Here’s the latest from Wednesday and Saturday contributor Joe Guzzardi.
In my August 18 post about Lou Piniella, I wrote that during the 1978 season the tumultuous New York Yankees provided me with more entertaining moments than I ever experienced as a baseball fan.
How could I have forgotten about the 1977 New York Mets?
During the summer of ’77, Mets’ ownership staggered the baseball world when, after a long simmering salary dispute between Tom Seaver and owner M. Donald Grant, it traded its future first ballot Hall of Fame pitcher to the Cincinnati Reds for four low-level prospects: pitcher Pat Zachry, second baseman Doug Flynn and outfielders Steve Henderson and Dan Norman.
The “Midnight Massacre” (as the trades became known) plunged the Mets into their darkest era. The team finished last in 1977 and lost 95 or more games in each of the next three seasons under manager Joe Torre, who would be fired after a 41-62 record in the strike-shortened 1981 season.
During the 1970s, I lived in Manhattan. I wasn’t a Mets fan but like all New Yorkers, I followed every movement, allegation and counter-allegation made by Seaver, Grant, and Grant’s pro-management tout, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young.
Seaver had been pleading with the penurious Grant to spend the necessary money on available free agent players to help lift the Mets into contention.
Further infuriating Mets fans Grant, besides dumping Seaver and his salary off to the Reds, made two other deadline trades involving key players.
Grant ordered general manager Joe McDonald to deal the Mets’ top hitter, Dave Kingman, who had also been involved in rancorous contract negotiations, to the San Diego Padres for Bobby Valentine. In a third trade, McDonald acquired utility man Mike Phillips outfielder from the St. Louis Cardinals for Joel Youngblood.
(Fun fact: In 1982, Youngblood made baseball history by getting a hit in two different cities, for two different teams, against two Hall of Fame pitchers. As a Mets in Chicago, he singled off Ferguson Jenkins. Then, traded by the Mets to the Montreal Expos, Youngblood hopped a plane to Philadelphia in time to pinch hit a single off Steve Carlton.)
To Grant’s dismay, Seaver flourished in his new Cincinnati environment. Over the balance of the 1977 season, he went 14-3 to finish his year at 21-6.
Included among Seaver’s wins was what writers dubbed the “Shootout at Shea,” that pitted “Tom Terrific” against his former teammate and friend, Jerry Koosman.
On Sunday, August 21st, a capacity crowd of 46,265 greeted Seaver with chants of “SEA-VER, SEA-VER!” while the stadium organ played “Hello Dolly, we’re so glad to see back where you belong.”
Seaver, who limited the Mets to six hits while striking out 11 in a 5-1 victory, pitched his best; Koosman (8-16), who volunteered for the thankless assignment, struggled and gave up all five runs before being knocked out in the eighth.
After the game, Seaver said, “I’m glad it’s over, very glad. I’m exhausted physically and mentally. It was no fun out there at all.”
Koosman added: “It’s tough to pitch against a superstar. You know you’ve got to be at your best. I was kind of disappointed when it got out of hand. But let’s face it. Tom Seaver is the best pitcher in baseball.”
For the Mets, the post-trade era was a disaster. Attendance at Shea plummeted and the Mets would not have another winning season until 1984.
But time heals all wounds. Seaver returned to the Mets in 1983 for one season and pitched effectively. By then, even though Seaver had a three-year stint with the Chicago White Sox and a final year with the Boston Red Sox, his best years were behind him.
Seaver retired with a 311-205 record with an ERA of 2.86 and 3,640 strikeouts. He was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1992 with the highest-ever percentage of first place votes for a pitcher.
After his career ended, the Mets retired Seaver’s number 41. In 2008, the Mets invited Seaver to Shea Stadium to throw out the final pitch before the team moved to Citi-Field where he also threw out the Opening Day, 2009 first pitch.
Hank Aaron adds that Seaver was the toughest he ever faced.
That says it all! See a video tribute to Seaver’s career here.
Joe Guzzardi belongs to the Society for American Baseball Research and the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org