In an interview with the New York Post, Dwight Gooden shared his memories of the late Mets pitching coach Mel Stottlemyre.
On April 29, 1967 — the day Atlantic Records released Aretha Franklin’s single “Respect” — the New York Mets were shutout, 7-0, by the Cincinnati Reds. The loss dropped the Mets into ninth place (7 ½ GB) in the National League just two weeks into the season.
On paper, Tom Seaver’s professional baseball career is remarkable. The man known in New York as “The Franchise” won the 1967 Rookie of the Year, compiled 311 career wins, recorded 20 or more wins in a single season four times, 200+ strikeouts 10 times (including nine straight seasons between 1968-1976), led the National League in strikeouts five times, won three Cy Young Awards, tossed a no-hitter and was voted to the All-Star team 12 times. Seaver’s career was cemented in 1992 with his induction to the Baseball Hall of Fame, recording a record 98.8% of the vote.
It is not a stretch to suggest Seaver is one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history. But Seaver’s journey to baseball immortality wasn’t without one-way street here and a dead end there. In fact, the road was crooked from the beginning.
In 1965, the Los Angeles Dodgers drafted Seaver in the June draft. Seaver demanded a $70,000 signing bonus from the Dodgers, but the team balked. The following June the Atlanta Braves drafted Seaver and the two agreed to a $40,000 deal. But, stop.
MLB Baseball Commissioner William Eckert ruled the signing illegal between Seaver and the Braves. According to the commissioner’s office the contract was terminated because the University of Southern California had already played two exhibition games when the agreement was reached and, according to MLB league rules, teams could not negotiate or sign a player after the college season began. Despite the fact that Seaver did not play in either game, the contract was void. Seaver intended to play for USC and, again, re-enter the June Draft. But the NCAA ruled that his having signed the contract had cost him his amateur status and ruled him ineligible, even if the contract were no longer in effect.
Eckert eventually ruled that MLB teams would have the opportunity to match the Braves’ offer. Three teams matched the offer — the New York Mets, Cleveland Indians and Philadelphia Phillies — and a special lottery was held for the rights to Seaver.
The Mets won the lottery and the next decade is, well, baseball history.
Seaver arrived in New York in 1967 and eventually led the Mets to a World Series in 1969 and a second appearance in 1973 against the Oakland Athletics. But his career took a sharp left on June 15, 1977, when the Mets traded Seaver to the Cincinnati Reds, a infamous day in Mets history known as the “Midnight Massacre.”
“The impact was awesome,” said former Mets infielder Len Randle. “I had no idea a player could have that much impact on a city, since Joe Namath, I guess … it was a bad move.”
The deal was like a soap opera and it eventually plunged the Mets into the darkest era in team history. They would finish last in 1977 and would lose 95 or more games in each of the next three seasons under manager Joe Torre, who would be fired after a 41-62 record in the strike-shortened ’81 season. Attendance at Shea Stadium plummeted and the Mets would not have another winning season until 1984.
Seaver reflected on the experience in an interview with the New York Daily News in 2007 saying:
“It was both the worst day of my career and the best day as I look back on it now. The team was being run into the ground by Grant – and really had started to go down after Gil (Hodges) died (in 1972). If I had stayed, once the whole face of the club had begun to change, would I have won 300 games? As it was, I got to play with Rose and (Johnny) Bench in Cincinnati, then I got to see the other league and got to play with Pudge (Carlton Fisk) and even got to experience the Red Sox in 1986 and all that Boston energy. It would have been nice to be a Met my whole career, but I’m eternally grateful to have experienced all I did.”
Five years later, in December 1982, the Reds traded Seaver back to the Mets. He was coming off a 5-13 season with a 5.50 ERA. Seaver pitched 111 innings, striking out 62 batters and did not record a single complete game. He struggled through the 1982 season with a hip injury and sore right shoulder. Many wondered if he was done. Still, the Mets wanted Seaver to return home enough to consider giving up one of their top pitching prospects. Eventually, the Reds agreed to a lesser deal and Tom Seaver returned home.
He returned to New York with a career record of 261-156. Seaver, a proud, confident and competitive man was on a mission: to win 300 games. He went right to work, throwing in the indoor cage under the right-field stands at Shea Stadium three times a week. His catcher: Jeff Wilpon, who was then a 21-year-old catching prospect for the Montreal Expos.”The Mets are a young club,” Seaver told the New York media. “I hope I can help them win. I don’t want to play for a .500 club.”
In 1983, the Mets finished in last place and last in National League attendance. Instead of winning 15 games and pitching 250 innings as he had hoped, Seaver lost 14 games, but pitched his heart out and gave then Mets GM Frank Cashen everything he’d asked for: a role model and a pitcher who could go out every five days and give the team a chance to win.
But more weirdness was coming.
On this day in 1984, the Chicago White Sox claimed Seaver from the free-agent compensation pool. The moved shocked the Mets, their fans — and Seaver.
“The Mets certainly made a mistake by not protecting me. You don’t have to be a Harvard law student to figure that out. They admit it. I’ve got a lot of thinking to do for the next 24 to 48 hours. My alternatives are to retire, or not to report and wait for the White Sox to trade me, or to negotiate a contract and play in Chicago. I honestly don’t know what I’m going to do. I’m healthy, but there are other things I love besides pitching. Leaving New York, leaving my family, that would be the tough part.”
He considered retiring, but Seaver was determined to win 300 games.
“Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa,” Cashen told the media. “I had the final decision, I made a mistake. We made a calculated and regrettable gamble.”
Seaver made his return to New York in August 1985 as a member of the Chicago White Sox and earned his 300th win at Yankee Stadium.
Only in New York.
Only in Queens.
TOM SEAVER’S CAREER TIMELINE
- 1965: Drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers
- 1966: Drafted by the Atlanta Braves
- 1966: Draft lottery: New York Mets win the rights to Tom Seaver
- 1969: The Miracle Mets win the World Series
- 1973: The New York Mets return to the World Series, losing 4-3 to the Oakland Athletics
- 1977: Midnight Massacre: Tom Seaver traded to the Cincinnati Reds
- 1978: Tom Seaver pitches no-hitter for the Cincinnati Reds
- 1982: Reds trade Seaver back to the Mets
- 1984: The Chicago White Sox claim Seaver after Mets leave him unprotected
- 1985: Seaver wins 300th as a Chicago White Sox
- 1986: Seaver watches from Boston Red Sox dugout as Mets win Series
- 1992: Tom Seaver inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame (98.8% of vote)
In 1976, Bob Myrick found out the hard way how Jerry Grote felt about losing when the Mets rookie pitcher beat his catcher in a game of Backgammon, causing Grote to explode and sending the board and its pieces across the room with a single swing of the arm.
“I just sat there staring at him – hard,” remembered Myrick. “He got up and picked up all the pieces, and we never had a cross word.”
Grote’s desire to win led to unparalleled intensity on the field. During his 12-year career in New York, teammates labeled Grote surly, irascible, testy and moody.
Then, there’s Jerry Koosman’s description:
“If you looked up red-ass the dictionary, his picture would be in there. Jerry was the guy you wanted on your side because he’d fight you tooth and nail ‘til death to win a ball game.”
Grote played with an anger and intensity that was, at times, intimidating to opponents, umpires, the media and teammates alike.
“When I came up I was scared to death of him,” said Jon Matlack, winner of the 1972 Rookie of the Year award. “If you bounced a curveball in the dirt, he’d get mad. I worried about him more than the hitter.”
“He could be trouble if you didn’t do what he said,” added former Met Craig Swan. “He wanted you to throw the pitches he called. He made it very simple. I would shake him off now and then, and he would shake his head back at me. If a guy hit a home run off of me, he wouldn’t let me hear the end of it.”
Grote had a special way of letting his pitchers know he wasn’t pleased with a pitch. “Jerry had such a great arm. He could throw with great control and handcuff you in front of your belt buckle,” remembers Koosman.
Grote would get incensed when Jim McAndrew was on the mound.
“McAndrew would never challenge hitters according to where Grote wanted the ball; so Grote kept firing it back and handcuffing him in front of the belt buckle, and we would laugh, because we knew what Grote was doing,” said Koosman.
The tactic didn’t go over so well when Koosman pitched. During a game when Koosman was struggling to find his control, Grote began firing the ball at his pitcher’s belt buckle. Koosman called Grote to the mound.
“I told him, ‘If you throw the ball back at me like that one more time I am going to break your f—ing neck,’” Koosman told Peter Golenbeck in Amazin’. “I turned around and walked back to the mound, and he never threw it back at me again. We had great respect for each other after that.”
He took his frustration out on umpires too. Retired umpire Bruce Froemming claims Grote intentionally let a fastball get by him, nearly striking Froemming in the throat. Because they had spent the three previous innings in a non-stop argument, Froemming accused Grote of intentionally moving aside in hope that the pitch would hit the umpire.
“Are you going to throw me out?” snapped Grote.
“He made no attempt to stop that pitch,” Froemming thought. The home plate umpire fumed but realized he had no grounds to toss Grote from the game.
National League umpires were well aware of Grote, and his on-field demeanor. In fact, in 1975, the league was discussing physical contact between catchers and umpires. Jerry Crawford was queried about his unique style of resting a hand between a catcher’s hip and rib cage and he said, “I ask the catcher if it bothers him, and only Jerry Grote has complained.”
“The writers never respected Grote, but they guys who played with him could barely stand him,” said Ron Swoboda. “He loved to f— with people but who didn’t like anyone to f— with him. It was a one-way street. Grote is Grote, and we would not have been as good without him behind home plate.”
“Grote had a red-ass with the media, but he didn’t care,” added Koosman. “All he cared about was what he did on the field. If you didn’t get your story from what he did out there, you either talked to him nicely or he wasn’t going to give you any more story.”
Grote did not return calls or respond to multiple email requests for an interview for this story.
This is who Jerry Grote is – and the Mets knew it from the day they traded for him for a player to be named later in October 1965.
“When we got him, I don’t think anyone else had that big of an opinion of him,” said Bing Devine. “Jerry was withdrawn and had a negative personality, but he knew how to catch a ball game and how to handle pitchers, and maybe that very thing helped him to deal with the pitching staff. He was great. I know he surpassed our expectations.”
He was exactly what the Mets needed to manage a young, extremely talented pitching staff, but he was clearly a handful to manage too.
“If he ever learns to control himself, he might become the best catcher in baseball,” former Mets manager Wes Westrum told the media during Grote’s first season in New York.
Then, in 1968, Gil Hodges arrived. After being briefed on the Mets roster, Hodges said he “did not like some of the things I heard about Jerry. He had a habit of getting into too many arguments with umpires and getting on some of the older players on the club.”
Hodges, known for his firm but fair demeanor, took Grote into his office for an attitude adjustment. The Mets manager realized the importance of Grote’s talents and how it would affect the pitching staff. Hodges made his expectations clear.
“I hesitate to imagine where the New York Mets would have been the last few years without Jerry,” Hodges told Sports illustrated in 1971. “He is invaluable to us. He is intent and intense and he fights to get everything he can.”
Grote batted .256 in his 12 seasons in New York. He is a two-time All-Star (1968 and 1974). In 1969, Grote threw out 56% of baserunners. He ranks third on the Mets all-time list for games played (1235), 11th in hits (994), 15th in doubles and total bases (1413).
He fractured his wrist after getting hit by a pitch in May 1973. The Mets recorded three shutouts the first month with Grote behind the plate, four more shutouts over the next two months (May 12-August 11) without Grote behind the plate and eight more shutouts over the final six weeks of the season with Grote managing the staff.
He caught every inning of every playoff and World Series game in 1969 and 1973. Here’s a statistic for you: In the 20 post season games between ’69 and ’73, the Mets used 45 pitchers and one catcher. Those were the only two post season appearances the Mets made during Grote’s 12 years in New York.
“One of the advantages of playing for New York is that the big crowds at Shea Stadium help you tremendously,” Grote told Sports Illustrated. “They make you want to give 115% all the time. In other places it cannot be the same for the players. Like in Houston, nobody seems to applaud unless the hands on the scoreboard start to clap. Once those hands stop, so do all the others. Real enthusiasm.”
Grote loved playing in New York, and New York loved his gritty style.