Of all the lousy 2020 things, not having fans at Citi Field to collectively celebrate Tom Seaver’s life during Thursday’s Subway Series game was a pretty big downer.
The Mets did the best they could. There was black-and-purple bunting at the 41 Seaver Way entrance. A moment of silence. Each Met rubbed dirt on his right knee to honor Seaver’s iconic drop-and-drive delivery.
But those timeless images of The Franchise we watched Thursday during the pregame video montage and between-inning photo galleries have been gone from Flushing for a while now, even though he’s still carried in the hearts of the Mets’ community. To understand the post-retirement Seaver, one had to be transported 3,000 miles away, to a Calistoga vineyard, where he was the Tom Terrific of wine country.
This was no post-baseball hobby, either. As Ron Swoboda described his visit there during a Miracle Mets pilgrimage three years ago with Art Shamsky and Jerry Koosman, he talked about a Seaver as much in his element among the cabernet sauvignon grapes as on a pitcher’s mound. (Shamsky later penned a book about the trip titled “After the Miracle: The Lasting Brotherhood of the ’69 Mets.”)
“Tom’s focus was on establishing himself after his career in Calistoga with a beautiful home on the top of a hill there,” Swoboda said Thursday during a Zoom call. “Tom wanted to be a vintner on the same level that he was as a Hall of Fame pitcher. He went at that with the same sort of focus and dedication, because excellence was the only way he would do anything.”
Swoboda, sitting in his home office in New Orleans, then reached off camera and pulled back a bottle of GTS wine — the first he had ever received from his former teammate — with silver signatures of both Seaver and his wife, Nancy, neatly adorning the sides. The former Mets outfielder, responsible for arguably the greatest catch in team history, proudly displayed the signed bottle as if it were the baseball from his first major-league hit.
That 2017 trip to see Seaver was not some wine-drinking junket with old pals. They knew Seaver’s health was declining because of a sinister combination of Lyme disease and Lewy body dementia. The window was closing. And at worst case, that probably would serve as their farewell, which it ultimately turned out to be when Seaver died Monday from those complications as well as COVID-19.
Seaver gave them a tour of the vineyard. They had lunch together. Swoboda marveled at the near-pristine condition of the entire operation. Then again, what did he expect? Seaver is credited with almost single-handedly changing the course of the Mets’ organization, from pitiful expansion team to impossible World Series champs.
“He loved showing you around his acreage,” Swoboda said. “We were told he had some rough days and we were lucky. We traveled all the way out there and Tom was doing good. And if you could imagine the garage with tractors and tools and all that is necessary to cultivate 3 1⁄2 acres of grapes. You could eat off the floor. I mean, just like everything in Tom’s life, it was organized and disciplined, and taken care of.
“I’m glad I have that memory because he was having a good day. And we were told by Nancy that not every day is a good day.”
It was a blessing for those Mets, at Shamsky’s urging, to seize that moment. If this global pandemic has taught us anything, we should know by now not to take tomorrow for granted, and Seaver’s passing was yet another reminder of how fast this time goes.
Last year, the Mets celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Miracle Mets only months after Seaver’s family had to formally end his public appearances. The team also changed Citi Field’s address to 41 Seaver Way. -- but again, without The Franchise in attendance. A similar sadness will hang over next year’s unveiling of a Seaver statue. which will arrive beyond the reach of his 75 years.
Those fortunate enough to have shared a clubhouse with Seaver, within range of champagne spray, beamed when talking about those memories. “I will always remember the smile on his face, that boyish look, that clean-cut hair and the quality of the person that he really was,” Ed Kranepool said. “He was a class act. He was a great player and he was just as great a human being off the field.”
There will be more sports heroes for the next generations, but not another Tom Seaver. And that really hit home this week.
“He lived his dream — he made it happen,” Swoboda said. “As a post-player, he wanted to grow fine grapes. And he lived that dream as a vintner in Calistoga. The thing you can’t control is your mortality, and that was the sad thing.”
Still, Seaver packed a lot of W’s into those 75 years, on the mound and off. Hopefully it won’t be too long before a grateful fan base can return to Flushing and show that appreciation.