than just having him here for the home games," Nancy says, "because there are no injuries, no losing streaks—no winning streaks, for that matter. It's been so much more relaxed, and that's probably especially true for Tom, because he has been in many of the negotiating meetings and has known exactly where things stood.
"Of course, it hasn't been all enjoyable. The strike has been different from a real vacation, because everything is so up in the air. You can't commit to anything. I don't have a thing in the refrigerator that's king-size. And there's an ugliness to it, too, because it really doesn't matter who's right or wrong, everybody looks bad, and if any player doesn't realize that, then all he has to do is come home from the meetings and his wife will tell him."
In facing some 15,000 major league batters, Seaver has every once in a while, like Hume against Cedeno, lobbed a nothing pitch fat over the plate. Two of those occasions occurred against home-run kings Dick Allen and Willie Stargell. Incredibly, both of them struck out looking. They were expecting something going 98 mph, slicing down on the corner at the knees, so they were too discombobulated to deal with the obvious.
There was a time not long ago when Anne, the 5-year-old, came to her father at home. She had become aware of how all these people tried hard to get his autograph, and now she thrust a piece of paper and pen at him and demanded his signature, just like everybody else. Smiling, Seaver wrote out "Daddy" and returned the paper to her, but as soon as she examined the autograph, she handed it back to him. "No," she said, "that's 'Daddy.' "
"But that's who I am. What do you want?"
"I want 'Tom Seaver,' I want 'Tom Seaver,' " little Anne cried out.
And this time, that's exactly what she got. Still, not many people do—not, anyway, clear, right out over the plate.