Tom Seaver pitches baseballs very thoughtfully, very methodically, icily detaching himself from the world around him, straining his mind as well as his body. So early this season when his game was surprisingly poor—he lost two games and was yanked from two others—the New York Mets’ cerebral superstar approached his problem in typically analytic fashion.
“I know the psychologists could have a lot of fun with this,” he says, “but when I’m pitching well, it’s just like I’m in a shell, where I am in control of everything and keep things as constant as I can no matter who’s hitting. When I started so badly I thought about what could be wrong. I knew I couldn’t be tired, since I had had the whole winter to rest. I knew I wasn’t getting old, because I’m only 29 and I’ve always taken care of my arm. So I knew it had to be something mechanical and that it was only a matter of time before I figured out what it was.”
While he did so, opposing hitters smacked away at just about everything Seaver threw. But by studying films the determined pitcher finally isolated the problem—not getting enough leverage from his legs—and in his fifth game he shut out the San Francisco Giants, one of the National League’s toughest-hitting teams.
Seaver, of course, recognizes that one shutout does not a 20-win summer make. But he adds, “This was more than just one game. It restored my confidence in my own judgment, and my ability to evaluate myself.” Even his opponents begrudgingly applauded his apparent turnaround. “When Seaver is going right,” said Giant pitching coach Don McMahon, “he throws his fast ball past our hitters up around the letters—like last night. When he’s on his game, who’s better?”
A lot of people would say nobody is better. Seaver is now in his eighth major-league season, no longer the shiny-faced cherub whose arrival in New York coincided with the eccentric Mets’ world championship. His win over the Giants was the 136th of his career (against 78 losses), and since Seaver joined the Mets, he has won the Cy Young Award as the league’s best pitcher twice, in 1969 and 1973.
All that success and playing for a home team in the most media-saturated city in the U.S. have brought Seaver an abundance of two things: money and attention. His 1974 contract with the Mets calls for $172,000, the most ever earned by any pitcher in a single season. And thanks partly to his cheerful and photogenic wife Nancy, the Seavers have appeared in a number of highly lucrative ads and commercials. For a long time, in fact, the most critical thing anyone had ever said publicly about Seaver was when Nancy turned to him in carefully scripted irritation after he had lectured her during a gasoline commercial. “Oh, Tom,” she wailed, “you take all the fun out of shopping.”
Those do-no-wrong days are over for Seaver. A few years ago Met fans would accept occasional ineptitude on his part. This April they began to boo. And New York sportswriters wondered if he were all washed up.
Seaver took much of the criticism with wry humor. When one writer asked him if he had lost his fast ball, Seaver began to rummage in his locker muttering, “Where are you, fast ball? Are you in there somewhere?” More often he just explained that he was feeling frustrated, not desperate.
“I learned a long time ago to not be affected emotionally by what people write about me,” he says. “If I need help I can get advice from the players and coaches. When I make a mistake and beat myself with a bad pitch, then I get kicking mad and go after stools and water buckets. But except for checking to see if there are any quotes from opposing players that might be helpful to me, I’ve stopped reading newspaper stories about games I pitch.”
Seaver stops and smiles at himself. “Well, that’s not quite true,” he says. “I’ve stopped reading stories about the games I lose.
“As for the fans booing, I’ve been booed before and I’ll be booed again,” he says. “What’s important is my own ability to control my emotions so I am not dependent on anything external, only myself.
“I’m a perfectionist,” he adds somewhat needlessly. “I want to be as consistent as possible, to hold the other team to less than three runs every time I pitch. Then I’m doing my job.
“When I’m home, as soon as I sit down, my daughter [Sarah, 3] climbs up in my lap. I see her evaluating me as good or bad and that makes me have much more belief in my feeling that you should lead your own life and do what you want to.”
Seaver’s self-confidence-cum-arrogance is as much a part of his pitching repertoire as his fast ball or slider, and his painful start this season seems only to have shaken it briefly, without leaving any noticeable scars. Even before the “comeback” win over the Giants, he was still enlivening damp locker rooms with his cackling laugh. “Of course he was concerned,” says his longtime road roommate Bud Harrelson, “but it’s not getting him down. We’ve all had trouble, but if you keep worrying, nothing gets better. He’s a professional, and he works things out.”
That may be another way of expressing a theory Seaver illustrated at breakfast in a hotel dining room recently. Surveying a buffet table that contained a row of tiny little juice glasses, Seaver paused only briefly, then took three of the glasses and poured orange juice into all of them.
“There is always,” said Tom Seaver, having his fill of orange juice and smiling, “a way to beat the system.”