Tom Seaver: A Perfect Inspiration

Tom Seaver after winning another game.
Tom Seaver after winning another game.

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.

Rush: Reason in Rock

In the annals of rock history, no band has championed reason and heroism in words and action with as much consistency and longevity as the Canadian power trio, Rush.

Superior ability is a key quality of heroism. Exemplifying this as musicians’ musicians, bassist and vocalist Geddy Lee, guitarist Alex Lifeson and percussionist Neil Peart all fit the bill. Widely recognized as leaders of their craft, they are regularly featured in musical publications. Add to this the prolific lyric writing of Neil Peart and you have a tightly knit unit of virtuosos.

Great moral stature is another vital aspect of heroism, and they stand atop that spectrum. In a profession where drugs, groupies, trashed hotel rooms, superficial poseurs and compromisers are rampant, these gentlemen read books, study French and play classical guitar before going on stage. They are rational, productive, responsible family men who guard their privacy. In 1997 they became officers of the Order of Canada, which was created to recognize significant achievement in the important fields of human endeavor.

Pursuing one’s values in the face of great opposition is another essential feature of heroism. These Great White Northerners have done this steadily since the mid-’70s, when the commercial failure of their third album, Caress of Steel, caused their record company to almost abandon them. They fired back with the futuristic epic 2112, which gave them a life extension and which to this day, 28 years later, still brings down the house when they perform it. The liner notes of the album credits “acknowledgement to the genius of Ayn Rand” and inspired me to read her works some 26 years ago. (The song’s theme of man against the state is similar to that of Rand’s Anthem, and is perfectly symbolized by the famous logo of the man facing the star.)

Triumph (particularly in spirit) is the fourth ingredient of heroism. The fact that Rush has sold over 35 million records and steadily sells out concert performances, in the absence of mainstream support, makes them qualify. The musical press has largely shunned them, which is why they will probably never go into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. (The two main reasons are distaste for Lee’s vocals and Peart’s concept oriented lyrics.) Don’t look for them to be featured on Saturday Night Live, VH-1’s Behind the Music, or on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine. Perhaps it is because Peart says, “they are not cool enough for us.” Fortunately they have been recognized in their homeland of Canada as they’ve won numerous prestigious awards. Equally important as their commercial success is the fact that they maintain their integrity—musically and personally.

The group has certainly had its share of tragedy. Geddy Lee’s parents are Holocaust survivors, and not long ago Neil Peart lost both his only child and his wife in successive years. (Peart wrote a book entitled Ghost Rider, which describes his recovery.) Nevertheless, the band’s positive sense of life permeates their records, concerts and interviews.

Musically, their instrumental pieces are exercises in virtuosity—particularly La Villa Strangiato (which could also be named “Concerto for Guitar”) and YYZ. However, their songs are celebrations of greatness. Whether the subject is man’s mind “I see the works of gifted hands—Grace this strange and wondrous land—I see the hands of man arise—With hungry mind and open eyes” (Oracle: The Dream). Or if it is technology (they were invited to witness NASA’s Columbia space shuttle takeoff in 1981) as described in the song Countdown. Or even the skyline of New York, “The buildings are lost in their limitless rise—My feet catch the pulse and the purposeful stride” (The Camera Eye). Demonstrating integration between thought and action, these individuals are also pro-technology in their lives. Lifeson is a licensed pilot, Peart an avid motorcyclist and Lee composes on the latest computerized equipment. All their instruments have state of the art electronics utilized for maximum efficiency. (I could never understand how rock bands would denounce technology in their songs and interviews, but use microphones, amplifiers, CDs, television and radio in order to be heard in the first place.)

Only at a Rush concert would one find fifteen thousand fans singing about honesty and integrity (The Spirit of Radio) or pride and independence “No, his mind is not for rent—To any god or government” (Tom Sawyer) or choosing a path that’s clear (Free Will).

A Rush concert is a visual treat as much as an aural one. The high quality video graphics screen displays humorous images (The Three Stooges footage often introduces the band onto the stage) as well as serious ones, which are reflected in the words and music. They also incorporate lasers and pyrotechnics for added effect. A few years ago, while they performed The Big Money, which shows images of U.S. currency, I remember seeing Benjamin Franklin on the screen, then (from Camden, NJ) I gazed to my left and smiled with a note of pride as I saw the skyline of Franklin’s beloved city, Philadelphia. The first time I saw them in concert, back in 1979, there was an image of the right and left brain merging in perfect synchronicity as they ended the 18-minute epic Hemispheres, which supports heart and mind integration. (The lyrics portray Apollo and Dionysus as representatives of each aspect.)

If one were to analyze the group in terms of the classic Greek trinity, one would call Geddy Lee the soul, as he is usually the spokesman for interviews and addresses the audience, plays numerous instruments and sings the songs. He is truly a jack-of-all-trades. Alex Lifeson represents the body, as he blends physical comedy of guitar playing with witty humor and is often lovingly referred to as the band’s party animal. Neil Peart is clearly classified as the mind, as it is his words that are a large draw for the fans. Even his drum style has a jazz oriented cerebral part about it. Lee calls him a normal guy with a really big brain. Aptly put. All in all, there is a superb division of labor among the three.

In my favorite verse about heroes, “The voice of reason against the howling mob—The pride of purpose in the unrewarding job” (Nobody’s Hero), we see the tie between reason and heroism that is virtually absent in our culture. Personally, this is the sense of life that has gripped me for over two decades and has been the soundtrack of my life, drawing me like a magnet to see them about 50 times in concert, including perhaps their greatest performance (available on DVD) Rush in Rio. They have helped to transform me from a teenager with mixed premises into a confident man of reason. I am eternally grateful for this.

Lee, Lifeson and Peart are truly somebody’s hero.

© 2004 Robert Begley