Aside from clinching pennants and winning a World Series, there are two days in Reds history I will never forget.
One is when the Reds traded for Ken Griffey Junior. They acquired the best player in baseball. Coming off the heels of a great 1999 season, that was unbelievable. Man, did I celebrate that night.
The other is when the Reds acquired Tom Seaver on June 15, 1977 in a trade. For the first time since 1969, the Reds had an ace pitcher. The Reds had a stopper. A stud. A guy nobody wanted to face. A dominating pitcher that could anchor a pitching staff.
The Cincinnati Reds have had (by my definition) four aces since I started rooting for them in 1964. Tom Seaver was one of the.
The Reds wanted Seaver because Bowie Kuhn, then the Baseball Commissioner, negated a trade Cincinnati had made with Oakland when the Reds sent top prospect Dave Revering and cash for Vida Blue. Kuhn’s decision infuriated Reds fans — it certainly did me. It “wasn’t in the best interests of baseball,” said Kuhn because he and A’s Owner Charles O. Finley didn’t get along and Finley was doing a fire-sale of Oakland players.
Coming off consecutive World Series titles, the 1977 Reds were struggling and desperate for starting pitchers. The Los Angeles Dodgers were in first place. Gary Nolan was gone. Jack Billingham was soon to follow. Don Gullett defected to the Yankees via free agency after the 1976 season.
Tom Seaver became available because of a dispute over his salary. The main players in this event were M. Donald Grant (Mets board chairman), Lorinda deRovlet (owner) and Joe McDonald (Mets general manager.) A couple of side players were New York sportswriters — Dick Young and Jack Lang.
After free agency started, Seaver made some noise about making $200,000 a year. Pitchers Andy Messersmith signed a three-year $1 million deal with Ted Turner and the Braves and Wayne Garland worked out a 10-year 2.3 million contract with the Indians (which was a disaster for Cleveland). DeRovlet reportedly said “over my dead body” about Seaver’s request.
The Mets were a last place team in 1977 and attendance was horrible. Shea Stadium was dubbed “Grant’s Tomb,” a shot at the Board Chairman. Young, a vitriolic writer for the New York Daily News had already angered several Reds with his baseball (and non-baseball) comments. Young defended the Mets in not offering Seaver a new contract. Lang backed Seaver.
Lang encouraged Seaver to phone the Mets owner directly and bypass Grant and McDonald. Seaver did just that and worked out a tentative deal just before the trade deadline. But then Young wrote in the Daily News that the wives of Seaver and Nolan Ryan were jealous of each other in terms of salaries for their husbands. Seaver saw the article in an Atlanta hotel coffee shop and became enraged. He phoned Grant and told him he wanted out of New York.
Reds GM Dick Wagner made the best offer to the Mets. To get Seaver, he traded starting pitcher Pat Zachry top-prospect Steve Henderson, minor leaguer Dan Norman and utility infielder Doug Flynn. Henderson was the key to the trade. Zachry was a good starting pitcher, Norman had some talent but wasn’t a top prospect and Flynn was a good field/no hit infielder.
And so it was Tom Terrific became a Cincinnati Red. He made his debut on June 17 in Montreal. Seaver shutout the Expos on three hits in a 6-0 Reds win. He walked none and struck out eight. He even went 2 for 4 at the plate and knocked in two runs. Seaver looked awesome in a Reds uniform.
Tom Seaver went on to have a solid six-year career with the Reds and is in the Reds Hall of Fame. Sure he’s a Met to most baseball people. I don’t care. He had some great years in Cincinnati and threw his only no-hitter in 1978 against the Cardinals.
During that era, Tom Seaver and Frank Pastore were my favorite Reds pitchers. In 1980, the Reds played the Cardinals in a three-game weekend series at Busch Stadium. I did something I’d never done before. I drove to St. Louis on Sunday specifically to watch a Cincinnati Reds pitcher take the mound — Tom Seaver.
I had watched Seaver pitch once before in a Reds uniform in the Astrodome in 1979 against 6’8” power pitcher J.R. Richard. It was one hell of a pitchers duel. Seaver and the Reds won 2-1, thanks to a two-run homer in the first inning by George Foster and Seaver’s masterful pitching.
I bought one ticket at Busch Memorial Stadium by the Reds bullpen down the third base line wearing a Tony Perez jersey shirt that Sunday afternoon. When Seaver came out to warm up, I hollered at him, “Get’em Tom, beat these damn Cardinals.” I know he heard me. I’d also read he was very focused and concentrated on pitching on days he started. I said that anyway and Seaver looked at the ground in the bullpen, digging at the dirt with his spikes.
I swear I saw him smile.
So now, we have the news that Tom Seaver has retired from public life, that he will live out the remainder of his time in his vineyards in California because of dementia, a cruel and devastating disease.
After that 1980 game at Busch Stadium I fast-forward decades later to here in Galesburg, Illinois. My mother-in-law was in a nursing home. While visiting her, I saw a retired Fire Chief from Galesburg in the home. He left a few years before I was hired by the Fire Department in 1980 but I had heard of him. He was suffering from Alzheimer’s too.
The Chief was using crayons for a coloring book on birds. I sat by him and we talked while he colored. He gave me a crayon and I joined him. Here was a guy that managed a Fire Department with 48 firefighters for many years and was well respected and did a very professional job for the City and he was coloring books.
We did that on several of my visits. I called him ‘Chief’ out of respect. That’s the way it is in the fire service. He didn’t know me, but it didn’t matter. The Chief and I would color. We would talk. The last time I saw him, we finished and I said to him, “Chief, you did a nice job coloring that bird. Good job.”
The Chief looked up at me. And he smiled.