I had an opportunity to chat with Steven Travers last night, author of a new book called “The Last Icon: Tom Seaver and His Times,” on my radio program. Never before has someone delved into the career of the man known as “The Franchise.” You all know about his accomplishments on the field, but Travers and I discussed Seaver the man, where he stands amongst the all-time greats, and the unlikely events that led him to New York. One thing that stood out was how close he was to becoming a member of the Los Angeles Dodgers throughout his career.
“He was born to be a Dodger,” Travers said. “Born and raised in California, went to USC, had season tickets to Dodger games because his uncle has season tickets in Los Angeles, and he would use them every fourth and fifth day to see Koufax and Drysdale.”
As luck would have it, Seaver was drafted by the Dodgers in the 10th round of the 1965 draft. Seaver wanted $50,000 to sign; the Dodgers offered $2,000 along with advice from a scout by the name of Tommy Lasorda. “Good luck with your dental career,” Lasorda said. This was in reference to the fact that Seaver was a pre-dental student at USC.
Seaver would sign a contract with Atlanta the following year, only to see it voided by the commissioner’s office because his college team played some exhibition games. He couldn’t return to school since he was now considered a “pro.” The league responded by setting up a lottery with interested teams. The Dodgers tried to get involved once again, but ultimately failed to follow through, which led to the Mets winning Seaver’s rights in the lottery over Cleveland and Philadelphia.
The third time the Dodgers lost out on Seaver was in 1977. We all know the story as to why the Mets put Seaver on the block. Before they traded him to Cincinnati, the Dodgers offered the Mets Don Sutton for Seaver. The Mets passed and decided on a quantity package that included Pat Zachry, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman, and Doug Flynn.
Sutton was 32-years old, the same age as Seaver, and was entering the late prime of his career. He still had plenty left as from 1977-80 he went 54-39 with a 3.21 ERA. In comparison, Seaver went 63-34 with a 3.00 ERA. The Mets never could have received comparable value for Seaver; Baseball-Reference ranks only two pitchers (Roger Clemens and Walter Johnson) with more value in the history of the game; but Sutton was as fair a deal as they could have made.
Imagine the course of both teams history if Seaver wound up signing with Los Angeles. He could have taken over as the ace of the franchise for Koufax, who retired the year before Seaver’s debut. He might also have won far more than the 311 games which he finished.
During the 70s, he often had terrible offenses supporting him. Travers believes Seaver could have won 30 games during his 1971 season; a year that many believe was his best ever. Seaver finished 20-10 with a 1.76 ERA and set, the then, strikeout record for a RHP with 289. Ironically, Ferguson Jenkins won the Cy Young Award due to his 24 wins, despite posting an ERA a run higher. ”Seaver could have won 30,” Travers said. He had 36 starts and I believe 31 to 35 of them are absolute possible victories. If he gives up 3 runs, forget about it, much less two. He has to win 1-0, 2-1 to win games. He could have been 31-3 in 1971, that’s how good he was.”
Also imagine the impact Seaver would have on the 1977 and 1978 Dodger teams that went to the World Series against the Yankees. Sutton lost 2 games in ’78 Series, posting an ERA over 7.00. I give the Dodgers great odds of winning at least one of those years with Seaver as their ace. In another bit of irony, Tommy Lasorda was their manager.
The Mets are 50 years old this coming season. They haven’t been blessed with the best luck, but in the case of Tom Seaver it was probably the luckiest thing that has ever happened to the franchise. It might be the worst $50,000 dollars the Dodgers elected to save.
You can download the entire radio show from last night by clicking here. Jon Springer, author of “Mets By the Numbers,” joins me later on as we discuss whether the Mets should retire Gary Carter‘s number, and whether Mike Piazza should go into the Hall of Fame wearing a Mets cap.