Can you imagine how many World Series the Phillies would have won if they had Tom Seaver pitching alongside Steve Carlton in the ‘70s?
It almost happened.
Seaver, the Mets’ Hall of Famer who passed away on Monday at the age of 75, was a pitcher for the University of Southern California back in 1965 when he was drafted by the Atlanta Braves.
In January of ’66, Seaver signed what amounted to a $40,000 contract (plus an additional $11,500 to complete his college education).
But hold on.
Apparently the Trojans had already officially started their baseball season when Seaver signed the deal and MLB voided the agreement.
As it turns out, even though the contract was invalidated, Seaver was declared ineligible by the NCAA and couldn’t return to the USC program.
So when Seaver’s father, Charles, threatened legal action, baseball commissioner William Eckert sought a fair solution.
He resolved the issue by creating a lottery in which any teams willing to match the Braves’ offer could participate for Seaver’s services.
Only three teams – the Mets, the Indians and, you guessed it, the Phillies – raised their hands.
But, alas, for Phillies fans it was not to be. When Eckert pulled a piece of paper out of a hat, it had “Mets’’ written on it.
All Seaver went on to do was win three Cy Young Awards, 311 games and a World Championship with the Miracle Mets in 1969.
And there were other impressive achievements, like setting the all-time record with nine consecutive 200-strikeout seasons, 10 straight strikeouts in one game, and a 1.76 ERA in 1971 (when he lost a fourth possible Cy Young to future Hall of Famer Ferguson Jenkins).
Of course, Seaver and Carlton went on to have some dandy head-to-head battles.
I was at Shea Stadium the afternoon of April 6, 1973 for the Mets’ home opener against the Phillies. Carlton was coming off his brilliant 27-win campaign in 1972 and Seaver had won 21 games that year as well.
The opening lineup that day for the Phillies: 1. Larry Bowa, ss; 2 Cesar Tovar, 2b; 3. Willie Montanez, rf; 4. Tommy Hutton, 1b; 5. Greg Luzinski, lf; 6. Del Unser, cf; 7. Mike Ryan, c; 8. Denny Doyle, 2b; 9. Steve Carlton, p.
Playing centerfield for the Mets that day? Some guy named Mays (a bit past his prime).
Weather-wise, it was a glorious day, a cloudless sky with the flags blowing in the breeze and a full house showing its appreciation on nearly every play.
Both pitchers were at the peak of their powers. Unfortunately for the Phillies, New York’s Cleon Jones took Lefty deep twice and the Mets went on to a 3-0 win. And that most exquisite of relievers, Tug McGraw (who won World Series with both the Mets and Phillies) came in to get the final four outs for the Amazin’s.
To those fans of that particular generation, pitchers like Seaver and Carlton were like gods. It was a golden era, with flamethrowers such as Bob Gibson, Jim Palmer and Jenkins creating masterpieces seemingly every other night when baseball was king.
I had the good fortune to cover the World Series between the Mets and Oakland A’s later that year. After a Seaver-pitched game, there was a brief opportunity to ask a question or two of No. 41 in the Mets’ locker room and to say a young writer was a bit star-struck and tongue-tied at the same time would be putting it mildly.
Seaver exhibited class and performed like an artist on a stage, both during his career and after.
He could have won 400 games but if he couldn’t be the gentleman he was, you would not be hearing such an outpouring of grief and admiration right now.
For some, a little bit of the summer of our youth sadly has left us.
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