It’s been nearly two weeks since I heard the sad news that Tom Seaver died. Although I was aware of the Hall of Fame pitcher’s ongoing struggle with dementia which shielded him from the public the past year, the finality of Seaver’s passing at age 75 deeply impacted me.
When I shared the news with my wife, she asked if I needed to cry. I didn’t. But the reality of Seaver’s passing just didn’t seem possible.
It was another body blow dealt by 2020, a year that continues to rob and destroy any semblance of normalcy we’ve grown accustomed to enjoying.
But this one hit home, causing me to reflect back on my admiration for Seaver that covered half a century.
I’m not really sure what triggered my fascination with Seaver back in 1970. Maybe it was fallout from the New York Mets winning the ’69 World Series, and I distinctly remember Seaver’s fresh face on the Sports Illustrated cover as “Sportsman of the Year” for being the heart and soul of the Amazin’ Mets.
I wasn’t merely a fan. It became borderline idolatry. I tried to mimic Seaver’s textbook pitching delivery in my backyard, dragging my back knee in the dirt because Tom did so. I clipped every box score from the newspaper and pasted them into a scrapbook. I saved every magazine article that featured Seaver, every baseball card, every photograph. I wrote him letters every season, even receiving an autographed picture that was displayed prominently on my bedroom wall above my oversized Seaver poster.
My appetite for information on Seaver was insatiable. I owned several biographies on Tom Terrific, absorbing all I could about his wife, Nancy, the couple’s two daughters and even knew his dog was named Slider. I carried the poster to a Braves game when the Mets were visiting Atlanta in hopes of him signing it, having to settle for a distant photo taken while Seaver walking in from a bullpen session.
When Seaver was traded to Cincinnati during the ’77 season, it left me hurt and confused. He was always supposed to be a Met, but my allegiance followed him to the Reds. But a trade brought Seaver back home to New York prior to the 1983 season, setting the stage for the chance to fulfill my dream since early childhood.
I was working as a part-time writer in the sports department at the News-Free Press, and had regularly tagged along with veteran baseball scribe Mark McCarter on his trips to Atlanta to glean a basic overview of the writer protocol at big league games. During one of our trips to a Braves game I had also befriended a member of the Braves’ media relations staff who shared my last name, convincing her we must somehow be related.
The Mets were visiting Atlanta in late April, so fellow part-timer James Beach and I leveraged the connection with my “relative” to secure a couple of press passes that would give us access to the field during pre-game as well as the locker room. We were making this trip on our own, figuring our experience of covering high school games adequately prepared us for a major league baseball contest.
Seaver wasn’t scheduled to pitch that Friday night, so Beach and I scoured the field upon arrival trying to locate him. He was doing conditioning work in the outfield, and I mustered up the courage to wander over to finally meet my idol.
What I didn’t realize then was that the press wasn’t allowed beyond the dugout area. But armed with adrenaline and naïveté I made a beeline to Seaver as he was nearing the left field foul line. He glanced at us wondering what we were up to, then completed a few more circuits to the opposite foul pole along the warning track.
Seaver then sat in the bullpen, and I approached him – do I call him “Tom” or “Mr. Seaver”? - when he bent over changing his shoes. On the verge of hyperventilation, I explained that I had been a lifelong fan and that I was there to interview him for a story if he had a few spare moments. He paused while briefly looking up at me, then explained that I was in a restricted area and should have coordinated my request through the Mets media relations staff.
Sensing my embarrassment, he told me to meet him by the Mets dugout after he showered. Beach and I waited nervously as the game time neared, dodging errant tosses from Dave Kingman and Rusty Staub who were never known for their defensive prowess, before we were finally asked to leave the field by security with no appearance from Seaver.
Disappointed but determined, we used our credentials to access the New York clubhouse following the game. Seaver was seated at a table in the middle of the room munching on the postgame spread when we again made eye contact. He could have been surly and aloof, but instead allowed me to plop down next to him to fulfill my dream.
Even though I had violated every tenet of sports writer etiquette, he was gracious in allowing me to interview him. His responses were thoughtful and sincere, and I was convinced that the beer he knocked over that soaked my pants was an honest mistake. The picture that Beach took of our conversation remains among my most prized possessions.
It was the only time I ever met Seaver, as he eventually won 311 games and three Cy Young awards while finishing his career with the White Sox and in Boston. But that evening in Atlanta when I was 22 resonates even more after learning of his death.
I’ve received several texts of condolence from friends and family after hearing of Seaver’s death. While reading the numerous tributes and remembrances of Seaver’s life and career these past two weeks, it prompted me to pull out the plastic bin from the attic that held all of my Seaver keepsakes. I found the Sports Illustrated from ’69 with him on the cover, sifted through the various baseball cards and photos that I collected during my youth.
I even found the poster I took to Atlanta that I hoped to have him autograph. It will never be signed, and it will soon head back to storage to gather more dust. Instead I have the memories of a hero who didn’t disappoint me when I bumbled through an awkward encounter, validating my years of admiration. That is something I will cherish even more.
Thanks for the 50 years of memories, Tom Terrific.
Paul Payne can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @Paul_A_Payne