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12 June, 2011

The Year of (24) Years Ago: Catching Tom Seaver

   by Gus Ramsey

(note: This week marks the anniversary of the official end of Tom Seaver's career. I decided to break from my 25 years ago concept because I didn't want to wait another whole year to write this post.)

   Tom Seaver. John Elway. Julius Erving. Those are my sports idols. Those are the three guys I grew up adoring; oohing, aahing and genuflecting over every athletic maneuver they made. Seaver was first. Baseball was the sport that first captured my attention. In 1973, when I was 6, my friend's grandfather was a minority owner of the Mets, so we went to a lot games. One day, my friend and I went to a game in our Mets "uniforms" and had our picture taken with a bunch of the players and their manager, the one and only, Yogi Berra. It was first class all the way, so my love of the Mets was deep at a very early age. Seaver, of course, was the primary object of that love. He was The Franchise, everyone's favorite player. When the Mets traded him in 1977, it broke my heart. I was 10. There was no Internet, no Baseball Tonight, no talk radio, hence, no warning signs that this was coming. At least in today's world even neophyte Mets fans have an inkling that their favorite players may soon be gone. When news of the Seaver trade broke, it hurt more than any pain I had experienced. When he returned to the team in '83, it was a joy unlike any I had experienced. And I was a 16 year old boy. That's a lot of joy! And then, the following season, poof!, he was gone again. Off to the White Sox for two seasons and his 300th victory.
It was easier that time because he was getting older and I was older. I understood the dreaded "business side of baseball" much better. We avoided the emotionally apocalyptic Seaver vs The Mets World Series in '86 when Tom injured his knee and was unable to pitch for Boston. He retired at the end of that season. 311 wins and a ticket punched for Cooperstown.

   In May of 1987 I was 20 years old. I was home from college, working during the day and hanging out with friends at night. The typical college kid summer. Well, except for the part where Tom Seaver was coming to my house once a week. During his time with the Mets in the '70s, Seaver lived right down the road from us. He would would stay in shape during the off-season by playing hoops with his buddies,  and some of the faculty members, at the school where my dad taught. My dad was the athletic director, so Seaver would always have to go through my dad to get into the gym.
   Jump back to '87. My dad is into baseball memorabilia. He reaches out to Seaver about doing a deal where my dad advertises access to Seaver, people mail in items for Seaver to sign, Seaver comes to the house and signs them, they split the money. So once a week Seaver is coming over to sit down for an hour or so and sign all the stuff that has been sent in.
   In 1987 the Mets pitching staff was a mess. Doc Gooden began the year in rehab. Bob Ojeda was lost for the season. Sid Fernandez was erratic. So the Mets picked up the phone and called Tom Seaver. They wanted to know how his knee was and if he was interested in pitching for them. As I would soon learn, he was interested.
   One day in May, I had just made it home from work when Seaver walked in the house with a baseball glove in his hand.
  "Hmmmm. What's up with that?" I wondered.
   Tom didn't waste any time. He said to my father the words I will never forget, "The Mets called. They want me to try to come back. I need someone to throw to. Can you catch me?"
   My dad was 55 at the time and probably still capable of handling Tom's stuff, but my dad has always been one to put others, especially his kids, first. "That may not be a good idea. How about Gus?"
   Tom looked at me, "How about it?"
  "Gee, Tom, I'm not sure. Let me check my very busy 20-year-old-kid-home-from-college schedule." Well, that's what I wanted to say. It came out either "hghkadfbkanfafnlph" or "uhhhhhhh, OK, yes, sure, um, now? like right now? I'm ready. I'm ready!"
   Tom said he wanted to sign the memorabilia first and then would be ready to go. That was good because it gave me time to do three things. 1) regain consciousness 2) find my first baseman's glove, which was the closest thing to a catchers glove I had. 3) call my friend, Bill, and say "In about 30 minutes I'm going to be catching Tom Seaver in my front yard. Feel free to come over."
  I think Bill pulled into the driveway before I hung up the phone.

  I'm standing in my front yard, playing soft toss with Tom Seaver. After a few minutes, Tom paces off 60 feet 6 inches, marks where the rubber would be and gets ready. I take a towel and make a home plate out of it. As I lower into my squat I am more nervous than at any point in my life. I've played in high school hoops championship games. I've done some public speaking in front of large crowds. I've taken my drivers test. I've lost my virginity. But nope, never more nervous than right now. I'm about to catch the person I grew up idolizing. Surreal doesn't begin to describe it. Tom starts firing fastballs in my direction with his classic "drop and drive" delivery. The sound is unmistakeable, "pssssst-POP, pssssst-POP!"
   24 years later the dichotomy of the moment is not lost on me. With each pitch, 20 year old me is thinking "I'm catching Tom Seaver! I'm catching Tom Seaver!" 60 feet, 6 inches away the 41-year old legend is thinking, well, I'm not sure what he's thinking but it wasn't "I'm pitching to Gus Ramsey! I'm pitching to Gus Ramsey!"
   I do know this, Tom is giving my father a dissertation on pitching. My dad is standing right next to him and Seaver is going through all the finer points of his delivery; what he's looking to accomplish, what his mental approach is, showing him his grips. The moment is as great for my dad as it is for me. "He spoke about dividing the strike zone into quadrants, " my dad recently recalled. "and how he knew from experience which quadrant was best to pitch to based on his knowledge of the hitter."
   "I'm going to throw some sliders now," Seaver says to me.
   "OK.... what does that mean?" I ask.
   "The ball will break from your left to your right," Seaver says matter of factly. And so it did. The pitch would come in directly at my left knee and I would catch it in front of my right ankle. If Tom had not told me what the pitch was going to do, he would have broke every toe on my right foot because there is no way I would have reacted in time to catch it.

   Bill is standing off to the side. He's taking it all in. He's trying hard not to interfere.
  "Hey Tom, how about if Bill stands in here like a batter and gives you a strike zone?" I ask.
   Tom takes a second to towel off his face and waves Bill in. After a few more fastballs, Tom starts to throw his lollipop curve ball. He had begun throwing it with the Red Sox. It was a big, looping pitch that was probably no harder than 65 miles per hour.
   After a few of them, Bill pipes up, "I think I could hit that pitch."
   Tom pauses, looks up from his thoughts and says, "Really? OK. You dig in and look for that pitch."
   Tom rocks back and fires a fastball. For Bill, it either seemed like 110 mph or it was moving in slow motion. Either way, it was coming in the general vicinity of his head. I jumped and reached for the ball but couldn't grab it. It was a good 15 feet behind or over Bill's head. As I ran off chasing the ball, laughing all the way, Bill took time to consider the 18 years of his life that had just passed before his eyes.

  Shortly there after Tom proclaimed himself good and we were done. The palm on my left hand looked like I had held it against a stove top for 20 minutes, but I wasn't feeling anything but giddy.
 "Do you think you'll be free to do this a few more times?" Tom asked me.
  Of course I was. The next three sessions were at Tom's house. Among the highlights: seeing his 3 Cy Young awards hanging in his office and him getting mad that Frank Taveras, not Bud Harrelson, was the shortstop on my all-time Mets Microleague team. That summer I was playing Bill in a 162-game season against his all-time Red Sox team on his computer baseball game, and I had told Tom that my starting lineup did not include Harrelson.
 "It's an offensive game, Tom. It doesn't take defense into consideration. Taveras hit .279 in '80," I explained.
 "Doesn't matter. Harrelson has to be your shortstop. Change it."
 "But Tom, I..."
 "Change it," he demanded.
  I changed it.

   Even though Tom wanted to keep our throwing sessions under wraps, I couldn't help but tell a few friends. (Can you imagine if Twitter was around back then??!) So, after a few meetings, a friend asked,  "How's he throwing?"
   "Well," I said with all sincerity, "He's the best I've ever caught."
   On June first, the story broke. The back page of the Daily News blared, "Mets Give Tom the Call!" I read the article breathlessly, wondering if Tom would mention the outstanding job a young Gus Ramsey was doing in helping him get ready for his triumphant return. Nope. Oh, well. That's OK. My reward is the experience.
  During our first session, my mom had been smart enough to take out her camera and snap some pictures of me catching Tom. I took that photo, and a full page picture of Tom from one of my Mets yearbooks, had him sign both and framed them together. "To Gus-  hope I didn't hurt your hand. Tom Seaver" is what he wrote.
  Eventually Tom started going into Shea Stadium and throwing there, in front of the Mets brass. They sent him to Port St. Lucie to pitch a simulated game. As a Mets fan I was emotionally and personally invested in this, so when news came that a less-than-accomplished backup catcher, Barry Lyons,  had gone 6-for-6 off Tom and the comeback was over, it stung. The June 22nd edition of the Daily News had a picture of Seaver walking away from the cameras, team jacket over his shoulder, with a caption of "It's over!"
  The next summer, Tom was nice enough to send me two tickets for Tom Seaver Day at Shea Stadium.
I've had the good fortune of running into him over the years, including a handful of times in Cooperstown when I was up there for the annual inductions. Even though Tom always called Jerry Grote "his catcher," I like to think that I was his first choice for Grote's backup.

  One other side note to the aftermath; that year for Christmas my father gave me the jersey Tom wore in his simulated game, which Tom's agent had given to my dad. I put pictures of it at the bottom of this post.

   Recently, on SNY's Mets Weekly, Seaver gave an interview and was asked "other than the World Series, what was your favorite moment of your career?"You can see it here at the 1:15 mark.
   His answer caught me off guard but when thinking about it, it made perfect sense. Seaver always referred to the pitcher's mound as his "office." When he attempted to make his comeback, he was working. My small part in it was a dream come true. A bizarro reality moment that I could never have imagined. For him, it was a step in trying to get back on that mound, the beginning of the process of trying to get back to work in his office. He took great pride in the time and effort it required to accomplish all that he had, to build a Hall of Fame career. So it doesn't surprise me now that he buzzed Bill's tower a bit when Bill proclaimed he could hit Tom's curveball. Pride. It doesn't surprise me that he fought for "his shortstop", the guy who had made countless plays behind him, to be the shortstop in some silly computer game. Pride. And it doesn't surprise me that he looks back at win #301, a complete game effort, and tears up.  Pride.  It's a powerful emotion.
   24 years later, I look at the experience and am still amazed that the baseball gods altered the stars in a way that resulted in Tom Seaver pitching to ME in my front yard. While my amazement of that occurrence never wanes, my appreciation of it grows by the day.

the tag on the jersey which shows the year/
the number of times issued/the jersey number

Me, Tom and my dad in front of
Tom's plaque in Cooperstown in 2007

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