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Basebrawl fever: Catch it!

Do I have anything left?

You probably don’t remember Tom Seaver’s aborted comeback in 1987, but I remember … probably because he hummed a fastball at my head.

I’ll explain.

Seaver was one year removed from playing in Boston, where he would have pitched in the World Series if his right knee hadn’t given out during the 1986 pennant stretch. You can drive yourself crazy thinking about these things, but please remember, a healthy Seaver would have started Game 4 of the Series against the Mets. And I’ll go to my grave believing that the crafty veteran would have submitted one of those “flashback” starts that make baseball so special — maybe something of the “seven innings, four hits, two earned runs and six Ks” variety against his old team — and a chaotic Fenway crowd would have been rocking with every pitch, and maybe, just maybe, the Red Sox would have captured the World Series with a healthy Tom Seaver pitching Game 4 instead of Al Freaking Nipper. Nobody can convince me otherwise.

Seaver probably felt the same way. And it probably gnawed at him. And even at 42, with nothing else to prove — 311 career wins, 3,640 strikeouts, three Cy Young Awards, one World Series ring, even the title of “Best Pitcher of His Generation” — Seaver couldn’t walk away from baseball. Not yet.

Determined to end his career in New York, he spent all winter waiting for a phone call from the Yankees that never came. Naturally, everyone assumed that the old man was finished.

And here’s where fate intervened: At the beginning of spring training, the Mets suffered a crushing blow when Dwight Gooden submitted a dirty urine sample (earning himself a prolonged rehab stint). Suddenly, the lightbulb over Seaver’s head started flickering; after David Cone and Bobby Ojeda suffered season-ending injuries in May, the bulb was officially beaming. Did Tom Terrific have another season left in
him? Was the risk (potential humiliation) worth the reward (a memorable final chapter to a Hall of Fame career)?

In a nutshell … did he have anything left?

At the same time Seaver was mulling over his secret comeback, he was
involved in a business deal with the father of my buddy, Gus, a longtime friend of mine from Greenwich, Conn. Since Seaver also lived in Greenwich and since the business deal brought him to Gus’ house a few times, Seaver befriended Gus, a die-hard Mets fan who was only 19 at the time.

Eventually, Seaver popped the following question: “I brought my glove
with me … you feel like throwing?”

After prying his own tongue out of his throat, Gus answered yes. And he headed outside — into his own front yard — with one of the seven or eight greatest pitchers of all-time for a friendly game of catch. Within 10 minutes, Seaver was working up a sweat and starting to put some mustard on the ball. Five more minutes passed, and Gus could feel something in the air; given that Seaver was standing about 60 feet away, Gus simply squatted down like a catcher. Just felt right.

Seaver didn’t mind. He was ripping off pitches and punctuating them with different questions. You can catch a curveball, right? (Pop!) OK if I throw a slider? (Splack!) Your hand starting to hurt yet? (Ka-pow!).

As soon as he realized that Gus could catch everything — and, more importantly, that Gus was willing to remain in that squat for the next three to four years straight — Seaver stopped talking and concentrated on his mechanics. And they stayed there like that for 10 more minutes. All you could hear was the sound of the ball popping back and forth between two gloves. And Seaver grunting with every pitch.

When it was over, Seaver dropped the bombshell, confessing that he considering a comeback with the Mets. But he didn’t want anyone to know, not yet. He asked if Gus would have a problem catching him over the next week or so — a clandestine testing of the waters, if you will — and Gus quickly agreed, just before passing out with joy.

(Here’s how random this whole thing was: Pick your favorite athlete of
all-time, then imagine the entire sequence of aforementioned events somehow unfolding with you and that athlete. Seems unbelievable, right? Couldn’t happen, right? Well, I’m telling you, this happened.)

So over the next few days, Gus’ new 42-year-old Hall-of-Fame playmate dropped by his house to play catch. I immediately started stalking the house, dropping by more frequently than the mailman in hopes of a Seaver sighting. No dice. Gus was on break from college, but I was still attending high school and Seaver’s visits usually happened during the early afternoon, while I was still stuck in class. It wasn’t fair.

Then, one afternoon, right after I had gotten home from school, Gus gave me the call: “He’s coming over … right now.”

I shattered the land-speed record getting there in time for Seaver’s arrival; he seemed friendly enough when we were introduced, despite the fact I was staring at him with one of those “HOLY CRAP! IT’S TOM SEAVER!” expressions on my face. We made some small talk … and then it happened.

“Hey, why don’t you grab a bat and come outside with us?” Seaver asked me. “You can pretend you’re a batter. I want to gauge what it’s like to pitch with somebody standing there.”

(Well, that’s what he probably said. All I can really remember is the “Hey” part; the next 30 seconds were like a minor blackout.)

We headed outside, and I watched from the sidelines as Gus and Tom warmed up. They started out playing long toss, just firing the baseball back and forth like two outfielders between innings. Eventually, Gus bent into his crouch as Seaver kept throwing soft fastballs and loosening up. Finally, Seaver barked out, “All right, I’m ready.” And it wasn’t like he went from throwing 60 to 80 in
two pitches; it was more of a slow, steady progression, almost like he was adding 1 mph to every pitch.

Now his body started to get involved. The earlier throws had been all motion — a rock back, a rock forward, a twist of the hips, a flick of the wrist — but his motion slowly became more exaggerated. Within minutes, he was bringing the ball over his head, rearing back, whipping forward and firing the ball, with his left leg swinging around for the finish and his right knee inching closer and closer to the ground with every pitch (the Seaver trademark).

(Quick interjection: Witnessing this evolution in person was simply incredible, like seeing the birth of a child or something. I’m not kidding. For whatever reason, we take athletes for granted, lose ourselves in the minutiae of sports and rarely take time to marvel at the day-to-day stuff — the little things, like the way Robbie Alomar effortlessly starts a double play, or the way Randy Moss finds that extra gear and breezes by an unsuspecting cornerback. It’s not our fault. Watch enough games and you become immune to those things. But to see this 42-year-old man round himself into pitching form over a 15-minute span in my buddy’s front yard … I’m telling you, it was amazing to watch. One of those watershed moments in your formative years that you don’t forget.)

  Pick your favorite athlete of all-time, then imagine the entire sequence of aforementioned events somehow unfolding with you and that athlete. Seems unbelievable, right? Couldn’t happen, right? Well, I’m telling you, this happened.  

Once Seaver was ready for me, I ambled over and stood in my imaginary
batter’s box in front of Gus, who looked poised to lose control of his bowels at any moment. The previous summer, Gus and I played a 162-game, simulated “Microleague Baseball” season between the All-Time Mets and the All-Time Red Sox on my Apple computer — in a related story, both of us were single at the time — and the stat-version of the 1973 Tom Seaver won our Imaginary Cy Young Award. Nine months later, he was pitching to us. Doesn’t get any weirder than that.

So I dug into the imaginary batter’s box, unveiled my finest impersonation of Carl Yastrzemski’s stance — rigid posture, bat circling about my head — and stood there as Seaver chucked pitches past me. Ssssssssssssss. That’s what every pitch sounded like. Sssssssssss. Like a hiss. And every pitch was accompanied by a barely audible grunt from Seaver and the ball smacking into Gus’ mitt, so it really sounded like this:

Huhhhhhhhh … sssssssssssss … SPLAT!!

Seaver: “Fastball.”

Huhhhhhhhh … sssssssssssss … SPLAT!!

Seaver: “Slider.”

Huhhhhhhhh … sssssssssssss … SPLAT!!

If he were only throwing fastballs, I probably could have gotten my bat on one of them — and believe me, I was dying to take one Reggie Jackson-level cut — but the sliders and curveballs were a different animal. The slider looked and sounded exactly like a fastball, only it suddenly and inexplicably darted down and to the right. I mean, how does anyone hit a slider? Yikes.

Seaver threw two types of curveballs: the standard curveball (which
resembled a slow fastball heading straight for my head before it
miraculously swerved across the imaginary plate) and the lollipop curveball (like the one Bill Lee threw to Tony Perez in the ’75 World Series that Perez cruelly deposited on the Mass Pike). I possessed no illusions about hitting the standard curveball, but the lollipop curveball looked inviting as all hell. I felt like I could hit that one. I really did. During one stretch, he ripped off five or six in a row … and by the last one, I felt like I had the lollipop curve timed and everything.

“I think I could hit that one,” I yelled out to Seaver.

“Oh, really,” he said, smiling. “Why don’t you dig in there and wait for it again?”

So I did.

Huhhhhhhhh …

(Wait a second, that’s coming at my head …)

Sssssssssssss …

(Good God, run for your lives!)


He actually aimed that fastball about a foot over my head … but I got the message. I wouldn’t be digging in for the lollipop curve again. Gus giggled, I pulled my heart out of my stomach and Seaver smiled — a thin smile, but a smile nonetheless — and waited for Gus to toss the ball back to him. After 20 more minutes, Seaver called it quits and everyone went on their merry way.

As it turned out, Gus and Tom only played catch one more time before the Mets finally contacted Seaver, setting off a round of comeback talks that kicked off for real in June. Big deal in the Big Apple at the time. Tom Terrific was coming home.

Of course, since Gus and I shared his secret all along, we held an enormous stake in the whole thing … and maybe that’s why it hurt so much when Seaver’s comeback sputtered during his rehab stints for New York’s Triple-A club in Tidewater. During his final simulated start, the Mets hitters gave him a bigger beating than Apollo Creed received in “Rocky 4” — a no-name catcher named Barry Lyons even went 6-for-6 against him. 6-for-6!

Seaver abruptly called it quits the following day. It was over. Gus donated his catcher’s mitt to the Clandestine Comeback Hall of Fame. I had a lively “Seaver threw a fastball at my head” story to tell my friends.

And Seaver had his answer.

So why am I telling you this? I was thinking about Seaver last Sunday, as David Cone gritted his way through another six-inning effort at Fenway Park — the 11th straight time Cone pitched past the fifth inning and yielded three runs or less. Red Sox fans didn’t expect much from the 38-year-old righty after his disastrous 2000 campaign for the Yankees, yet Coney has evolved into a clubhouse leader and bona fide good luck charm (the Sox have won each of his last 11 starts), as well as a potential No. 2 starter in the playoffs.

There are some eerie parallels between Cone’s revival and Seaver’s aborted comeback 14 years before. Both accomplished just about everything possible as a starting pitcher. Both peaked in the biggest city possible. Both enjoyed cups of coffee with the Red Sox in their latter years. Both waited for one last phone call from the Yankees that never came. And both felt the nagging need to return one final time … not because of the money, not because of the situation, but because they needed to find the answer to one question:

Do I have anything left?

And invariably, you either find out the hard way — by Barry Lyons rocking
you for six hits and a high school punk telling you “I think I can hit that” — or you keep chugging along and staving off Father Time.

And maybe you even get into a groove, almost like a musician or a writer, and you tune out everything, and you reach that elusive zone where everything falls into place, and you’re painting corners, and you’re keeping hitters off-balance and playing them like the cello, and you’re reaching back for that extra oomph for your fastball and somehow finding it, and even though you’re on a 95-pitch count, it feels like you could throw 300.

That’s what it feels like to be David Cone right now. Unlike Seaver 14
years ago, Cone has something left in the gas tank. He has something left. He has his answer. And in a memorable Red Sox season full of more twists and turns than a John Grisham novel, that’s been the most pleasant surprise of all.

Coney’s back.

Bill Simmons writes three columns a week for Page 2.

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Bill Simmons is the founding editor of Grantland and the author of the New York Times no. 1 best seller The Book of Basketball. For every Simmons column and podcast, click here.

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