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Prospect Retrospective: Tom Seaver

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Before he was “The Franchise”, he was a gangly kid from Fresno.

Tom Seaver
Jacksonville Jumbo Shrimp

Born on November 17, 1944 in Fresno, CA, George Thomas Seaver grew up in an athletic household. His father, Charles Seaver, was a skilled golfer who competed in the Walker Cup in his youth and at one point held the Southern California Amateur, the Northern California Amateur and the State Amateur championships, a feat only him, Johnny Miller and Tiger Woods have accomplished. He passed on not only his athletic gifts to his son, but his passion for sports and his drive to succeed as well. At the age of 9, Seaver joined Fresno Little League, and by the time he was ready to begin high school, he had a cumulative .540 batting average with 10 home runs and a perfect game under his belt.

When Tom Seaver tried out for the Fresno High School baseball team, he was far from an impressive specimen. A better basketball player than baseball player, he did not make the team until his senior year because, in his own words, he was a “5’9”, 165-pound junkballer.” In order to compensate for his lack of explosive stuff, the young right-hander developed impeccable control and learned how to maximize what he did have. According to Dick Selma, who coincidentally was a teammate of Seaver’s at Fresno High and later on with the Mets, “Even…in high school, Tom was a thinking pitcher. He knew how to set up a hitter by working the corners of the plate and the batter would usually pop the ball… for an easy out.”

After graduating from Fresno High in 1963, Seaver was interested in attending the University of Southern California but knew the school was out of reach- especially with his meager baseball skills. After spending the next six months drilling with the U.S. Marines at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms as a member of the United States Marine Corps Reserve, Seaver enrolled at Fresno City College. Having spent months working part time with his father, who was an executive at the Bonner Packing Company and regularly drilling with the U.S. Marines, the Tom Seaver that tried out for the Fresno City College Rams was a very different player who pitched on the diamond at Fresno High. He had continued physically developing and his once meager fastball was now a solid 90 MPH pitch, as he had put on thirty pounds or so of muscle. The scouts who hadn’t been particularly interested in him as a high school senior now watched his every start, and by the time the season came to an end- a season in which he was named 1964 Fresno City College MVP- he had a scholarship offer from USC.

Rod Dedeaux, the coach at USC, approached Seaver and informed him of his willingness to give the young right-hander one of the few scholarships, but only if he played for the Alaska Goldpanners, a high-level collegiate baseball team known for their famous Midnight Sun Game, that summer. Needing the scholarship to cover the high tuition of USC- a whopping $1,200- but to also fulfill his personal desire to be more than a “walk on,” the right-hander agreed to Dedeaux’ preposition. Pitching mainly in relief, Seaver posted a 4.27 ERA in 58.2 innings, allowing 53 hits, walking 34, and striking out 70. When the season ended, Red Boucher, manager of the Goldpanners told Rod Dedeaux that Seaver would be his best young pitcher. “We had a lot of players who could throw the ball harder than Tom. His fastball moved well, but he was no Sandy Koufax. His curve and slider were not much better than average by college standards. His greatest asset was his tremendous will to win. And he had this super concentration. He believed he could put the ball right through the bat if he wanted to.” True to his word, Dedeaux gave Seaver the scholarship he promised.

A pre-dental student, Seaver was initially penciled in as the Trojan’s number three starting pitcher in 1965 but he quickly established himself as their best, posting a 2.47 ERA in 100 innings with 100 strikeouts. According to the Los Angeles scout Tommy Lasorda, Seaver had a well above-average fastball with life, an above-average slider, a sturdy pitching frame, good mechanics, and a desire to pitch and win. The Dodgers, his hometown team, selected the right-hander in the 10th round of the 1965 Major League Baseball, the 193rd player drafted overall, but failed to sign him after they refused to meet Seaver’s demand of a $70,000 signing bonus. Los Angeles initially offered $2,000, went as high as $3,000, but refused to budge any higher. When negotiations broke down, Tommy Lasorda told Seaver, “Good luck in your dental career,” perhaps genuinely believing that Seaver would not go very far as a professional or perhaps out of the malice that comes with being spurned by someone you dearly want and covet.

Seaver returned to Alaska for a second go-around with the Goldpanners that summer, bolstering an already impressive rotation that included Andy Messersmith, Al Schmelz, Danny Frisella. No longer an unknown, but rather, the marquee attraction in some instances, Seaver posted a 1.95 ERA in 45.2, allowing 36 hits, walking 21, and striking out 51. He had continued physically maturing, mentally maturing, and improving as a player, and by the time the summer season ended, had become a highly touted pitching prospect. “Kid, you got a great future ahead of you. You’re going to be a big league pitcher,” Bobby Boyd told him after facing the right-hander.

Rather than pass the next couple of months until the baseball season to begin and the 1966 MLB Draft arrived, Seaver decided to enter the 1966 MLB January Draft-Secondary Phase. “It may have seemed like a knife in Rod’s back, but I was 21 years old and it was time for me to go do something. I wasn’t going to pass the opportunity up,” Seaver said of the decision. The Atlanta Braves selected him in the 1st round, the 20th player selected overall. While the Dodgers had been his hometown team, the Atlanta Braves were Seaver’s favorite team growing up. “I loved their uniforms, and I loved their hitters…Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock.” The Braves offered him a $51,500 signing bonus and the right-hander signed on the dot, making him the newest Atlanta Brave.

Seaver would never suit up for the Braves or ever throw a professional inning with them. Shortly thereafter, Baseball Commissioner William Eckert voided the contract, citing the fact that the Trojans had played a pair of exhibition games and as such, the USC season had technically begun. In an act of betrayal, perhaps in payback for the fact that Seaver had sought to be drafted, it was USC head coach Rod Dedeaux himself that had informed Major League Baseball that the Trojans had played games and that Seaver was technically ineligible to be drafted.

Resigned to the fact that he had lost the opportunity, Seaver resolved to finish the season with USC and enter in the 1966 MLB Draft. Because he had signed a professional contract, the NCAA declared the right-hander ineligible to compete. “So now to the professionals I’m an amateur and to the amateurs I’m a pro. I’m stuck. My dad got in the middle of it. There was going to be some legal action somewhere because I wasn’t going to be thrown in the street. I lost my scholarship and everything,” Seaver said of the debacle.

An amicable agreement was reached by the Office of the Commissioner of Baseball: if other teams were willing to matched Atlanta’s offer of $51,500, they could participate in a lottery for Seaver’s services. The Cleveland Indians, Philadelphia Phillies, and New York Mets all made claims and the Mets were selected literally out of a hat. “I was glad to have the opportunity to play and get a payday out of it. I wasn’t disappointed, but I wasn’t ecstatic because I didn’t know anything about the Mets,” Seaver said. I’m 3,000 miles away from them. Talking to my dad, he said this was probably my best vehicle to get to the big leagues. So I went off to Jacksonville, Florida…”

Instead of pitching for the Trojans in 1966, a team that ended in third place in the College World Series, losing to eventual winner Ohio State 1-0 in the semifinals, the 21-year-old Seaver was assigned to the Jacksonville Suns, the Mets’ Triple-A affiliate that season.

The Suns went 68-79 that year, but it quickly became apparent to anybody at Samuel W. Wolfson Baseball Park that Seaver would not spend much time in the minor leagues. On a team where all but three players either already had MLB service time or would in the years to come, Tom Seaver was head-and-shoulders above everybody else. Starting 32 games and appearing in 34 in total, the right-hander posted a 3.13 ERA in 210.0 innings, allowing 184 hits, walking 66, and striking out 188. He wasn’t half-bad at the plate either, hitting .254/.338/.324 in 82 plate appearances- even decades later, he would recall his first professional home run, a solo shot off of Buffalo Bisons right-hander John Tsitouris.

According to manager Solly Hemus, Seaver was “the best pitching prospect in the minor leagues. Wonder Boy reminds me of Robin Roberts the way he throws, only he’s faster than Roberts. He knows what he’s doing and has great poise. If he’s not injured, he’s going to be one of the big stars of the game.” Normally, a comparison to a Hall of Famer (Roberts would be inducted into Cooperstown in 1976) would be excessive, but in George Thomas Seaver’s case, the comparison would actually sell him short, as Tom Seaver has a legitimate case for being one of the best pitchers in baseball history.