As unlikely as it seemed last winter, the Cincinnati Reds are again in the National League playoffs. Pete Who? Sparky Who? "We're Still Reds Hot," cries a huge banner in the downtown Fountain Square. Without Pete Rose and Sparky Anderson, the Reds are in the playoffs for the sixth time in 10 years. They are in because they have Tom Seaver, and they will move on to the World Series because Seaver is the best pitcher still working in his league.
Which is nothing to get excited about.
Seaver will tell you that.
"I'm definitely less excited than I was with the Mets," he said today. "It's just a phase of my career. My enjoyment now is different from these kids we have. You should have seen these kids jumping around when we won the division. They're going crazy.
"I had my day when I first won it, too, but now I won't get excited until it's all over, until we've won it all."
At 33, Seaver is a veteran of a dozen years in the National League. In 1969, the year Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the New York Amazin' Mets upstaged the poor fellow by winning the World Series. For those Mets, Seaver, then 23, won 27 games, including playoff and Series. He did his jumping around then. Now he is a man with a job, not a kid going crazy.
Seaver pitches the playoff opener against Pittsburgh Tuesday night
Because these are not the Reds who in 1975 and '76 were a Big Red Machine, they need very strong pitching to survive. They could do no better than to send Tom Seaver to the mound because, for now anyway, Seaver is pitching as well as ever.
He has won 14 of his last 15 decisions. His 11-game winning streak from June 9 to Aug. 26 was the longest of his 12-year career. He has a 16-6 won-lost record with a 3.14 earned run average. On a team full of young pitchers -- Frank Pastore, Tom Hume, Mike LaCoss, Paul Moskau -- Seaver's presence is invaluable. He has been under pressure before. He won't get excited.
"I hope not," he said when someone asked if he would concentrate better in a do-or-die playoff situation than he does for a regular-season game. "I try to stay at a level, physically and mentally. Why should I try harder now than I did in a game in April or July? I love what I do too much to do that.
"I preach consistency. I try to control all those things. I don't want any extra adrenaline flowing."
Always the thinker, always a seeker of pitching perfection, Seaver this season returned to the form that made him a hero in New York until the Mets' belligerent management traded him to Cincinnati two years ago. Confessing that time has robbed him of the overpowering fast ball that once marked him special. Seaver yet says he is pitching well.
"What problems I've had have been the same problems I've had for 13 years," he said. "To correct them, I just started to throw within myself instead of overthrowing. I didn't try to throw as hard as Nolan Ryan."
"I throw the ball as hard as Nolan Ryan."
"It just doesn't go as fast."
Once upon a time, when the world was young and man first walked on the moon, Seaver threw his heater four out of every five pitches.
What's the percentage of fast balls now?
"If I knew, I wouldn't tell you," Seaver said.
That's because he doesn't want the Pirates to know the fast ball is coming only half the time. All he'll tell you about pitching to the Pirates, incidentally, is this: "I'll try to keep the jack rabbits off the bases and try to keep the ball in the park when their big guys come up."
Seaver has faced the Pirates only once this season, pitching to no decision. On July 25, he gave up nine hits and five runs in six innings. His opposite number in Game 1, John Candelaria, is 0-2 against the Reds this year, yielding 24 hits and 11 runs in 19 innings.
Whatever happens Tuesday night, it will not be panic from Seaver. On opening day this season, when the Reds committed five errors and fell behind, 7-0, Anderson's successor as manager, quiet John McNamara, came to the mound to take out Seaver. It was only the second inning.
"How are you enjoying your debut?" Seaver said to the new skipper. "Time flies when you're having fun, doesn't it?" They shared a laugh through their pain.
Seaver, the old pro, plans a quiet day at home before coming to the ballpark Tuesday night.
"I'll have a little breakfast, a cup of coffee and a piece of melon, about 10 o'clock -- maybe 9 o'clock, because I'll go to bed a little earlier tonight," Seaver said. "I'll play with my daughter for a while, maybe read, lay around until about 2. I'll lay down about 2:30 to 3:30. I'll take a nap if I can. Maybe I'll do a crossword puzzle."
The man from The New York Times asked if Seaver would be doing the Times' puzzle.
Would he finish it before coming to the ballpark?
Seaver smiled at the impossibility. Before the pitcher could say anything, the man from the Cincinnati Post, sensing a scoop, asked if Seaver was superstitious about finishing a puzzle before he pitched.
"If my success on the mount was predicted on finishing crossword puzzles," Seaver said with a smile, "then I certainly would pick up the Cincinnati Post."