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Behind the Fence
Frank Deford
July 27, 1981
Tom Seaver, ever the picture-perfect pitcher, is congenial but maintains a wall against the world
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July 27, 1981

Behind The Fence

Tom Seaver, ever the picture-perfect pitcher, is congenial but maintains a wall against the world

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The athlete's life is such a limited one, and he is, perforce, so typed, that it seems he is forever the same being: a large block number with a person draped around it. For example, most classically there is Pete Rose. Two decades later, on a different team, after many different positions, after triumph and turmoil, a publicized divorce, the deflowering of a flattop and his public cologne-ing, there remains only the singular vision of...Pete Rose. And nothing on God's green earth is going to monkey with that comfortable verity.

Oh, to be sure, everybody grows up some, and for athletes who last we traditionally have ceremonial updatings. These personal invoices usually appear in the regenerative year following an uncommonly bad season. They explain the star's Comeback! So-and-so has a new stance, or a more understanding new (choose one) organization/coach/little woman, or a better conditioning program, or a more congenial partnership with The Almighty, or a tonsillectomy.

But such revelations about an athlete don't indicate any real growth on his part. To the contrary: The proclaimed change is merely a convenient deus ex machina that has gotten him back to precisely where he was, to exactly what we had come to expect of him—hitting .320, winning 20 games, whatever. Goodness gracious, the last thing we want is for our sporting heroes to confuse us with any sort of transmutation—decay, most especially. More accurately, comebacks are go-backs.

What makes those light-beer commercials so dear to us is that the great old players return in the flesh exactly as we so fondly recall them. It is ultimate comeback. Easiest job in the world, 1990: to write the Pete Rose light-beer commercial.

But what will they ever write for Tom Seaver?

You can't freeze him in 30 seconds. He had the temerity—the rudeness—to change as he went along, and when he's gone, for all his records and all his fame, we'll look back and we'll have no idea what was there. Say "Tom Seaver" and, quick, what comes to mind?

Whatever, you probably didn't respond with "fireballer," as you would have with Feller or Koufax or Gibson or Gossage. Yet, of course, that's exactly what he was—still is, in many respects, even at age 36, his low, hard one having wasted away only from 98 mph to 94 or 95. Seaver has all sorts of fireball records—19 strikeouts in a game, 10 in a row, 10 seasons of 200 or more, nine of them in a row, the fifth pitcher to pass 3,000 lifetime and so on—but he's not at all what we think of when we envision a strikeout king. The prototype there is Nolan Ryan, Seaver's old Met teammate, who for all his glorious whiffs can barely win more than he loses. Fireballers are like big-breasted beauties, endowed with one anatomical bounty that too often obscures development elsewhere in the body. However, even at his fastest, Seaver always had the image of a thinking artist rather than a hurler. "There are only three physical elements to a pitch," he says. "Velocity, movement and location—and the least important of these is velocity. Still, pitching is using what you have to work with on any one day. Somebody can say, well, that pitcher's just a thrower because all he used was 100-mph fastballs. But that can be pitching too if that's what you happen to have best on that particular day."

And as Seaver is a strikeout king who wasn't supposed to be, so is he a Californian who prefers the East...and now works in the Midwest, where he might as well be an alien in on a green card, so inexplicable is he to the good burghers of Cincinnati. And as businesslike as he may be, there was a moment years ago when he permitted himself to be the official Cinderella Kid, because he understood that his Mets of 1969 were more of a mystical experience than anything else, and he was best suited to assume the lead in the fantasy.

As ever, once Seaver made up his mind, he played it to the hilt. He worked Vegas after the World Series. And he was the first Cinderella ever to be so solicitous as to let his spouse ride shotgun on the pumpkin. Her name is Nancy, but so often did the words "Tom's lovely wife" precede her name that the phrase seemed to be part of her moniker, too. He even allowed an ad to be placed in the business pages of The New York Times that offered him and his lovely wife Nancy "for those situations that call for young Mrs. America or husband and wife sales appeal." Among other things, they did play-by-play on a Turkey Day parade.

But when that fancy had run its course, Seaver resumed his natural posture and never really let the public get a piece of him again. For that matter, even then, even when it was Tom Terrific and the Amazin' Mets, when Tom and his lovely wife Nancy owned the world, there was still a certain distance and preoccupation evident. She says:

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