TOM SEAVER NOT SO “TERRIFIC” TOWARD ME.
By JOSEPH TINTLE
One of my early assignments as a sportswriter came in October 1976 when I covered the Cincinnati Reds and the Philadelphia Phillies. The Reds swept the Phils in three games. But I hardly recall the series. What I remember was the way Tom Seaver treated me one late afternoon a few hours before Game 1.
The future Hall of Fame pitcher had an off year in ’76. He posted a record of 14-11, but he was still “Tom Terrific” in everyone’s eyes, mine included. After all, he won 20 games five times in his career and earned 311 victories. He should have been on top of the world that day, but Seaver, as any sportswriter will tell you, has his cranky side.
The regular season being over, the 31-year-old New York Mets’ pitcher was tapped by ABC to do commentary. Who better to converse alongside Al Michaels and Warner Wolf when it came to analyzing the art of pitching?
I had just begun my sportswriting career a few weeks earlier at The Dispatch in Union City, N.J., and newly appointed sports editor, Bob O’Connor, wanted to try out his first hire. I didn’t want to disappoint. I knew I had three important games to cover but Bob wanted extra coverage. He asked me to get whatever sidebars I could, write them up, and dictate my stories to a staff member before the games began. These were the days before MacBook Pros. I composed my road stories on an Olivetti portable typewriter because it was compact and reliable.
So I headed down to the field at Veteran’s Stadium to let my mind wonder in search of an idea. No sooner had I walked out of the Phillies’ dugout than I saw Seaver. He was a most distinguished looking man in his suit, a little snooty looking, but that did not discourage me from approaching him. After all, I had just interviewed Muhammad Ali a month earlier.
I had read a Sports Illustrated article in which Seaver said that after his playing days were over he might consider sports broadcasting. It was a casual remark, but I thought there might be more to the story considering that’s what he was doing now for the week.
I introduced myself and asked if I might do a story on him. He nodded assent and waited for me to begin the interview.
“Tom, you mentioned in the past that when your career is over …”
“My career is not over!” he said in a surly tone. “What are you talking about?”
I tried for a minute to convince him that I did not say his career was over, but he only only wanted to hear what he thought he had heard. I did not start an argument. There was no heated exchange. I gave it one more try at explaining where I was going with my question but he waved me off, turned his back, and looked toward home plate, crossing his arms in case I didn’t get the message.
Was he still seething because he had 11 losses that season? Did he think that I thought the less-than-stellar record that season meant he was on the decline? I was aware that he received only 15 runs of support in his losses.
Now what? I had just annoyed one of the game’s greatest pitchers even though I had done nothing to provoke him. But I had to find a sidebar. Back at The Dispatch office Bob would soon be anxiously tapping his foot.
Enter then-ABC broadcaster Warner Wolf. For whatever reason he walked up to me and we began talking. I introduced myself and we shook hands.
“Hey, Warner, I heard that your father was Larry Fine of the Three Stooges. Any truth to it?”
“Everybody thinks that,” he said with a big smile. Although Larry Fine was not his dad, Wolf’s father often filled in for Larry Fine when the Stooges took their act on the road and Larry needed a breather.
The interview turned into an amusing sidebar and Warner Wolf had bailed me out. For those of you who are fans, he is the same courtly gentleman off air that you hear on Imus in the Morning.
Well, I wasn’t going to let Seaver off the hook. I approached an ABC public relations man named Jeff Tolvin and told him what had happened. He seemed annoyed with Seaver’s actions and said he’d look into it for me. An hour later, he came back and said, “You need another sidebar tomorrow?” I did. “Guess what. I got you Al Michaels. He’ll meet with you over breakfast.”
Michaels and I spoke for 90 minutes as he outlined his career from minor league baseball in Hawaii to covering the playoffs for ABC-TV at age 32. He offered lots of anecdotes, plenty of insight, and gave me a great story. Two sidebars in the book and Bob O’Connor was happy.
I had forgotten about the Seaver incident on the third day as I stood at the first-base foul line talking with Phillies’ relief pitcher, Tug McGraw, who was fielding ground balls. Between hops, we discussed The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and we agreed that the film’s best scene was when Leatherface hung the brunette in hot pants on a meathook.
“Good stuff,” McGraw said.
After he finished taking grounders, McGraw slapped the side of his thigh with his glove — his signature move — and said goodbye. After that I just took in the scenery. A few minutes passed and I got a tap on the shoulder. It was the Tolvin, the ABC representative. He told me that he had spoken with Seaver and that things were straightened out; he’d sit for an interview.
Being 24 years old, I was not wise enough to take the high road. I thanked Tolvin for his efforts, but unfortunately, I added, “I’m not going to talk to that jerk.”
As I turned to leave, I bumped right into Seaver. We both stood six-feet, one-inch tall and we were eye to eye. He didn’t like what I’d said, and I was not interested in an interview. No words were exchanged, but it was definitely an “F-you” moment.
Whenever people asked me about athletes I did not like, I used to say: There is just one. But no more. That’s because I saw a different side of Tom Seaver a while back when the Mets hosted a televised event in which they announced the All-time Mets team; Seaver, of course, was named starting pitcher. He spoke movingly about his days as a Met, but specifically about the influence that Manager Gil Hodges had on his career and life.
Tearful, at times, Seaver explained how Hodges taught him professionalism and was the most important man throughout his career. When the show ended, I said to my wife, “Remember I always told you that Tom Seaver was the one athlete I couldn’t stand? Forget that. I’ve just seen a different side of the man.”