The intensely focused stare, the perfect pitching mechanics, the muscular legs, the overpowering delivery, the blistering fastball…The Franchise.
The 1969 New York Mets overcame 100-1 pre-season odds to win the World Series. The leader and most productive member of that team was Tom Seaver. His 27 wins earned him the Cy Young Award for best pitcher in the league–as well as Sportsman of the Year by Sports Illustrated. But equal to his productiveness was his professionalism and winning attitude. When he came to the Mets a few years earlier they were lovable losers who never finished higher than ninth place in the standings. Seaver refused to accept the status quo. He took winning seriously and proved it over an extended period of time by winning more than 300 games in his 20 year career. “There are only two places in the league,” he said, “first place and no place.” In fact, Seaver was so confident in his ability that when he signed with the Mets in 1966 he told his father, “In five years, I’m going to pitch in the World Series.” He accomplished that goal two years ahead of schedule.
Seaver, also known as “Tom Terrific” and “The Franchise,” was my first living hero. He showed this 7 year old Bronx kid that character and professionalism don’t come automatically. Rather, these virtues are a result of intense effort. As Seaver put it, “The concentration and dedication–the intangibles are the deciding factors between who won and who lost.” This appealed to me because I knew that mere physical talent was not enough in my own life, and I wanted to be a winner.
Observing Seaver at work was truly a thing of beauty. Artist LeRoy Neiman likened Seaver’s performance to that of an artist, with the pitching mound as the easel. Famous slugger Reggie Jackson once stated, “Blind people come to the park just to listen to him pitch.”
When my mother told me that the Amazin’ Mets were heavy underdogs for the 1969 World Series, I got excited because I thought she meant they would be on my favorite cartoon program, Underdog. Shortly thereafter, I watched Tom Terrific and his team drive through the Canyon of Heroes in downtown Manhattan, where only a few months earlier Neil Armstrong and his team had triumphantly paraded.
In one of his many co-authored books, The Perfect Game, Seaver provides excellent insight into the character of a champion. The book gives an amazingly detailed analysis of the most dramatic game of the World Series, game four, which he won 2-1. We also learn about Seaver’s strong family bonds, his plan to become a dentist, his off-season studies at USC and his brief stint in the Marines, where he grew in height and weight. However, the essential virtue that stands out in the book is honesty. Seaver constantly talks of the importance of being honest, whether it is telling his pitching coach when he is tired and should be taken out of the game, or telling his catcher how to better handle the staff, or correcting the media about making excuses for his rare poor performances, or even telling his wife about a harmless weekend date with another woman very early in their relationship.
Another facet I always admired about Tom Seaver was how he soaked up the greatness of New York’s culture. Whether it was attending art exhibits or concert halls, he enjoyed the richness of the city–outside the sheltered sports world that most athletes never venture beyond. He also put his virtues to work in the business world as a spokesman for several corporations including Chemical Bank and American Express.
One of my life’s highlights was going to Cooperstown, New York in 1992 to see him inducted (with the highest percentage first ballot entry) into the Baseball Hall of Fame. I witnessed a man who spoke proudly of his many accomplishments and who was grateful about sharing such a special place with so many legends. In that moment, I knew that my decades of hero worship were justified. He was one of the select heroes who had inspired me and helped to shape my character.
These days, Tom Terrific demonstrates his honesty and professionalism as a Mets announcer. His perceptive insights avoid hoopla and focus on the facts, with unwavering respect for the glorious history of America’s great pastime. Seaver’s confidence in his stature comes from a resolve to pursue and achieve his goals, whatever the opposition. He has maintained his integrity and pitched a perfect game in the most important game of all: life.