Hammerin’ Hanks vs Tom Terrific (Guy vs Idol)
"If only I’d been able to let Tom Seaver know I’d learned my competitive drive from the master." Tweet
When Tom Seaver died last August, at 75, I was six weeks short of Medicare age. …way too old to cry, as I had that long-ago day the New York Mets criminally banished “The Franchise” to Cincinnati.
I was 22 then.
Lots of people have baseball heroes. For me, as a Jewish kid growing up in the South Bronx in the late 1960s, the young, clean-cut Californian was more like a life model. From the day in 1967 Seaver pitched his first game for the awful Mets, I was obsessed with him as a ballplayer. Imitating the classic delivery that always left his right knee caked in dirt, I’d scrape mine to a bloody pulp on the asphalt. But it was more than that—Tom Seaver was my model in every respect. He was clearly the smartest of all the Mets (admittedly not a very high bar)—confidence personified—and in my own ersatz post-game interviews, with my brother holding an imaginary mic, I became him, down to his winningly boyish, high-pitched giggle. To me, he could do no wrong—on or off the field. Tom Seaver was perfection.
I’d get so anxious when he pitched—as if I was on that mound, only feeling more frustration from having no control over the outcome. Sometimes my mother actually feared for my sanity, hearing me rage at the TV from the next room—cursing out his offensively inept teammates—threatening to put me on whatever anti-anxiety medication she was taking.
What did Tom Seaver represent in my life? Why was he such an obsession that during the spring and summer, I lived for those every five days he pitched a game? (My parents were in a contentious marriage; my dad and I had little other than sports in common. My younger, learning-disabled brother was a constant source of family stress.) Was Seaver a substitute-father figure—an idealized, older brother? It would probably take multiple conversations with an analyst, to answer that one.
But there were far more happy memories than profoundly sad tears when he died. Indeed, I was there for many of Seaver’s milestone moments, including the 19-strikeout/last-10-ks-in-a-row masterpiece in 1970 and his 300th, career win at Yankee Stadium (as a White Sox) 15 years later.
Chips of plaster rained down around my idol’s head, like in “The Natural.”
Yet there’s one memory I realized I’d suppressed: strangely, because you’d think it would be a source of pleasure—a Seaver story that I’d never get tired of telling. Instead, it fills me with ambivalence even now.
It was late morning, February 15, 1990, and I was in a Manhattan office, trying to hit a book deadline when I got a call from publicist friend. “Steve, as a promotion, Seaver is pitching to a bunch of journalists at the Midtown Tennis Club. I can get you a credential,” my friend offered.
I arrived nervously and breathlessly. Tom was already throwing from a makeshift mound at midcourt as the aging sports writers and art critics flailed away. I watched with growing unease, waiting my turn. I was also pitcher—known by my college teammates as “Seaver (for my slavish imitation of my hero)”—but on my off days, I was a catcher.
Suddenly, all I wanted was not to hit against my idol rather to squat down, ready a single finger for the heat and join him—me and Tom Seaver: The Battery!
“How about if I catch instead of hit?” I meekly asked the guy behind the plate.
He didn’t even look up. “No way. Insurance.”
I took my place in the faux batter’s box, somewhere between supremely confident and a psychological breakdown.
Ball one…ball two. Tom was throwing around three-quarter speed from his prime, slower than the 75-80 mph heaters I was routinely facing in my over-30 league.
“Good eye,” my idol called, with amiable condescension.
I knew what was coming next (as if it was me pitching)—a fat one down the middle.
I swung away, sent a blistering line drive to right centerfield, the ball ricocheting off the far wall and crashing into a large, air conditioner hanging from the ceiling. Chips of plaster rained down around my idol’s head, like in “The Natural.”
Sixty feet away, Tom wasn’t pleased. If I’d had another at-bat, he might well have sent me sprawling. Instead, he muttered, “That’s it for him. Next!”
If only I’d been able to let him know I’d learned my competitive drive from the master.