PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla.
In hindsight, “The Franchise” was a nickname that actually fit Tom Seaver better as time wore on. In many ways, he was the Mets, his own journey marked by triumph and heartbreak, the exhilarating highs followed by crushing lows.
To this day, he remains symbolic of the team’s greatest achievement, the ’69 World Series title, and its most shocking blunder — trading him to the Reds in 1977 for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson and Dan Norman. From the Miracle Mets to the “Midnight Massacre.”
Seaver’s story is the one that Mets fans tell their kids, passing him along as if Tom Terrific were a treasured artifact linking generations. For as much as they glow in speaking of his magnificent Flushing career — 198 victories, four 20-win seasons, 2,541 strikeouts — the lasting ache of his shocking departure is equally part of that identity.
That’s why it hit so hard Thursday when Seaver’s family issued a statement through the Hall of Fame that revealed he recently was diagnosed with dementia. As a result, Seaver has “chosen to completely retire from public life.” It wasn’t a surprise. His last appearance at Citi Field was at the 2013 All-Star Game, when he threw out the first pitch, and he did not attend the BBWAA Awards dinner in January, when the ’69 Mets were honored.
Any hope of his attending the Miracle Mets weekend at Citi Field this year was all but extinguished before Thursday’s announcement. Those fears were confirmed by 1969 teammate Art Shamsky, who detailed a 2017 pilgrimage to visit Seaver at his Napa Valley vineyard in his coming book, “After the Miracle.”
“For the onetime fearless power pitcher . . . ,” Shamsky wrote, “his limitations are now practically unfathomable.”
Seaver, 74, has been struggling with health issues for a while, so Shamsky was just putting brushstrokes to an upsetting reality many already knew. It’s unfair that Seaver won’t get to feel the adoration that will wash over his ’69 teammates at Citi Field, because no one was more responsible for that magical season — or lifting the Mets from laughingstocks to champions.
Decade after decade, every Mets prospect with Cy Young promise, armed with an intimidating fastball and the mound swagger to match, is touted hopefully as the next Seaver. And no one ever comes close, because it’s an impossible comparison.
Seaver is the only Met without peer. There are other Hall of Famers, and world champs, and retired numbers. But his Cooperstown trajectory combined with that painful, premature exit from Flushing is what immortalizes him among the fan base.
“He will always be the heart and soul of the Mets,” Mike Piazza wrote on Twitter. “The standard which all Mets aspire to.”
Seaver is the uniquely Mets hero who dominates the sport, charms the city and yet finishes his Hall of Fame career with three other teams. He earned his 300th win for the White Sox and was in the other dugout, in a Red Sox uniform, when the Mets finally became world champions again in 1986. Even when Seaver teamed with Piazza to officially close Shea Stadium at the conclusion of the ’08 season, it generated mixed emotions, as it came right after the Mets were eliminated from playoff contention by that day’s loss to the Marlins.
There were the sporadic cameos since then, and when you were around Seaver, you knew it was a special orbit. He sort of dragged you along, as if by some gravitational pull. The brightest, most charismatic stars do that, without even trying. And the same thing would have happened again at Citi Field if fate had allowed it.
Instead, Seaver will be tending to his vineyard, as his family described, and that is what’s best for him now. What’s best for everyone else is to remember Seaver at his strongest, at his happiest, as the once-proud icon that delivered some of the Mets’ most memorable moments.
The Mets intend to honor him in “special ways” at the ’69 celebration. What would be better to counteract the ravages of time and failing health than a statue of Seaver at the height of his powers, to give “The Franchise” permanent residence on the same Flushing ground he should never have left?
It’s the reunion Seaver deserves, as he can’t be there with his ’69 teammates. And for everyone else, it would ease some of the sadness. Like not having to say goodbye.