In one year Seaver's fastball became explosive. When USC's baseball team scrimmaged the Los Angeles Dodgers, Seaver found himself pitching successfully against major league hitters when only three years before he had been having difficulty retiring high school hitters. Major league teams now began scouting him. He eventually signed with the Milwaukee Braves, who lost him shortly thereafter because of a contract irregularity to the New York Mets.
By now Seaver was as complete a pitcher as was possible for a man his age. He possessed not only superior speed, but stamina, control and self-discipline; unlike most young pitchers he would not have to spend valuable time in the future acquiring them. In fact, he possessed them to such a degree that within two years of his signing he would win 16 games for the 10th-place Mets, be voted to the National League All-Star team (to which he has been selected every year he has been in the majors), be the National League Rookie of the Year and two years later be voted the Cy Young Award as the best pitcher in the league. Today, Seaver is generally acclaimed by baseball professionals as the best pitcher currently in the game. And some now say he is the best ever.
"I appreciate my talent more than most," says Seaver. "I had to put a lot of hard work into it. Some guys never know the gift they have." And because his talent is more conscious creation than gift, because it is his by acquisition, not inheritance, Seaver possesses it, rather than is possessed by it. He has a greater understanding of what it is; of how he acquired it; of how he should retain it; and, most important, of how he should continue to refine it.
On April 21 this year Seaver defeated the Chicago Cubs 2-0 for his second shutout victory in as many starts in a season that was just a week old. His opponent was Burt Hooton, the 22-year-old rookie who had pitched a no-hit, no-run game five days before. Against Seaver, Hooton was impressive. In seven innings, he allowed the Mets six hits and struck out nine with his baffling knuckle curve. He issued three bases on balls. Hooton's performance could best be described as that superior effort which, when produced against Seaver, is just enough to reward its producer with internal satisfaction and a graceful loss. Seaver had been better. He allowed the Cubs four singles while striking out nine. His brilliant performance received less attention than did Hooton's, since it is of the kind one expects from him these days. But it was astonishing when one considers that it had come shortly after Gil Hodges' death, after a prolonged strike during which Seaver was preoccupied as his team's player representative, after a succession of inactive days that had interrupted his accustomed schedule and after an unpleasant spring training during which he experienced the first sore arm of his career. Yet, Seaver's fine performance was not surprising to those who knew the meticulousness with which he had prepared for it.
Two nights before, he had been scheduled to pitch against the Expos in Montreal. The game was rained out, and he was rescheduled to pitch against Hooton and the Cubs on the 21st. When the Mets returned to New York the night of the 19th, most of the players went directly home from LaGuardia Airport. Seaver, however, got a ride on the team bus to Shea Stadium, which was deserted and in darkness. He went directly to the locker room, put on his uniform, filled a bucket with baseballs and began the long walk across the diamond to the right-field bullpen. He moved with his graceless and plodding plowman's walk, his weight falling on his heels and his head listing to his right as if, with each ensuing step, it might collapse upon his shoulder. When Seaver reached the bullpen he stepped onto the warmup mound and began throwing baseball after baseball against the screen behind the plate. His throwing was illuminated only by the lights from the parking lot. He warmed up quickly but carefully in the mild night air. He was accompanied only by the sounds of his own exertion, and of baseballs plunking against the screen and dropping softly to the ground.
He threw with great effort. His speed and curve and control came slowly, and only after much grunting and cursing in the darkness. He threw with a tightly constricted motion that seemed small compared to the loose, spread-out deliveries of pitchers like Gibson and Koufax. Constricted, yet thoroughly planned, for Seaver has worked diligently to cut away "all the excess crap my motion does not need." He has excised no vital parts; his motion is a perfect compromise between flamboyance and deficiency. If it is not so esthetically pleasing as it could be; if it does not approach the grace of those gulls, still, it is mechanically perfect, and it is perfection, not grace, that Seaver seeks, since he long ago decided only this was within his grasp. It is a powerful motion, and there is a point in it when Seaver seems to pause for the barest of seconds before exploding toward the plate. He turns sideways, his left leg raised waist-high and bent, his glove and ball hand cupped close to his chest, his shoulders hunched about his ears. He seems to be withdrawing into himself, to be at that single moment in time and place where he and his talent come as close as they ever can to merging into one. He describes this pause as "that point when I pull myself together, mentally and physically, to put everything I have into the pitch." He needs that moment of intense concentration because—let it be stated once again—neither his delivery nor his pitches are a gift. They do not lie there, polished gems, waiting only to be dusted off for use. They are rough stones that must be painstakingly recut and repolished with every use. And since his success lies not in the overwhelming brilliance of any one gem (he does not have the greatest fastball, the greatest curve ball, the greatest control), but in the proper balance of a host of lesser ones, the recutting must be flawless. The slightest imperfection in one stone destroys the delicate balance of them all in a way that it never would to a more gifted pitcher.
For example, when Seaver pulled the muscles in his legs recently, it affected his performances to a much greater degree than it might another. The sore legs prevented him from running wind sprints, which in turn contributed to a loss of stamina. The result: in a six-week period he failed to finish nine straight games. His weakness in late innings affected his pitching rhythm, resulting in a loss of speed and control.
This brief period of decline frustrated Seaver. "It was like starting spring training all over again," he says. "I was out of shape. But you expect to be out of shape in the spring. When it happens during the season you begin to think about it over dinner. Eventually, I began to wonder if I had lost something. It is always there in the back of your mind when you are not pitching the way you know you can. No matter if you know what the reason is, there is always the fear you might be wrong. God, if it isn't this, if it isn't my legs, what is it!"
But Seaver's crisis was over by mid-June. Once his legs had healed, he reverted to type, completing five of his next six starts and raising his record to 12-5. One of those games, against San Diego, was a one-hitter, the fourth of his big-league career. From Seaver, fans and writers do not expect mere quality, they expect excellence, and therefore much was written about the decline (Seaver was 5-3 in his bad weeks), one which, if experienced by any other pitcher, would hardly have been noticed.
To be a great pitcher, Seaver must be flawless in a way Sandy Koufax never had to be, and it was in the pursuit of perfection that Seaver felt he had to labor that April night in the dark Met bullpen. He threw until he reached the same level of effort and concentration he would have needed against the Expos in Montreal. He continued at this pace for a while and then went home. It was almost 10 p.m. When asked why he put himself through such an inconvenience, he said, "It was my day to throw. I always throw on my day to throw." Two days later, supplied with precisely the edge he both needed and had created, he beat Burt Hooton.