Cincinnati Reds Immemorial: Terrific Edition

There are times in life when you find success has discovered your name and in doing so, writes it into legend. Few know the way that moves you, the way it causes you to see the world, the way it causes you to reflect on your life when it flees you. Fewer still can recall a bevvy of stories about such moments.

As the Cincinnati Reds General Manager Walt Jocketty has made abundantly clear, he came into this offseason with one goal: to obtain a pitcher that will strengthen his team’s starting rotation. There are precious few options that really portend the impact necessary to replace Johnny Cueto at the top of the starting five or even to secure the spot directly behind him. Namely James Shields or Gio Gonzalez.

Other than those two, no one stands out; no one seems particularly terrific. And certainly not Tom Terrific.

Basking in the glow of back to back World Series championships, the Cincinnati Reds of the 1977 season were battling once again for a National League West title, trailing the division leading Dodgers by 7 games on June 15th, a far from alarming number with so much season left to play. But they were struggling to stay on the top side of the .500 mark and weren’t above attempting to make a trade to improve the ball club, especially when the improvement involved receiving “the [original] Franchise.”

Tom Seaver absolutely was the Mets, the face, the arm, the man of the franchise. Tom Terrific they called him. By the time his eleventh year had started, he was a Rookie of the Year, a 9-time All Star, a 3-time Cy Young Award winner, even an MVP runner up during the Miracle Mets’ season of 1969. He was overpowering in his early years, a mix of strong arm and technical wizardry in the middle of his career, and still crafty enough to find a way past his opponents in his twilight. He sat down hitters with unused bats no less than 200 times every year in his first ten, with the exception of his rookie campaign. His ERA lead with the number 3 only twice in his career to that point and one of the times, the first half of 1977, it was a cool and even 3.00. He finished a remarkable 161 complete games with the Mets, 39 of which were shutouts. He even came within two outs of authoring a perfect game, an effort he now refers to as his “Imperfect Game.” He would have four more games with the Mets that ended with only one hit marked against his effort.

And he was a competitor. He said that the greatest part of the World Series championship he had with the Mets was not the celebration that ensued after the miracle occurred, but the time he remembered between those white lines and the times he went back out there with his team. And the Reds brought him over to Cincinnati to bring that spark to their team for a third championship in as many years. Now it’s commonly believed that the Reds had to actively participate in the trade though the amount of effort they had to exert can still be debated as to the veracity. They had to give up 4 players to get the Mets to hand over their franchise: young second baseman Doug Flynn, pitcher Pat Zachry who had lost to the Seaver-led Mets only 8 days prior, outfielder Steve Henderson, and minor league outfielder Dan Norman. Hall of Famers they were not.

So what happened? In 1972, revered manager of the 1969 Miracle Mets, Gil Hodges, died of a heart attack. Free agency set in, a move Mets Baseball Executive M. Donald Grant opposed, and the negotiations to keep Seaver a Met became contentious, playing out in the tabloids on a seemingly daily basis and eventually leading to Seaver accusing Grant of planting stories about Seaver’s wife to hurt his stance as the Mets’ most beloved player. He famously asked Seaver during negotiations if he was a Communist and what business he had of joining the Greenwich Country Club. Clearly, the love affair that was so strong with baseball, the fans and the Mets, no longer extended to the front office.

And so the Reds got an ace and for virtually nothing they lamented losing. And while Seaver never took the Reds back to the promised land, it wasn’t from a lack of ability in the beginning of his time in Cincinnati. He never matched the same stats he had with the Mets, but he made 2 more All Star appearances in those stark white Reds’ pajamas of the late 70s and he even finished as the National League Cy Young runner up in the strike shortened 1981, posting a 2.54 ERA and a 14-2 record losing out to a certain craze sweeping the baseball world known as El Toro, Fernando Valenzuela. He pitched only 42 complete games in his 5+ years with the Reds and only 12 of those were shutouts, but his record was still a terrific 75-46 during his stint here.

Of course, while he was still in his prime, on June 16th, 1978, a year and a day removed from his trade, pitching for the still intact Big Red Machine, hunting for another pennant in the NL West a year removed from sweeping the Yankees during the last world title the local nine would see until 1990, he finally found a form of perfection, a no-hitter against the St. Louis Cardinals at Riverfront Stadium. It would be the first and only time the hit column on Seaver’s scorecard would be filled with that perfectly round 0. He’ll be remembered more by baseball for this time with the Mets than he will be for that no-hitter during his time with the Reds, but it was still a special moment for a legend of the game. Even with the no-hitter marked in the Redlegs record book and his induction from Reds fans as a Reds Hall of Fame member in 2006, he never quite reached the revered legend in Cincinnati that he had achieved in New York and would find few Reds fans who would place him above Mario Soto, Mr. Perfect Tom Browning, or Jose Rijo as their all time favorite, even though their combined win total of 320 with Cincinnati just barely surpassed Seaver’s astounding 311 career wins. But they were considered true Reds, with Rijo being the only one of the three that had wins for any other ball club. Seaver would never be any other team’s son but the Mets. So much so, that when Seaver achieved his 300th win while pitching for the White Sox in an August game against the other New York team, the Yankees flew in Lindsey Nelson, long time voice of the Mets, to call the game for the Yankees flagship television station just to give it a Mets’ feel.

While the Reds are out shopping for an ace or the second best thing, they will unfortunately find no one looking to move their “Franchise” and certainly not on the cheap. In fact, even with the nicknamed Freak out in San Francisco, there truly are few guys today who could even hold that moniker with such command as Tom Seaver. During the press conference he gave after the trade to Cincinnati, after he had been finally ripped away from his baseball family and out of his city, he shortly remarked about the ovation he had received from the fans a day earlier and it lead to his tears choking back his voice. While he was silent and solemnly trying to regain his composure, a reporter asked him if he was going to miss them. Unable to respond, the time in between could be filled by half of New York and plenty of Reds fans.

“No, Tom Terrific. We’ll miss you.”

Addendum: Within the initial reaction to this post, discussion informed me that my feelings toward Seaver were, ahem, askew, to put it nicely. Talking back and forth with twitter user Kevin Mann (@Kev1KevinMann), he disagreed with the tone of the article, saying:

ooooo, wish you had consulted me! Nothing like reds/dodgers 55,000 @riverfront and seaver on mound w/ GREAT7, minus tony …

And replying to my comment that I was young and only remembered hearing that the Reds didn’t accomplish great things with Seaver here:

odd argument…. In 77, the pitching staff totally disintegrated, seaver went 14-3, won 21 total. They would have finished 4th!

I rarely try to add “me” into any post I write, even though everything I put out there is 100% my opinion and subject to the sentiments, correct or otherwise, I grew up with. To me, what I grew up hearing from the people I learned baseball from, was that Seaver was a legend who didn’t manage to accomplish legendary things in his time with the Reds. If he had come to the Reds and they won another championship, the baseball fans I grew up around would have seen him as bonafide savior to the twilight years of the Big Red Machine. But as it was, their disappointment in the lack of another championship tempered my opinion, whereas those who realized Seaver himself couldn’t save the collapse of the pitching staff were more prone to realize how great it was to have him on the mound and see him in person. In the future of these articles, I will try to engage more of my colleagues and the people whose fandom spans a few more generations than my own, to try to provide a more complete and better representation of the times I’m trying to describe. The impressions from my youth and a good amount of research can only take me so far. Plus, it’s always nice to talk Reds baseball, especially with those who remember the greatest of times!