Once he was the National League's premier power pitcher, a man whose fastball used to soar at better than 90 miles an hour for the New York Mets. Three times during a four-year stretch in the early 1970s he had the lowest earned run average in the NL. On five occasions, and he still thinks he can do it again, he has won 20 or more games in a single season.
The steel-eyed gentleman under discussion is right-hander Tom Seaver, who at age 36 is about to complete a remarkable year with the Cincinnati Reds. His 14- 2 record going into the season's final weekend gives him the best winning percentage (.875) of any regular starter in either league. Clearly, had it not been for baseball's 50-day strike, Tom would have had an excellent chance for another 20-victory season and perhaps 200 strikeouts as well.
Seaver, who does not talk, act, dress, or conduct himself like most ballplayers, would not look out of place behind an executive's desk. This is a businessman who understands his trade; who is aware that to survive he must be better than the hitters he faces; and who has always kept a notebook on their strengths and weaknesses, including regular updates.
"Even as a rookie with the Mets in 1967, Seaver was smarter than most pitchers who had been around five and six years," recalled Jerry Grote, who caught the bulk of Tom's games when they were both with New York. "He knew the mechanics, and he knew the tricks, and he knew the importance of staying in shape.
"He was always ahead of the hitters in his thinking, and his secret was that he never used the same pitching pattern two years in a row," Grote said. "I think the established habits he saw in most hitters made him feel he had to change his own or fall into the same trap they were in."
Seaver is 41 wins away from 300 lifetime victories, which are Hall of Fame credentials. It isn't even necessary to ask him if he plans to stay around after his current two-year contract expires, because his competitiveness shows every second he's on the mound.
"The only way I wouldn't go for those 300 is if I suddenly discovered I couldn't pitch any more and was embarrassing myself," Tom said. "As long as I continue to throw well, I don't think my age is relative to what I do, although instead of having three good fastballs now I'm down to just two.But I certainly could never agree with anyone who says I can't win 20 again.
"Generally I don't worry about numbers, only consistency," he continued. "IF you're consistent, the numbers will be there. I don't worry about what other pitchers do either. I like to run between starts because I think it helps my legs. Yet Steve Carlton of the Phillies hardly runs at all. On the other hand, Carlton is into stretching exercises that do for him what running does for me."
Seaver says one reason he has lasted so long is that he pitches as much with his body as he does with his arm, thus dividing the physical strain into equal parts.
Asked if he had changed much in his approach to pitching over the years, Seaver replied: "The thing most people don't understand is that pitching isn't the same every time out. Pitching is what you have best on the day you work, and if you can't get your fastball over the plate, then maybe you can win with your curve.
"I've also learned over the years that most hitters' strengths and weaknesses expand and contract, especially if they are in a groove or in a slump. But basically hitters fall into a pattern, and once you know what they like, you can set them up for the putout with something else."
"When I first came up," he continued, "I hated to walk anybody. And it's true, a lot of hitters who walk eventually come around to score. But I've learned since that sometimes it's better to put certain power hitters on base, so you know where they are, than risk having them beat you with a home run.
Whenever he has a big lead, though, he'll bring the ball in closer to the center of the plate to make it more attractive to the hitters. The theory here is that most of them will probably hit it right at one of his fielders anyway -- and even if they don't, it's better to give up an occasional hit than to risk putting runners on base via walks and opening the door for a biginning.
Although Seaver and his wife, Nancy, (before they had a family) offered their joint services for a fee to any legitimate advertiser who wanted to use them, today Tom seldom allows the public to get a piece of him.
For example, while Seaver didn't refuse to sit still for this interview in the visitors' clubhouse of Dodger Stadium, he let me know that he really didn't want to talk by reading a newspaper most of the time I was asking him questions.
Impolite? Well, not exactly, because several times he stopped and took long moments to amplify points he could easily have brushed off. Without appearing to make excuses for him, I would much rather have interviewed Tom in his home (a converted barn) on the seven acres he owns in Greenwich, Conn.