Friday, September 4, 2020

Tom Seaver | Lefsetz Letter

In the sixties, all the faders were pushed up, everything was to the max and we could hear all of it.

We started off with mono, ended up with sixteen tracks. And by time the decade ended there was so much going on and you were aware of all of it. Of course there was a generation gap, our parents were the last generation that got old. Boomers today wear jeans and run marathons and are teenagers until they pass, unlike their forefathers who were shell-shocked by the Depression and two wars and were risk averse. The sixties were all about testing limits, intellectually and emotionally. Sure, drugs were part of the equation, but they were billed as a way to expand your mind. We were in it together, developing together, and we knew it all.

In the seventies we licked our wounds.

In the eighties we had a monoculture, dictated by MTV. There was more going on, but you didn’t hear about it. And then in the nineties it all started to fracture, where today nothing is truly popular, nothing is known by everybody, everybody’s got different facts and resides in a different bubble, but not in the sixties.

The fifties…the underground was truly underground. But it surfaced in the sixties, the Beat poets, never mind Bob Dylan and the folk scene and then the Beatles. We wanted more, we wanted it all. America was the land of possibilities, and our generation spearheaded it. We’d brooked no crisis until the advent of the Vietnam War. Of course your view was different if you were a minority, but this was also the decade where others were exposed to the plight of the minorities. And sure, there were some who didn’t like it, and Nixon rounded them all up and emerged in victory, but we stood up to them, these were turbulent times.

But the transitions!

Like your hair… Crew cut and then after the Beatles, long.

Hats flew by the wayside with Kennedy’s inauguration.

Ties faded, bell bottoms arrived, along with paisley…your clothes contained a statement…you were either with us or against us. And you’d be surprised how many found it difficult to change, they grew their hair out in the seventies, bought Stones albums in the eighties, they were frightened, they needed their feet firmly planted, whereas everybody else was hopping from stone to stone, not believing it was even possible to slip and fall into the water.

But although the tide started to turn on the coast in the early sixties, the pace was slower elsewhere. At first we believed in our country, were excited by the space program, by the possibilities. And then the Beatles swept us off our feet and they didn’t play by the rules. Lennon said the taboo, that the band was bigger than Jesus, and they were, the back to God movement didn’t really start until the seventies.

But it was not like the internet, there was no brittle break, no great leap forward, but an evolution. You were here, and then you found yourself there. And it was surprising what you would not leave behind, like sports.

Which were also different in the sixties. The games may have been the same, but that was all. The stadiums were not branded by sponsors. There weren’t that many teams. The NFL grew into a monolith over the decade, its pinnacle being Super Bowl III, with Namath’s victory, but the truth is, baseball ruled. And it still rules for many boomers.

Oh, they’ll tell you it’s about strategy and the opportunity to come from behind but the truth is the sport is out of whack with today’s world. It’s kind of like trying to sell a gas-guzzler to a Tesla customer. It’ll work, but it’s not what people want.

But in the sixties, baseball was all people wanted.

Not that the entire country was on the same page. The south was dominated by college football, lacking Major League Baseball. And by the end of the decade, the hip were anti-football because of the injuries. But baseball players were some of the biggest stars in the land, bigger than the musicians, as well-known as the president. Mickey Mantle was a hero to the generation. And the Yankees were nearly unbeatable.

In the era before free agency, you rooted for the team closest to you. There were no sports bars to go see an out of region game, no DirectTV, you had the local team and that was it. And sure, I watched the Rangers on Saturday night, but their hold on the country was minimal. The Knicks sucked, but ultimately became a juggernaut, but that was more the seventies. Basketball really didn’t reach its heyday until the eighties, with Magic and Bird. And yes, the AFL sprouted and merged with the established league, but sports were dominated by baseball. Mickey Mantle made a hundred grand! That’s who we all wanted to be, a baseball player.

But only in California did they seem to have established sports programs. It was all amateur, AAU mentality, on the east coast. There were no sports academies. And sure, the sport was still mostly white, but the Yankees had Elston Howard. You went directly from high school to the minor leagues. If you were lucky, you’d be in the majors within a couple of years. And your name would be on a card, we all had ’em, we flipped ’em, we carried them loose in plastic bags, we did not worry about physical attrition, they were not like rare sports cars, they were meant to be driven every day.

And then the Yankees fell off their perch, the trophy was passed around.

Meanwhile, New York had a new team, the Mets.

The Giants had left. The Dodgers too. The league had to give back. And what we got was a ragtag outfit managed by the Old Perfesser, Casey Stengel, playing in the antiquated Polo Grounds with games called by Ralph Kiner. They were in the major league, but they were playing minor league ball. Oh, we had our heroes, but they were antiheroes, like the not even twenty year old Ed Kranepool, no one could believe in the Mets, and then you could.

It started with Shea Stadium. Out in Flushing Meadows. Which debuted with the World’s Fair. It was round and industrial, but it was brand new. And even though it was hard to figure out the metal panels on the exterior, the truth was the Yankees had history on their side, but the Mets were a look into the future.

And then they got Tom Seaver.

Someone good on the Mets! Someone world class on the Mets! One player changed the perception of the entire team.

And sure, Yogi Berra had a personality, and many players had nicknames, but this was before long hair in sports and arrests and…the craziest the sport got was Jimmy Piersall, or maybe Bo Belinksy. Seaver strode to the mound, did his job and earned our respect. He lifted the entire team, the fan base, you couldn’t make fun of the Mets anymore, now they were playing baseball, but still, they were not good.

Until 1969.


Well, actually that catchphrase came with the ’73 run, but the point is we did start to believe in the Mets. They put a smile on our face, made us all optimistic, if the Mets could do it, why couldn’t we? They became a religion.

It was not like today. With all this hoopla about curses, etc. The Red Sox had Carl Yastrzemski, it’s just that the rest of the team wasn’t quite as good. As for the Cubs? They played without lights and it looked like it, they sucked. Sure, a contract was indentured servitude, but we got to know our teams. It was a collective, it all fit together. And you were there for the ride up and the ride down except…

Many were not there for the ride down of the Yankees. They were fair weather fans. I hate the Yankee fans that came along in the Steinbrenner era, they were following success, whereas a true fan is there even if you lose every season. And the Mets had fans, primarily because they played in the National League and they were underdogs.

The National League only met the American League in the World Series. Which took place in the beginning of October. But now, in ’69, the year of the Miracle Mets, there was a playoff series, today called the NLCS, but that acronym was not used back then, no way. And the Mets played the Braves and…

I went.

I had no connection, it’s just that my father lived for the mail. He had to have a post office box, delivery at the house came too late. He knew if you dropped a letter in downtown Bridgeport on Sunday afternoon, it would arrive at its destination on Monday. And he knew that the fastest way to get through was Express Mail, for five bucks.

Knowing all this, I employed my dad’s tricks to get tickets for the playoffs, all three games, but there ended up only being one.

As for the World Series? I left it to Judd, my compatriot, we didn’t get tickets.

It was October 6th. The games started in the afternoon. You’d miss them if you were at school. But that wasn’t as bad as today, where everything’s played at night for money and youngsters can’t stay up that late. We’d have our transistors in school, we’d know the score, and if we were lucky we could ride our bikes home in time to catch an inning or two on TV before the game was over. But to be there?

There’s a feeling you get when you walk into a baseball stadium. There’s the scale, larger than life, the green field, the exclusion of the outside world, and that noise, when the ball meets the bat, with that crack.

You’d buy a program and keep score. There was beer and hot dogs, maybe pretzels, nothing more. It was about the game.

The game.

The game doesn’t mean much anymore. Any game. Today everybody’s an individual representing their own brand, their own team, everybody wants to be a star, even though almost no one can be. And they keep changing the game, you gather your friends on MySpace and suddenly it all switches to Facebook, and then Instagram, everybody’s chasing an elusive Holy Grail that not only do you not get, but wouldn’t fulfill you if you did.

But Tom Seaver…

He didn’t pitch that afternoon. It was Nolan Ryan, before he was “Nolan Ryan.” And when the game was over, the fans took to the field and ripped it up. Literally. That’s just how happy we were. Security was inefficient, it was not prepared, it was spontaneous. They beefed up the guard for the World Series, but it still didn’t matter. The system was not in control, the fans, were.

Eventually the Mets traded Seaver. It’s always the same, Maggie’s Farm, the owner needs to show you who’s boss, they can’t play but they want to demonstrate their power. But the athletes…THEY CAN PLAY!

And unlike in basketball, you did not need to be tall.

And unlike in football, you did not need to be big.

And hell, you didn’t even have to be in great shape!

Hustle helped, but the truth is you needed to have the skills. And if you did, our jaws dropped, we were in awe.

Not that the mighty Casey did not strike out. The cleanup man would come to the plate in the bottom of the ninth and strike out, or pop up. Succeeding was hard, and like Tom Hanks ultimately said in that movie, there’s no crying in baseball.

And at the center of it all was Tom Seaver. Not only was he good, he was better! As good as anybody on any other team. He inspired the rest of the players to succeed, he inspired fans to believe. It was a wondrous time.

But those days are through. I could delineate why, but the most obvious example would be to see if those you encounter know even the biggest baseball stars. They almost definitely do not. There’s just too much going on. And the players are mini-corporations unto themselves. I’m not saying that they’re not entitled to the money, better them than the owners, but it’s less about character and more about cash. And Tom Seaver cared about money, but he was anything but a flawed character, he was dignified, nobody’s chump, but a real man doing a real job, someone you could respect.

And Tom never soiled that reputation, never ever.

I can tell you my love for you will still be strong
After the boys of summer have gone

The boys of summer have gone. There are players on the field, but they’re as similar to what came before as an iPhone is to a transistor radio. They’re playing the same game, you can hear music on both, but…

Technology was a color TV set. Video calling was a World’s Fair demonstration of the future. Our futures were contained within ourselves, our hopes and dreams, not in technology. Young boys always need someone to look up to. And men want to be reminded of that youthful spirit. We loved Tom Seaver. Not in a sexual way, but for what he represented. He came to do a job and he delivered. He lifted the rest of the team up, he did not let them drag him down. But that was the sixties. Despite all the turmoil we believed in a more equitable world and Tom Seaver.

Yes, we believed in Tom Seaver.


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