By Pat Jordan
I was standing on the sidewalk in front of the deli when the truck parked at the curb. It was early morning, sunny, cool, a dry Napa Valley day. Good for growing grapes. The Ford F-250 was caked with dirt, a working man's truck, a vineyard worker's truck. The guy who got out was big, burly, wearing a trucker's cap, flannel shirt, dirty jeans, work boots and a pair of grape pruning shears on his belt. He looked over the truck's bed at me. I laughed. He said, "What's so funny?" I said, "You still look like Tom Seaver." He had streaks of silver in his sandy-colored hair, a craggy, yet still boyish face, and that high-pitched voice I remembered.
Tom and I have known one another for 40 years, over many stories I have written about him. He's 69 years old now; I'm 73. We used to see each other once in a while in our 30s at the Greenwich (Conn.) YMCA, bump into each other in our 40s and 50s at Mets or Yankees games, call each other now and then. I asked him once to send my grandson his autograph, and he sent him a laminated photograph of himself as a Met. Tom had scrawled at the bottom, From Tom Seaver, your Grandfather's friend, to Adam, and then something about my having been a terrific pitcher too, something he had never admitted to my face. I figured it was embarrassing for him to admit to me that Pat Jordan, a minor-league washout after three years, had had a better fastball than Tom Seaver, a five-time 20-game winner in the majors. Whenever I reminded him of my superior fastball, he'd get apoplectic and scream out, "In your fucking dreams, Jordan!" I forgave him, chalking it up to envy.
Our friendship began after the first time I interviewed him in 1973, when we went to the Greenwich Y and played basketball one-on-one. They were vicious games, two big guys trying to pound each other into submission. Tom was 6-foot-2, 220 pounds, 28 years old. I was 6-1, 200, 32. By the end of those games, we had bloody noses, welts on our foreheads, bruised jaws we couldn't open. After one particularly brutal game, I said to him, "I let you win that game, Seaver." He looked at me and said, "Jordan, you never let anyone win at anything in your whole life."
We liked that about each other, an almost insanely blind competitiveness. Tom also liked that he could talk to a writer who, as an ex-pitcher, understood the fine details of his pitching mechanics, philosophy and psyche. And me, what did I see in Tom Seaver? The major leaguer I should have been and never was. Why? What did this man know that I never knew about pitching, and (as I would learn over the years) many other things? Why him, and not me?
By our mid-60s, we had lost track of each other. He and his wife Nancy had moved to a mountaintop in Calistoga, Calif., with their three dogs, and Susan and I had moved to an isolated little town in upstate South Carolina with our four dogs. I guess we were all seeking the same thing in our old age: seclusion.
He walked around the truck in that shoulder-weary, graceless, plowman's walk that he always had, even when he was a young pitcher with the Mets. He was always a blue-collar pitcher, plodding to the mound as if to a hated, backbreaking job; always the dray horse who had to plow the fields, never the thoroughbred. He wasn't born Tom Seaver, The Franchise, with a blinding, God-given talent. He made himself into Tom Seaver through a monumental act of will. Years of painstaking, meticulous, disciplined, intelligent, hard work.
We shook hands. He said, "Your beard got white." I said, "No shit." He laughed, and I added, "You forget I'm older than you, Tom." He said, "That's a fact." I said, "And smarter, too." He hung his head and said, "Aw, I don't know about that."
We sat at a table in the deli and ordered breakfast. Tom spread a newspaper on the table and studied it. When he was a famous pitcher, he opened the newspaper every morning and studied the previous night's box scores. Now, he studied the weather to check on his "babies."
When I'd called him a few weeks before, very early in the morning, he answered the phone out of breath. I said, "It's me." He said, "I know." I said, "What are you doing?" He said, "I was sleeping until you woke me up." I said, "Oh, geez, Tom, I'm sorry. I forgot the time difference." I heard his evil cackle, and then he said, "I've been up two hours, watching the sun rise." I said, "You prick!" He laughed. I said, "You're out of breath, watching the fucking sun rise?" He snapped, "I was working, for chrissakes, taking care of my babies." I said, "Your grandkids are there?" He said, "No, my babies. My grapes." I said, "Tom, you gotta get a life."
But of course, he had a life, a new one -- Tom Seaver, owner of The Seaver Family Vineyards on Diamond Mountain -- which was why I'd called him in the first place. "One last story," I'd said. "You and your babies." I spent 16 hours driving, waiting in airports, flying, changing planes, driving some more, just to see Tom Seaver again. The greatest right-handed pitcher of the modern baseball era. Twelve-time All Star, three-time Cy Young Award winner, 311-game winner, 2.86 career ERA, more than 3,000 strikeouts. Recipient of the highest-ever percentage of votes, 98.84, of any Hall of Fame member. And, as always, my idol -- as, I am sure, I am his.
When he finally turned to the sports pages to check out the Tigers-Red Sox score in the ALCS, he threw up his hands, knocking off his cap, and grabbed his hair like a frustrated teenager, which in some ways he always was. Detroit's Max Scherzer had pitched brilliantly for seven innings and was beating the Red Sox, 5-1, on a two-hitter, until he was yanked before the eighth inning. His relief pitchers gave up five runs in the next two innings, including David Ortiz's grand slam, for a 6-5 Red Sox win.
Tom screeched like a girl, "Why'd they take Scherzer out?" I said, because his pitch count had reached 109. He screeched again, "Pitch count? Pitch count? Baseball's not brain surgery. You don't look for a reason to take him out. You look for a reason to leave him in! Guys like him and Verlander, their three setup men and closer don't equal them, or else they'd be starting pitchers! I'll tell ya, you wouldn't be able to get Bob Gibson off the mound in the eighth inning." Then he told me a story. Three stories, actually.
When Tom was pitching for the White Sox, as he was approaching his 300th win, he was warming up in the bullpen before a game. Dave Duncan, the pitching coach, watched him throw. He shook his head and said, "Tom, you don't have shit." Tom said, "Yeah, so what?" Tom pointed to the other team's dugout and said, "They don't know that! So what's the problem? By the time they find out, it'll be too late."
A few games later, he was on the mound in the eighth inning with runners on base, when Ozzie Guillen, his young excitable shortstop, came to the mound. Tom said to me, "Ozzie was like a baby robin, always chirping. He thought I was in trouble. He said, 'Hey, Tom. Don' worry, mon, I get you outa' thees. Jus' make 'em heet to me.' So I said to him, 'OK, Ozzie, where do you want me to make them hit it, to your left or your right?' He looked at me and said, 'You serious, mon?' I said, 'Absolutely.' Ozzie's eyes got big and he said, 'Mon, you crazy.' I said, 'Now, Ozzie, that's an entirely different issue.'"
I laughed out loud. Tom reached across the table and tapped his fingers on my arm. "Serious," he said. "I wasn't kidding. If I executed correctly, I could do that."
Then he told me a third story, from his earlier years with the Mets. Again, he was pitching in the later innings with runners on base. Before the catcher threw the ball back to him, Tom crouched like a quarterback in the huddle, propped his elbows on his knees and stared at the dirt. His pitching coach, Rube Walker, came hustling out to the mound. Rube said, "Tom. Tom, you all right? You hurt? Maybe you should come out." Tom looked up at him, as if he had no idea why Rube was there. He said, "What the hell you doing here? This is my mound, get the fuck off it." Rube said, "But Gil [Hodges] thought you may be in trouble." Tom said, "Trouble? I was fucking thinking. Now get the fuck out of here."
Tom's a throwback to the days when pitchers finished what they started. It's part of his workingman's ethos. You don't leave the construction site because you're tired. You put in a full day's work for a full day's pay. Tom started 647 games and finished 231 of them. He pitched until he couldn't get anyone else out, and only then did he leave the game, usually against his will.
"There was no pitch count in those days," Tom said to me. "I regularly threw 135 pitches or more. It's what I was capable of. There should be different rules for different pitchers." I mentioned Justin Verlander, "He's a horse." Tom said, "Then he should have different rules for him." Tom believes young pitchers today hurt their arms because they throw not too many pitches in a game, but too few. Pitchers strengthen their arms by throwing. He mentioned Joba Chamberlain and Stephen Strasburg as examples of pitchers who were babied and still hurt their arms. Who's to know why a pitcher hurts his arm? A mystery. But in today's game, there's no room for mystery, only numbers, statistics, so Scherzer comes out after 109 pitches, and the Tigers lose the game and the series.
The waiter brought our food. A bran muffin and orange juice for Tom, pancakes for me. Tom took a plastic baggy out of his shirt pocket and emptied a bunch of pills on the table. He began popping one after another into his mouth. "Mostly vitamins," he said. "I have stage-three Lyme disease from a deer tick back in Connecticut, years ago. A few months ago, I thought my mind was going. I couldn't remember things." He thought he was suffering from the onset of dementia. He became fearful, withdrawn, for the first time in his life. He was afraid he'd get lost in the New York City streets he used to own. After some tests, it was almost a relief to find out that he had Lyme disease, which could be controlled by vitamins, medicine, diet -- no wine, a cruel irony. And mental stimulation.
That's another reason I was there. To stimulate Tom, or, as he used to put it, to drive him mad with my incessant, intellectually abstract questions. "Tom, did you ever think about innocence?" I once asked. He looked at me. "I mean, if you lose it can you ever get it back?"
"Who thinks about such shit?" he said. "Innocence! You either have it, or you don't."
Ever since I left baseball, I've spent my life thinking about "such shit." Tom has spent his life doing physical work, pitching, gardening, sweating, his hands caked with dirt. It's how we're different. Oscar and Felix. Except in some ways, we're not different. I'm a blue-collar guy, too, but I'm doing a white-collar job. Tom's a blue-collar guy who has hidden his considerable intellect, as if embarrassed by it.
"My brain is almost working again," he said, as he swallowed the last of his pills. "But I still have short-term memory loss." I said, "Me too. We're getting old, Tom." He shrugged, said, "Maybe. Lyme disease makes me sleep a lot, too. I was tired all the time." Then he smiled. "But yesterday I worked 12 hours in the vineyard. That was a great day." I told him I never sleep. Two hours, then awake three hours. He said, "That's 'cause your brain is always working. You have to get it right. You want to sleep? Get Lyme disease."
Then he told me about his daughter, Sarah. When she was 17, she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease. "The doctor told her she'd never have kids, because of the radiation," Tom said. His eyes reddened, but his anger stopped the tears. He said, "I walked out of that doctor's office and said to myself, That doctor doesn't know shit about my daughter." He calmed himself, then added, "She got married and had three sons, boom-boom-boom. I told her, 'Sarah, enough already.' She said, 'Dad, I've never been so happy in my life.'"
We ate in silence for a few moments. Then Tom said, "Did I tell you the Ozzie story?" I said yes, he did. He said, "Oh! I forgot. The Lyme disease. Do you know Ozzie?"
I said, "His wife's beautiful."
"I didn't ask that."
"But she is!"
"Just answer my question. Do. You. Know. Ozzie?"
"I was just giving you some context, writerly details to flesh out the picture." He glared at me. I said, "Yes, I know Ozzie."
"Thank you very much."
"You're still a pain in the ass."
"To you, I am." He laughed. He looked at my empty plate. "Didn't you get anything to eat?" I nodded. "Oh, yeah, you had the … the …"
"Right. You gotta fill in the words for me sometimes." I nodded and changed the subject.
* * *
Ever since I've known Tom, back in 1973, he was an avid gardener. He stuck galvanized nails into the dirt in flowerpots to give his flowers iron. He'd chew tobacco and spit the juice into the pots, saying it was good for the soil. At the deli, he told me that his father used to be in the raisin business in Fresno, but gardening didn't interest him until he got to the big leagues. It was a good way to relax between games. "I love the artistry of it," he said. "Laying out the flowers in aesthetic patterns. But never on days I pitched. I was afraid I might hurt my hand." He went from flowers to grapes and a vineyard, after he'd been out of baseball for about 10 years. It was a natural progression for him -- a return to his home state, back to gardening, and a vineyard -- because he had cultivated a taste for fine wines during his baseball career.
"Outlining a vineyard," he said, "is the same as outlining your pitches for a game, or outlining an artwork. I shouldn't tell you this, 'cause I don't want you to think I didn't value my pitching. But if I could go back and have a second run at it, I'd have become an artist." Instead, now he's just a day laborer in his vineyards. "My vineyard manager is my teacher," he said. "I just do what he tells me. Every day is exciting for me. I get mad when the sun isn't up yet. I'm a single-focus guy. Pitching. The vineyard. I'm the worker. I pick up crap. Trim the vines a little. I did that yesterday for 12 hours, worked all my muscles and slept like a baby."
When Tom first bought his property on the top of Diamond Mountain, he found a place where he could grow Zinfandel grapes for his favorite wine. He hired a vineyard manager, Jim Barbour, who told him, "You don't do Zin on Diamond Mountain. You do Cabernet." Tom grinned and said, "So, I told him, 'That's what I said, Jim. I want to grow grapes for Cabernet.' I don't argue with anyone anymore. I'm on a learning curve. I've reversed the role I had when I pitched. Nobody came to the mound and told me what to do. I'd earned my stripes. Now I ask the questions. I'm a big pain in the ass -- like you. I do what I'm told now, and it's fascinating for me."
After breakfast, we went outside. It was warm now, in the sun. The little town had come alive, the sidewalks crowded with tourists in shorts with backpacks, fanny packs, bottled water. Calistoga is one of those picturesque, 1890, Napa Valley towns: old Victorian houses, red brick buildings renovated into bed-and-breakfast hotels, trendy restaurants, boutiques, wine stores. There was a wine tasting in every third store on Lincoln Avenue, the main drag. Calistoga began as a mining town, silver and mercury, and then became an agricultural area -- grapes, prunes, walnuts. When hot springs were discovered there, it became a health-spa destination, and it still is.
Tom got into his truck. I went to the passenger side and looked through the open window, to tell him I'd follow him to his house in my rent-a-car. The inside of his truck was a mess, vineyard dust coating the interior like a dusty film; Styrofoam coffee cups, tools, papers and crumpled bags littered the seats and the floor. I said, "Geez, Tom, this looks like the kinda' truck a guy drinks out of a paper bag in."
"I told you, I don't drink anymore," he said. "Besides, I keep it this way so no one will want to get in it. But I'm thinking of getting a new one. I saw one at a Ford dealership with a row of lights on the roof. I told the salesman, 'That's the one I want, an F-250 with lights on the roof.' The guy said only the F-350 came with the lights." Tom looked at me with that mischievous grin of his and said, "I told him, 'You wanna sell me a truck, put the fucking lights on the 250.'"
I followed him out of Calistoga, a town ringed with mountains. He turned down a two-lane blacktop, with vineyards on either side and mountains beyond. He parked his truck on the side of the road and got out. I parked behind him and got out. "I just wanted to show you," he said. He pointed to the top of a mountain. "See that tiny little open space at the top?" I nodded. "That's where our house is. We can see the whole valley from there."
We stood in the sun, looking up at the mountain for a moment. Then Tom said, "Did I ever tell you the McCovey story? No, I didn't." So he told me.
Tom used to plan out his game four days before he pitched against a team, the way an artist sketches out a painting. "Pitching is simple," he said. "If you dissect pitching seven days to Sunday, you're done." The first pitch of every inning is the most important. That pitch had to be a strike. The first batter of every inning was the most important. He had to get that batter out. He tried never to put the potential winning run on base with a walk, or, God forbid, an intentional walk. (Once, when pitching for the White Sox, his manager, Tony La Russa, came to the mound and told him to intentionally walk the potential winning runner. Tom refused. He told me, "Tony always thought too much, until I trained him.")
Tom Seaver's Rules for Pitching, as methodical as a CPA. Another rule was: A pitcher should never get beat in a crisis situation with anything but his best pitch. Tom's best pitch was a 98-mph fastball that he could throw wherever he wanted to.
Finally, a pitcher must always avoid his W.C.S. He told me, "I always tried to avoid my Worst Case Scenario, and if I couldn't, I had to have a plan on how to deal with it when it came up. This one game against the Giants, you can guess what my W.C.S. was." I said, "Willie McCovey, with the bases loaded." He said, "Thank you very much. So what do you think happens in the late innings?" I smiled. He said, "Thank you very much. Willie McCovey, up with the bases loaded. So I'm saying to myself, 'OK, big boy, you think you're so hot, a couple of Cy Youngs, what do you do now?'"
There, by the side of a road between vineyards in Calistoga, 30 years later, he looked at me as if he were seeing that moment right now. Big Willie McCovey, waiting at the plate, the bat on his shoulder. Tom said, "This is my all-time favorite moment in baseball. I managed to get 3-2 on Willie, and all of a sudden, it came to me. I'm in my stretch, and I keep checking the runner on first. Now, everyone knows the runner can't go anywhere, the fucking bases are loaded, so what is Seaver doing? I keep checking him, refusing to make eye contact with Willie, throwing him a little birdseed, getting him to think, 'What the fuck is Seaver doing?' I wanted him to be anxious, confused."
He stopped talking. I blurted out, "So what happened!"
"I struck him out on a changeup. Twenty years later, we're at the Hall of Fame, and Willie says to me, 'Tom, why the hell did you throw me a changeup in that game?'"
"Why did you?" I said. "You broke your own rule."
"That's the point, big boy. Everyone knew how methodical I was. How this pitch had to be a fastball. I was Tom Seaver. So this time, I went on instinct." He looked at me with a grin. "Even Tom Seaver has to acknowledge mystery in life."
* * *
A few minutes later, I was driving behind Tom's truck up Diamond Mountain Road. It was very steep, narrow and curving, with a dark canopy of trees hanging over it. There were no guardrails, only the soft dirt on the side of the road and a steep falloff that tumbled down the mountain. We passed a few mailboxes by the side of the road and driveways that went far back into the woods, where houses and vineyards were. Tom pulled his truck off onto a driveway, stopped at an electronically controlled gate, opened it and drove through. I followed for a few hundred yards until the driveway dipped down a bit, and suddenly we were in front of his house, perched on the edge of the mountain.
It was one of those low, ultramodern homes out of Architectural Digest, glass walls everywhere and dun-colored wood that blended into the mountain. We went into the kitchen. Tom introduced me to his other daughter, Anne. The Seaver Family Vineyards is truly a family-run operation. Anne, Nancy and Tom's nephew's wife run the business side. Tom does the grunt work. I saw Nancy to my left, at her desk in the loft, talking on the phone. Tom said, "Nancy's in charge of the business side. I can't concentrate on that stuff 'cause of the Lyme disease. Besides, I hate sitting at a desk."
Anne said, "Dad, Mom's so smart when it comes to business."
"Yeah, she always had this thing about not going to college," Tom said. "This is good for her." Tom and Nancy have been married for more than 45 years. Tom told me that the secret was, "Nancy accepted [that] we didn't live a normal life. I could tell her what I did at the office if I had a good day, and if I didn't have a good day, she knew I wasn't talking to anybody. She accepted it." Today, with Tom's short-term memory loss, Nancy watches over him. She leaves notes all over the house to remind him of things, like meeting me for breakfast this morning.
Anne excused herself and went upstairs to help her mother. Tom gave me a tour of the house, with its poured, concrete floors and wide, open spaces, one room flowing into the next, only a few of the rooms separated by walls. Tom pointed to an Andy Warhol painting of himself as a young pitcher. It was just a photograph, surrounded by a few colorful splashes of paint. He pointed to two smaller paintings on the inside of the exterior wall. They were identical paintings of a spade from a deck of cards, except that one was painted in vivid colors and the other in black and white. "Richard Diebenkorn," Tom said. "My favorite artist. I wish I could paint like him." Diebenkorn was a master, especially reknowed in California, who was equally successful painting abstract and representational pictures. He had a reputation for being a blue-collar, hardworking artist without pretensions.
We went into Tom's small office. It looked unused, as if Tom rarely sat behind his desk, but it was still perfectly decorated with his baseball memorabilia, photos of himself, teammates, other famous players, his parents, his daughters. There were books, too, and old, scuffed baseballs on aluminum racks that ran up an entire wall. He showed me a copy of Hank Aaron's autobiography, inscribed by Hank to Tom.
"My favorite player," Tom said.
"Why? He's not a pitcher."
"I wasn't just a pitcher. I was a baseball fan. These guys were my heroes. I love the history of the game." He shook his head with disgust. "Guys today don't care about the game's history." Then he remembered that I had signed with the Braves in 1959. He said, "Did you know Hank?"
I said, "Yes. I went to spring training with him in 1960. I pitched against him in an intra-squad game."
"How'd you do?"
"Walked him on four pitches. The story of my career." Tom laughed.
He showed me some of his cherished baseballs. A scuffed Babe Ruth League ball. The ball he threw for the last out of his 300th win. The ball he used for his 20th victory, the first time he won 20 games. His prized possession though, was a scuffed Little League ball from 1957. He held it up for me and said, "I pitched a perfect game."
I said, "I pitched four perfect games in Little League and struck out every batter I faced in each one."
He said, "Yeah, well, you gotta move on, big boy."
He was right, of course. I never bring up my baseball past with anyone but Tom. It's childlike, an irrational compulsion to remind him that I pitched, too. I once sent him a photograph of me in a Milwaukee Braves uniform, taken at County Stadium in 1959. I was on the field, standing between Warren Spahn and Braves pitching coach Whitlow Wyatt. Spahn and I were smiling at each other. I was 18. That photo was my way of saying to Tom, "See, Tom! I was good once! Like you!"
Just then, Nancy and Anne came into the office. Nancy gave me a hug and a kiss on the cheek. I said, "You don't have to say it, Nancy. I know. I haven't changed a bit." She looked at my white beard, fluttered her eyelashes and said, "Pat, you haven't changed a bit."
We all laughed.
I said, "I heard you've become quite the businesswoman."
"Well," she said, "for years I was just eye candy."
I said, "Nancy, you were never just eye candy." She had been a tanned, beautiful, California blonde when I first met her, in 1973. She's still beautiful in her 60s, with blonde hair and sharp cheekbones that could be Slavic or Native American. In all the times I met her, she always had a sly remove. She was enigmatic, unreadable, like January Jones in Mad Men. Her husband was the obvious one, a big, emotional, blustering teenager. Nancy was the mystery.
We explained to Anne how we'd known each other for 40 years but haven't seen each other much in the past 20. When he was still pitching, a lot of my communication with Tom was over the phone. I'd call him up after a game and say, "It's me." He'd say, "I know. What do you want?" I'd say, "You're throwing too many breaking balls." He'd say, "You really think so." I'd say, "Absolutely." He'd say, "What the fuck do you know?"
I said to Anne and Nancy, "Tom's always been jealous of my fastball." Nancy tilted her head slightly and said, "Really? I didn't know that." I nodded and said, "Of course, he'll never admit it."
Tom bellowed, "Yeah, and between the two of us, we won 311 major league games."
I said, "I tell everyone that."
Anne looked at us both, then said to her mother, "Dumb and Dumber."
It has not escaped me over the years that Tom's and my vaudeville routine, Frick and Frack, might seem tiresome to others. Childish even. But it's always been our way of connecting with each other after long absences. We don't know how each other's lives have unfolded during those absences. Happiness, tragedy, Sarah's Hodgkin's disease, my wife's breast cancer. When I'm not interviewing Tom for a story, we don't talk about those things, except in a general way.
I ask him if he's happy. He'll say, "Yes. I have my wife, my kids, my grandkids, my dogs, my work in the vineyards. And you?" I say, "The same, wife and dogs and my work." He'll say, "That's all anyone needs." Then we'll slip quickly into our vaudeville routine, as if embarrassed by our small intimacies, and Tom can assume the role of the long-suffering Sundance Kid, burdened by Butch Cassidy's incessant questions, interruptions and delusions of past glory: "You just keep thinking, Pat. That's what you're good at."
* * *
Tom and I went outside to the back deck that looked out over his property, on a brilliantly sunny afternoon that was now hot. His terraced vineyards were off to our left, his swimming pool below us. The Napa Valley and the Palisades mountains were all around, off in the distance. He said he had found these few, then-undiscovered acres because they were all overgrown, trees and scrub. He cleared the land, got in water and electricity, had his house built and laid out his vines.
"The grapes get the south sun," he said, "which is a big deal, apparently."
Today, his Seaver Family Vineyards is a small, highly respected, boutique winery, producing about 600 cases a year. He makes a good profit, enough to live on. "I wasn't afraid to do this," he said, "I didn't want to go to the end of my life and wish I had done it. I don't want to retire, but now the winery is pretty self-sufficient. I'll probably turn it over to the family in a few years, but there's not much more we can do with it. The next thing I want to do is paint. I want to paint these mountains, but I could never paint at the level of Diebenkorn. You know, I used to draw pictures when I was on the road, in my playing days."
It is not odd that Tom equates his gardening, his winery and his painting aspirations with his pitching successes. He sees them all as intertwined, aesthetic enterprises meant to give himself, and others, pleasure. The label on his wine bottles reads: "May you enjoy this wine as much as I enjoy the journey of bringing it to you from day-to-day, month-to-month, season-to-season."
I asked him if it was hard to convince Nancy to leave Greenwich and New York City, to come out here to this seclusion. He said, "She was a little uncertain. We had this beautiful, renovated barn in Greenwich, antique furniture, her garden club, bowling team. But I told her I had to see if I could do this. If I stayed in Greenwich, I'd be Tom Seaver for the rest of my life. I'd die there. Now, she's bought into it, she has her house here, and she's part of something with the business." He glanced at me. "I'm not supposed to wear shoes in the house. I can't bring my dogs in, either. I used to sleep with my dogs when I was a kid in Fresno, because we had no heat. Imagine, me, a kid from Fresno, in New York City. You know they're going to name a street after me in Fresno. 'Seaver Way.'"
He went silent for a moment, looking out over his property. Finally he said, "This was a blank palette when I first saw it. Now it's the most exciting thing I've ever done."
Before we went to the vineyards, he wanted to show me something else. He pointed down to a sculpture by the lip of the swimming pool, overgrown with brush and falling down the mountain. We both hobbled down the stairs and walked to the end of the pool. I had fallen off my stairs the day before I'd come to California, hurting my leg, and Tom was limping, too. I got on the lip to walk around to the sculpture. The lip was narrow. Tom said, "If you fall off, I'm not jumping in." So instead, we both walked through the brush that sloped down, holding on to each other's arms so we wouldn't fall.
* * *
We walked between the rows of vines, up and down the steep terraces in the hot sun. Tom's three Labrador Retrievers romped around us. Big, playful, doofus dogs with their tongues hanging out. He told me their names. "Major, Bandy, Bricks." I said, "Bricks, like in chimney bricks?" He said, "No, Brix." I said, "Bricks?" He said, "No, Brix." I said, "Who's on first?" He didn't get it, so I said, "Spell it." He spelled, "B-R-I-X. It's French for the sugar content in grapes."
We stopped at a vine drooping with clusters of grapes. He snipped off a cluster and handed it to me. I held it over my head, like in one of those old paintings of Roman orgies, and ate the small, black, sweet grapes off the cluster. "Delicious," I said. Tom explained that each variety of grapes had different characteristics that you could only tell by tasting them. That's why each row was numbered.
I said, "Very good, Thomas. You always did explain things precise."
"Ly," he said. "Precise-ly. You're supposed to be the fucking writer, and you don't know your grammar."
"Thank you very much. You know I got a journalism degree from USC." Irony of ironies! Tom Seaver, trying to impress me.
I said, "Yeah, and I had a better fastball than you."
But he went on. "I was always like that about pitching. I had to be precise. I couldn't just mail it in!" Then he began to explain more about his vines, about the cordon and proper height for each vine. I tuned him out and ate my grapes, the juices running down my sweatshirt. He looked at me, annoyed, and said, "Pay attention. I'm gonna give you a fucking lesson."
"I don't want a fucking lesson."
"That doesn't matter. I'm giving you one. Now, if the secondary fruit grows too high, you have to snip it off or else they'll take energy from the vines."
I feigned interest. "How high?"
"Each row has to be only to a height of 14."
"Fourteen what? Inches, feet?"
"I don't know. It's just a standard height. Stop asking questions and just listen. This is important, for Chrissakes. If you didn't talk so much you might learn something. If the vines are too high, you have to trim them." He reached up with his snips and trimmed a vine.
"Oh, I see. The height of each vine is a template for the row. Your job is to go down the row trimming the tops, to make them conform to the template. I can see how the monotony of this appeals to your precise, fucking methodical nature. It's therapy for you."
"Bullshit. You think too much. You always did."
"I had a better fastball than you."
"In your dreams."
"Yeah, and between us we won 311 major league games."
"Abso-fucking-lutely! I tell everybody that!"
I asked him if he'd still have his vineyards if he hadn't missed out on today's big baseball paydays. Tom made more than a million dollars a year only twice in his career. If he were pitching in his prime today, he'd be making $30 million a year.
"I started to lose interest," he said. "I wanted to go home. I couldn't do it anymore. I never was pissed I missed the big paydays. Be careful what you wish for, you might get it. If I'd made that $30 million a year, maybe I'd just have bought that huge, finished vineyard and let others do it all. I'd have missed out on the pleasure of being in the vineyards every day. My pleasure has always been in the work, not the ego."
I told him that when I first got to Calistoga, I asked people in town where Tom Seaver's vineyards were. Nobody knew. I said, "You do know Tom Seaver lives here?" They shrugged. I said, "You do know who Tom Seaver is, don't you?" No.
"I like it like that," he said, "not being known. I put up an emotional barrier. You know, Stan Musial used to say hello to everybody. I can't do that. It's all one way with me. I'd rather learn about someone else than be Tom Seaver. Oh, you're an ankle doctor. Where'd you go to school? Was your dad a doctor? No? He was a coal miner?" He looked at me and said, "Now you got a pretty good story. I love the story stuff."
I said, "You mean rising action, climax and denouement." He looked at me as if I was speaking a foreign language. I said, "I got that from Susie. She was a theater actress for years. I used to run her lines with her. She was like you, fucking methodical. She'd memorize all the other actors' lines in a play, in case they forgot them."
"I like her already," he said. "Baseball is theater, too, only no script. McCovey has a say in the action, not only me."
* * *
In a way, Tom was something of a recluse, even at the height of his fame. He did not want much to do with the world beyond baseball. Outside the game, he cultivated a studied dullness, but Tom was a gregarious guy with his teammates. The clubhouse was a respite from his reclusive nature. Now, left to his own devices, he's let that reclusiveness take over his life. Long, solitary days in the vineyards. They may be good for his psyche, but not for his Lyme disease. He can't exercise his memory if each day in solitude is like the last.
Tom told me a story once. He was 28, at the height of his fame with the Mets. One day he was pitching a game so superbly that its result was a foregone conclusion, to him, at least. He went into the clubhouse between innings to change his shirt, and the "clubhouse kid" told him, "Players aren't supposed to be here between innings." Tom told me, "That kid always used to bust my chops, so I asked if he wanted to play a game of gin rummy." They played while Tom kept his ear tuned to the game on the radio. When it was his time to go back out to the mound, he warned the kid, "Don't you dare look at my cards, I'll be right back." He got three quick outs and returned to his clubhouse card game. He told me, "It was one of those days, Pat, give me a run and the game's done. I got back to the clubhouse and asked the kid if he'd looked at my cards. He said no, so we began again. Then my roomie, Buddy Harrelson came in. He saw me and said, 'Roomie, what're you doin'?' I told him I was playing rummy between innings. What's it look like? Buddy shook his head and said, 'Man, you're crazy!' I said, 'Now, that's a different issue.'"
On this hot afternoon walking among his vines, I wondered why someone like Tom, who loved the company of men in the clubhouse, had turned his back on it. I asked him why he hadn't become a manager or a pitching coach. He said, "Because no one ever asked me." And he was too proud to ask them. He was, after all, Tom Seaver, the greatest pitcher of his age. That's what his contemporaries, Gibson, Don Sutton, Jim Palmer, Juan Marichal, called him.
He was tired now, he said. "Let's go sit in my office." His vineyard office was a circle of trees with two chairs in the open space in the center of the trees. We sat there in the cool shade. His Labs lay around us and went to sleep.
"They've got to be the laziest dogs," I said.
"That's the way to get on my bad side," he said. "Dissing my dogs."
"But they don't do anything."
"They do when they have to. Chase away the deer and scare off the coyotes. All I have to say to them is one word. Kill!" We sat there for a few minutes, and then he said, "I come here when it's hot and I'm tired. I do the crossword puzzles." He looked at me. "I don't believe the way I'm talking today, relative to three months ago."
I asked him what the turning point in his life was. He said, "When I joined the Marines when I was 17." Tom had been just an average-sized kid in high school, and only the third or fourth best pitcher on his team. "All I cared about was baseball," he said. "I was not a good student. Fractions to me were like the Rosetta Stone. I failed advanced algebra in my junior year. My dad was not happy. So I went to summer school, worked my butt off and got a D. My teacher said, 'I'll give you a C if you promise never to take another math course in your life.'"
So, after high school, with no professional baseball or college offers, he joined the Marines. He got taller, heavier, stronger, and most of all, he said, "I learned discipline, discipline, discipline. Somebody says, 'Do it,' you do it, and eventually you come out the other end, and you're proud." He also came out the other end with an improved fastball that got him a scholarship to USC, and later, a bonus contract with the Mets. He got 16 wins (for a lousy team) in his first year with the Mets and was voted Rookie of the Year. He never looked back.
I asked him who were his idols in those days. He said, "My older brother, Charles. He was a beautiful man, 6-foot-4, dark hair like my dad. He had a huge intellect. He wrote poetry, was a sculptor and lived in lower Manhattan. Whenever he'd see me pitch, he always asked me the same question: 'What does it feel like to strike out 14 batters?' I told him it all had to do with how I prepared for a game, how my brain went to a different level three days before I faced a batter, how I created a situation in a game I prepared for. I explained it in artistic terms for him, like it was an artwork you created, physically and mentally." He looked across at me, his eyes reddening with tears, and said, "Charles died of cancer when he was 55."
We got up and walked back to my car in silence. I understood now why Tom was so dismissive of intellectual abstractions. His brother was the brain, so Tom mapped out a more physical persona for himself. Before I left, Tom told me to come back at 6:30 a.m., to watch the sun come up over the mountain with him. It was his ritual every morning, before he went to work in the vineyards in the cool, gray morning. Then, as I backed my car out, I saw him take out a worn little notebook from his jeans pocket, to write down my name, the date and the time I'd arrive.
* * *
Early the next morning, in darkness, Tom and I stood in his vineyards, staring off at the mountains, waiting for the sun. His three Labs snorfled around us. Tom was drinking his coffee. I was smoking my cigar. He looked at it and said, "You're gonna burn down the whole fucking mountain." So I let it go out. We stood side by side, like two old-stone savages, waiting for the miracle of the sun they didn't understand.
Tom asked if he'd ever told me his Ron Hunt story. I said no, but Hunt had been my teammate one year in the minors, and he went on to a 12-year career with the Mets and four other teams. He was famous for crowding the plate to get hit by pitches. Tom said, "I faced him this time and threw him a high, inside fastball, and followed through and lost sight of him. When I looked up, there was a pop fly over my head. I caught it for an out, I thought. And then I looked back to home plate, and there was Ron, sprawled in the dirt, unconscious. I'd hit him right in the head." I told him Hunt was a pain in the ass to pitch to, always crowding the plate, slapping foul balls. "He drove me nuts," I said. "You did good hitting the sonofabitch in the head. I tried to hit him once in a spring training game. Didn't even come close. Walked him on four pitches." Tom laughed. I looked at him. "You think it's funny? It wouldn't be funny if it had been your fucking career."
Just then, the sun came up on cue, click, like stage lights in a theater. It was a pale, reddish-blue color on an overcast day. Tom was disappointed. He'd wanted me to see it in all its fiery glory. Still, the sun's pale light on the vineyards was eerie and beautiful, the vines all darkish shadows without color, until they became a dark green flecked with purple as the sun rose higher, like a French Impressionist painting.
Tom said, "In a way, I'm painting this vineyard as if it was my artwork."
I said, "Yeah, well, I'm doing the same with you. You're like this big, blank block of marble I'm chipping away at. I'm gonna sculpt a Seaver."
For the next hour, I let Tom work in silence. I watched him go up and down the rows, picking up bits of paper or plastic, anything that marred the beauty of his artwork. He studied the top of a vine that was maybe an inch higher than the rest of the row. Then he snipped it to fit the template. He reminded me of the farmer in Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall": Good fences make good neighbors. But who was Tom keeping out?
He was such a contradiction, a recluse who loved the company of men. Was he lonely up here? I remembered how he'd reacted at breakfast the day before, when I told him about Justin Verlander. He asked me a dozen questions about Verlander. I told him how Verlander and I argued over who was better, today's players, or players from my generation and before. He said today's players were better hitters, with their short, compact swings, compared to the longer swings of Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. Tom piped up, "Yeah, but those older guys had multiple swings, depending on the situation. Today's hitters have just one swing, for the fences."
I told him Verlander was a tough pitcher. Great overhand fastball and curve. But he wasn't as smart as Tom, or as disciplined. When he got in trouble, he didn't know what to do, except just throw harder. Tom said, "He sounds like my kinda guy. An old-time pitcher." Then he looked at me and said, "Do you know him well?" I said, "Well enough. Why?" Tom said, as if a little embarrassed, "Maybe the next time you talk to him, you could tell him I'd like to talk to him. He could come up and visit sometime."
When it was fully light, we walked back to his truck to go into town. We were going to meet the photographer, Kelley, who would take Tom's picture this morning for my story. She had driven up from Berkeley, so we told her we'd buy her breakfast at the deli.
I got into the passenger side of his truck. "Geez, this thing is filthy," I said. "I'm gonna have to burn my clothes tonight."
"I like it this way," he said.
"Yeah, so everyone will know you're a working man," I said. He drove the truck onto Diamond Mountain Road, and we moved down the steep, curvy, dangerous path. I said, "You know, I worked construction once. When I came back from baseball, I dug ditches. I learned there's an art to digging an even ditch. You don't stab the shovel at the dirt with your arms. You use your leg, pushing the shovel into the dirt with your foot."
He looked across at me. "And I never figured that out? There was a reason they put a little flange on the shovel? All these years I was doing it wrong, until you just told me how to do it right."
"I'm glad I taught you something."
"Yeah, the Art of Shovelry."
"Wow! Big boy, watch where the fuck you're going! You're gonna drive us off this fucking mountain."
Still looking at me with an evil grin, he said, "Now you're gonna teach me to drive, too?"
"Yeah, and then I'll teach you how to pitch."
"Good. I'll teach you how to write. You don't even know proper grammar."
The trees hanging over the road like a canopy made it seem as if we were still driving in darkness. We must have been thinking the same thing. Tom said, "The woods are lovely, dark and deep." I said, "And we have miles to go before we sleep -- so keep your eyes on the road."
"I thought I'd give you a little something to make you feel good about yourself."
We ate breakfast with Kelley, the photographer. She was in her 20s, tall, slim, blonde. She picked at her food while Tom and I performed for her, two bratty school kids sniping at each other -- Frick and Frack, Felix and Oscar, the Katzenjammer Kids, Dumb and Dumber. While we ragged each other, Kelley surreptitiously raised her camera and snapped our picture. She seemed not to know what to make of these two old guys acting like lovesick schoolboys, trying to charm her. What were we going to do next, pull her hair? She had assumed, at least, that this writer and this famous ballplayer would be grownups!
Kelley followed Tom's truck up Diamond Mountain Road in her Prius. Tom drove more slowly now, so she could keep up. When we reached the mountaintop, Tom checked in his rearview mirror to make sure Kelley was behind us, then turned down his driveway. He was quiet for a moment, as if something had been bothering him.
Finally, he said, serious now, "Did you really throw harder than me?"
I laughed. "The truth? Probably not. My best shot was 95, 96. But I had a great overhand curve. Straight down. If I didn't throw it in the dirt or over the batter's head, it was unhittable." Tom laughed now. I said, "My manager called it 'The Unfair One'."
While Tom posed for Kelley in the rows of his grapevines, I went into his "vineyard office," in the midst of the trees. I watched Tom pose, smile, it all coming back to him now: the right camera angle, one hand on his hip, the other draped over a vine, slouchy-hipped. So natural with the camera aimed at him, in a way only famous people can be.
Later, we all walked back to the cars and stood around for a few minutes, while Kelley snapped a few more pictures of Tom and me.
Tom said, "Did I ever tell you my 'Boomer' story?" Boomer had been a young catcher who caught some of Tom's games, later in his career. One night, Boomer started the game so zonked out on greenies, he forgot to give Tom a sign for each pitch. Finally, Tom called out to him from the mound: "Get your ass out here, Boomer. Put some fucking numbers down." Boomer, with his drug-fueled bravado, said, "If you're so goddamned good, you won't need any signs." Tom said, "OK with me, you gotta catch them."
I interrupted Tom. "Was he serious?"
"I'm telling the fucking story. Just be quiet and don't ask questions."
"What'd he do if he was guessing fastball and you threw a slider?"
"Not my problem. Will you just listen? I'm building a story here. In creative writing, you've got to set the reader up for the … the …"
"… the climax and the denouement." Tom laughed. I said, "So what happened?"
"I'm trying to tell you, but you keep interrupting."
"Did you win the game?"
Tom threw up his hands in frustration and exhaled a great breath. "All right, you win. Yes, I won the game."
"End of story," I said. Tom glared at me.
After Kelley left, I thanked Tom for his time. "I had fun," I said.
"I can't believe the way I've been talking today," he said.
We shook hands, and I got in my car. Tom stood by my window. Then he leaned over to get closer to me. He said, with wonder, "You know, I can still see every pitch."
* * *
Pat Jordan is a freelance writer living in Abbeville, S.C. He is the author of A False Spring and 10 other books, and has written for The New York Times Magazine, The New Yorker, Harper's, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, GQ, Rolling Stone, Men's Journal and many others.