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"After I won 25 games in 1969," he says, "I got caught up in a lot of publicity. People who had never met me were making judgments about me, and things were happening that I had no control over. Then I had this fabulous realization—at least it was fabulous for me—that I had to cut this stuff out of my life. I had to return to myself, to what was most important to me, to be the best pitcher I could. Now, I don't care about publicity. I don't worry about what people say. I can relax and be what I am. And what I am, basically, is a dull guy. No one interviews me much anymore. Even my success is kind of dull, at least to everyone outside of myself. But to me it is fascinating.
"I used to think you could reach a point with success where it would become a bore. Too routine. But now I know that just as I'm refining my pitching, I'm refining the pleasure I get from it. A victory used to give me pleasure, and then a well-pitched inning, and now I get great satisfaction from just one or two pitches a game. I get in a situation where I have to apply everything I know, mentally and physically, on just one pitch. It all comes down to this pitch. I have to think what I should do and then make my body do it. That is a beautiful point to reach for an athlete. A light goes on in your head and you realize that everything you've done in your life has been for this moment. Things you've been building for years, things you never knew you were building, are right there to be used. Suddenly, you're the most confident person in the world. You sense you can achieve perfection for just this moment. That moment is a thrill for me. It's not a jubilant type of thrill, but a great satisfaction in knowing that for one specific moment I can achieve perfection in something I've devoted my life to."
Seaver has reached this stage in his development as an athlete (a point few men ever reach) because as a youth he was blessed with only modest size and ability. He says of himself then, "I was small and didn't throw very hard. In my senior year of high school I won six games and lost five. I've never been the star of any team. Even at USC I had to work hard just to be a starter. Pitching has always been hard work for me. I never had anything handed to me. At 14 I was already aware of my physical limitations. I had to adjust. This appeared to be a burden then, but obviously it has helped."
Pitching became for Seaver, at that very early age, not only a physical activity but a mental one. He was forced by the limits of his talent to become conscious of those aspects of his craft which, although secondary to sheer ability, were at least within his power to cultivate. He discovered, for instance, that hitters fed off pitchers' mistakes. So he would try to make no mistakes. If he could not throw his fastball past hitters, he could at least throw it in a spot where they could not hit it solidly. If he could not strike out hitters, he could at least refuse to walk them. "Walking hitters bothered me even then," he says. "It was so—free."
Seaver learned that the control and quality of his pitches were directly related to his pitching motion. He became conscious of his delivery—not as a stylized routine that could hide his deficiencies and assuage the demands of his ego—but as something that could be cultivated, created even, in a way that would increase his skills. He began to listen when anyone talked about pitching. And if the comments made no sense, he still retained them for a moment in the future when they might make sense and he could use them.
Seaver learned back then how it felt to be shelled in one inning and have to walk out to the mound to begin the next. "You want to quit," he says. "You feel it's all so hopeless. You have to force yourself to forget and start over as if it never happened. Some guys can't do that. They are always fighting things beyond their control."
Such experiences helped Seaver develop an outlook in his youth that has become the cornerstone of his philosophy of pitching and (if Tom Seaver could ever admit to having something so grandiose—and he couldn't) his philosophy of life as well.
"I decided to let my talent dictate what I was on a given day," he says. "I learned to adjust to it, to its limits, to what it told me about myself. I couldn't do more than I was physically or mentally capable of. If I tried to throw harder than I could, the ball went slower than it normally would. I couldn't fabricate conclusions in my mind about how to pitch to a batter if my mind wasn't ready for them. I couldn't force things. Sometimes in a game I'll concentrate so hard on my motion, trying to get it right, that I have nothing left for the batter. Then I let the catcher call my pitches. I surrender that mental load. It is one less thing I have to worry about. When I get my motion organized I'll take the load back. But if I tried to perfect everything at once, I'd end up perfecting nothing."
The qualities Seaver honed as a youth are precisely those any athlete must have if he is to excel. However, the pattern through which he acquired them was the reverse of that which most ballplayers follow. The first discovery a young athlete often makes is that he has natural ability—to hit, run or throw—which allows him to glide with little effort or thought to a point where that talent, alone, is no longer enough. Faced with fading success, he then must begin cultivating the control and discipline which his early explosion of raw talent had made unnecessary. Sandy Koufax is an example of such an athlete. He reached the major leagues on the strength of his extraordinary left arm, and then struggled for six years to develop the qualities (control and expertise) that his arm had made unnecessary earlier. Only when he acquired them at the age of 25 did he become a great pitcher. Because of the absence of any such raw talent, Tom Seaver was forced to start developing those same qualities at 14.
When Seaver graduated from high school he received no professional offers and so he enlisted in the Marine Corps. When he finished his military service and enrolled at USC two years later, his body had matured, and his fastball with it. The Dodgers offered him a $2,000 bonus, which he declined in favor of college baseball. About this time he began training with small weights on the advice of a friend, Jerry Merz, who told him the added strength would help prevent a sore arm and give his fastball more speed. "I knew a lot of people in the sport felt weight lifting hurt pitchers," says Seaver, "but it seemed logical that it would help me then, and it still does, so I did it."