Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Real Tom Seaver Fanatic

The other day I wrote about Tom Seaver salvaging at least a bit of enjoyment from a horrible drive from Montana to Pennsylvania. About six weeks earlier, I had another Seaver experience that also turned out pretty horribly.

A lifelong Reds fan, I also became a fan of the Mets in their first year of existence. When Seaver arrived on the Shea scene in 1967, naturally he became my favorite Met and my favorite pitcher (supplanting Jim Maloney of the Reds). Just as with my favorite hitter (Pete Rose), I got in the habit of carrying around Seaver's career statistics in my head. It wasn't that tough to do, just a half-dozen key numbers which I could update after each start and extrapolate into possible career totals (Seaver reached the statistical goals I projected for him, while Rose persisted long enough to exceed my boldest estimates).

I thought that made me a fanatical Seaver fanatic, but I met my match in Missoula in an English department colleague named Stanley (name changed to protect his guilt, since he's still there) who was a New York native. He obsessed about Seaver, and though he was too numbers-phobic to keep running statistical totals in his head like I did, the first thing he'd ask me after a Seaver start was "what's his ERA now?" He didn't mean his ERA for the season. He meant his career ERA. That impressed me.

Fortunately I kept that figure handy. Seaver was about 375 starts into his career (nearly 60% of his final total) and his ERA was still in the vicinity of 2.70, so the answer to Stanley's question was always satisfying. Even a bad start wasn't going to put much of a dent in that excellent stat. It would take several over-the-hill rough seasons to raise his ERA to its final figure of 2.86. All that one bad start could do would be to ruin Stanley's day, as I discovered on May 1, 1978.

I was a single slob living in the basement of a house in Missoula, and I didn't do much entertaining. Stanley and his wife had just had their first child and weren't very mobile either. But May 1 seemed like the perfect excuse to invite Stanley and family over for dinner. That night, the big "Monday Night Baseball" game would be telecast from Cincinnati, with Seaver facing the Phillies and his rival as the best pitcher in the National League, Steve Carlton.

My father used to be a chef so he taught me a few things about cooking. I don't have a wide repertoire, but there are a few things I make very well. In 1978, my standard dinner for company was chicken and peppers--chicken sauteed with green bell peppers, onions, tomatoes, and wine, simmered for a couple of hours, and served over saffron rice. It's still my favorite dish to cook, and still good every time. It tasted especially good that night, shared with friends and with the Seaver-Carlton matchup as dessert.

Stanley, joined by wife and baby, arrived in plenty of time to enjoy the dinner before the game started. Fully satisfied, we relaxed in front of the television for what loomed as a terrific pitching duel between the only National Leaguers to strike out 19 batters in a game. The Phillies were up first. Bake McBride led off with a single and promptly stole second. Stanley and I frowned at each other, but Seaver eased our worries by striking out Larry Bowa and Mike Schmidt. He almost fanned Greg Luzinski, too, but wound up walking him. No problem. Or so we thought.

Richie Hebner singled, scoring McBride. Garry Maddox singled, scoring Luzinski. Stanley and I yelped in dismay as Luzinski lumbered across the plate. You didn't want to spot Carlton two early runs in those days. Working too carefully, Seaver walked Tim McCarver to load the bases. Stanley's wife looked worried. But rookie Jim Morrison was up, with all of 13 at-bats in his career, and surely Seaver would mow him down. No. He walked him, too, forcing in the third run of the inning. Stanley looked ill.

Now Carlton came up, and Seaver could limit the carnage to three ugly runs. Or so we thought. I can still see Carlton's sharp grounder finding the hole between first and second, rolling into right field on the Riverfront Stadium's damn carpet, with Hebner and McCarver racing home to make the score 5-0.

"Excuse me," said Stanley, getting up quickly and darting into the bathroom. As Seaver finally got the third out of the inning, Stanley's wife and I listened to him puking up dinner. The entire dinner, from the awful sounds. Pete Rose had already grounded out to start the bottom of the first inning when Stanley emerged, looking quite pale and gazing at me through a despondent haze. "I'm sorry," he muttered. "We have to go."

His wife gathered up the baby, and away they went. Stanley had somehow matched Seaver's dismal performance. He lasted only a half-inning, while Tom was gone after two innings of a 12-1 shellacking. I don't remember whether I watched the whole game, but I do know that dinner still tasted great, and I was grateful that I wasn't so devoted to Seaver (or anybody else) that it would literally make me sick to watch him fail.

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