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It’s how it goes sometimes. Wrong place, wrong time, it all sounds so cool on a transistor radio and, then, oh, what looks like confetti on a black-and-white TV. Your team picks you and then you grow old.
So I was the skinny, rag-armed kid at shortstop wearing Bud Harrelson’s No. 3.
If you were a Met I loved you no matter what, and if you were Shea Stadium I loved you anyway and if you were a Yankees fan I felt quite superior for a solid three or four years, leaving only the next half-century.
In spite of my admiration for all things Grote and Swan, all things Weis and wonderful, there was a single poster on my bedroom wall. The guy on that poster was balanced on one leg, glove over his bent left knee, right hand in his glove, head turned to a batter, blue sleeves, blue stirrups, destruction ahead.
Tom Seaver. That was my guy.
Man, it was beautiful, too, not understanding — or caring — about who got how much money or who was fighting with what owner or how many pitches somebody’d thrown. I couldn’t have told you the name of the general manager, much less dragged him with my buddies on the playground. Tom was just a big old guy with a fastball and another pitch that sorta hooked when he threw it. Hardly anybody could hit him, that I knew, and if somebody hit him once he wouldn’t hit him again, ‘cause that first time was just lucky.
If Tom got into any trouble, which was like never, I was there for him. All I’d have to do is watch the game through the mesh on the back of my ball cap, unless things got real bad, and then I’d have to watch through one of the little holes, the eyelet, on that cap, unless things got hopeless, and then I’d leave the room and pout for three days. No 7-year-old should have to watch the great Tom Seaver get squeezed by some bum of an umpire.
When one summer the Mets traded him away I was on an exchange trip to Germany and didn’t know he was gone until I returned. Suddenly Tom Seaver was a Cincinnati Red, as if the Mets knew they couldn’t do it in front of me, like hearing a toilet flush and two days later realizing the goldfish is gone.
Your guy picks you and then you grow old. That’s how it works. And on Wednesday night came the news that Tom Seaver had died, that he’d grown old too, until he was 75.
I sort of wished I could have viewed that through the mesh of that old ball cap, honestly. He always got better when I did that. Found his fastball. Stalked off the mound. Promised to be right back, soon as the Mets put up this five-spot.
He won 311 games. Three Cy Youngs. He went to the Hall of Fame. He became baseball royalty.
More, way more, he was the best player on the only favorite team I’d ever have.
When the Sunday newspaper came with one of those iron-on decals, and this week it was him, and I’d come downstairs with the biggest white T-shirt I could find, thinking that was the one I’d grow out of last, and then stand next to the ironing board in my Toughskins while my mom waited for the iron to — click-click-click — warm. When I’d sit out in the bleachers and there he was, tiny, but there he was, and then everyone around me was just as taken as I was, and it was OK to be a Mets fan. When in the pictures in the paper he was so young and seemed so happy, always caught laughing, like there was nothing to worry about, that he’d be fine, that the Mets would be fine, that I could sleep soundly under his image on the wall.
I don’t know how you’re supposed to replace that in your soul. Fifty years later, he’s what the game looks like for me on its best days. Not because he had a low ERA. Not because he was a great pitcher and one of the best ever. But because there are moments on those best days for baseball, no matter who you are or how long you’ve been watching, no matter how hardened you’ve grown, that you wholly believe in. Mike Trout against a fastball. Max Scherzer on a hot night in late September. Joey Votto at 0-and-2. Mookie Betts getting his legs under him with a man at third base. Fernando Tatis Jr. from the hole.
If Tom Seaver and a bunch of other guys (I could give you all of their names) can win a World Series and steal a 7-year-old’s heart forever, then what else could you believe in?
Just about anything.
Yeah, your team picks you. You grow old with any luck. And then one night you say goodbye. And thanks.
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