It's the wrong ball park. What's he doing in Yankee Stadium?
It's the wrong uniform. However did he get to the Chicago White Sox?
But at least New York, the city he loved and lost, is the right spot for G. Thomas Seaver to try to become the 17th pitcher in baseball history to win 300 games. New York, where he began his major league career in 1967, at Shea Stadium, in the borough of Queens, with the city's 5-year-old National League team, the Mets. New York, where he became Terrific, transforming the awful Mets into Amazings, striking out more than 200 batters nine straight years, winning Cy Young awards three times. New York, which never forgets.
So even if it's across a river in the Bronx, a bridge away from the borough where it should be, over 50,000 people will be there still, today, in the park with George.
Strike talk, a mean cloud growing darker and heavier with each passing day, is obscuring a season that should have been celebrated for long-term individual achievements, the type that historically we have come to associate with Hall of Famers: Already, Nolan Ryan became the first to record 4,000 strikeouts. Within hailing distance for the indefatigable Pete Rose is Ty Cobb's record of 4,191 hits. Of more immediate concern, Seaver and Rod Carew are in a race of sorts to see which will make headlines first: Seaver's 300th victory, or Carew's 3,000th hit. The marks are foregone conclusions, whether they are reached this weekend, later this season -- whenever it resumes, in the event of a strike -- or next season, if it should come to that.
Baseball, more than any other sport, is a game of sacred statistics used to validate some claims and invalidate others. The standard for all batters to aim at is 3,000 hits. Carew, who hoisted a gleaming .330 lifetime average into this season, by far the best of his contemporaries, will become only the 16th player to get there. (For the sluggers, 500 home runs is the level that dismisses any challenge; just 13 players are thus exempt. Henry Aaron and Willie Mays are the only names on both lists.) For the pitchers, 300 victories is an automatic seat at the dais. You can get lucky and win a few games that you're not supposed to. But nobody gets that lucky. To win 300, you have to be a great pitcher at least for a while, then a very good one for a very long time. To prove how long, here are some great pitchers who fell far short: Jim Palmer (268), Bob Feller (266), Bob Gibson (251), Juan Marichal (243) and Whitey Ford (236).
Seaver, Palmer and Silent Steve Carlton are the jewels of their generation, cinches for first-ballot entry into Cooperstown. Among the trio, Carlton has the most wins (314) and strikeouts (3,908: No. 2 all-time behind Ryan); Palmer, the grandest winning percentage (.638); Seaver, the stubbiest ERA (2.81). To choose one over the others is too hard and too dumb. But as this is Seaver's hour, let the record show that with Palmer retired there are now nine active pitchers who have won more than 200 games -- including Seaver's contemporaries on the Mets, Ryan and Jerry Koosman -- and Seaver has the best ERA and highest winning percentage (.613) among them, to say nothing of his being No. 5 on the all-time strikeout list.
And let's make a separate paragraph for this stat, which, more than all the others testifies to his greatness: If you subtract Seaver's 299-189 record from the composite record of teams he played on (Mets 1967-1977, Reds 1977-1982, the Mets again in 1983, White Sox 1984-1985), those teams lost more often than they won, winning .478 percent of their games.
Seaver's personal winning percentage is much, much higher than the teams he has played on.
In the overall context he didn't win because of his teams.
He won despite them.
"Consistency more than anything else," Seaver says when asked what baseball fans will remember him for. "I think they'll say, 'Here was a guy who, when the ball was in his locker, was always going out there.' The thing I'm proudest of is that I've won 110 more games than I've lost. I see it with my teammates now. They know that if I'm starting, they're going to have a hell of a chance."
He's 40 now, and the first to admit he's not the pitcher he once was. Until he was 33 it seemed he could strike hitters out at will, and he depended on his fastball as his out pitch. There was always the same stock photo of Seaver, his cheeks bulging as he puffed into his follow-through, a patch of raw dirt on his right knee underlining the mechanical quality of his motion.
But after a poor 11-11 in 1974 he began diversifying, away from pure power. By 1979 Seaver had seen his strikeouts plummet and his ERA soar, and knew if he remained prideful, he'd soon be carried out on his sword. Two years later, in a strike-shortened season, Seaver was 14-2.
By the end of 1983, though, after consecutive 5-13 and 9-14 years, Seaver's chips appeared spent. The Mets must have been watching the same table, because they disdained protecting Seaver from the free-agent compensation pool. Chicago got him for free, a gift to make a genie blush. The chips? They're back. Seaver must have good credit; in Chicago he's 26-19.
After he'd won No. 299, at Fenway Park, Seaver said, "I never go out there with real good stuff anymore." But just last month he struck out 11 Orioles in Baltimore, Fred Lynn four times and Eddie Murray twice. Just for auld lang syne he got Cal Ripken, Murray and Lynn in a row in the sixth.
"I threw a lot of junk," Seaver said. "Their young guys were looking at me, like, 'What's this garbage he's throwing?' " Laughing rich and full, Tom Seaver said, "I wanted to say to them, 'You should have seen me 12 years ago.' "