The Odd and Revered Job of Throwing a Ball


January 10, 1992|By RICHARD REEVES

Los Angeles. -- "Ballplayers!'' said Ken Boswell as our taxi rolled past the security guard at a back gate of Dodger Stadium one summer evening in 1970.

Three players and I had missed the New York Mets team bus from the hotel out to Chavez Ravine and had to pay our own way -- Boswell, a second basemen, and the Mets' two star pitchers, Tom Seaver and Jerry Koosman.

One of us made the Baseball Hall of Fame this week. And it wasn't me. ''Tom Terrific,'' they called Seaver in those days -- not without a certain edge, because the man always seemed too good and goody-good by half -- and even then, his fourth season, it was obvious he was one of the best who had ever done the odd and revered American job of throwing a little white ball 60 feet and 6 inches time after time.

I wondered whether the Dodger guard thought I was one of them. I was still young enough, a 33-year-old reporter for the New York Times, although I had already discovered that being with a professional ballclub was like stepping back in time. They were a bunch of kids, only seeming older at a distance because like most American men, I am always 14 years old when I watch baseball.

Seaver, who was only 26 years old then, may never have been truly young. The man with the golden arm had a head on his shoulders. I thought he was a man who could make it as almost anything; he just happened to be able to throw 100 balls in a row at almost 100 miles an hour. I admired him then -- still do -- and learned a few things from him during a week of traveling with the Mets for a magazine story.

Work was what I learned about, the honesty of doing your best work, but remembering you are just another employee. Loyalty can be a fatal virtue in a free market, a thought that was with me as we drove into the stadium Los Angeles gave Walter O'Malley to steal the Dodgers from the most loyal of the loyal, Brooklyn fans like me. A job is just a job, and if you don't understand that, the guy paying you does -- no matter how intense and bonding the work experience.

All the men I traveled with that week learned that the hard way, when they slowed down a step or something snapped in their shoulders. Tom Terrific himself -- ''the franchise,'' he was called later -- was discarded by the Mets a few years later in a contract dispute.

As for me, I got to ask the questions I had always wanted to ask and saw with absolute clarity why these guys got to play ball while I had to hit typewriter keys. Their skill level was astonishing. Showing off for me that day, a half-dozen of the Mets played pepper, standing 10 yards apart, hitting and throwing the ball with what seemed to be all their might. It ended with one guy pointing to me and then hitting a shot right between my legs, just south of disaster. Tug McGraw, the team's best relief pitcher, chased long drives in the outfield, dropping his head at the last moment and catching the ball behind his back -- time after time.

''What does it mean,'' I asked Seaver, ''when you say you're putting the ball where you want to?'' He folded the hotel check in half -- we were eating breakfast -- into a square about 4 inches by 5 inches and said: ''If you put this anywhere in the strike zone, I will hit it every time. Not always in the center, but the ball will touch it every pitch.''

''How much of the game is luck?'' I asked.

''None, nothing,'' he said. ''We might win or lose tonight because of a lucky break. But over a season it all evens out.''

''C'mon,'' I said. ''Look at a guy like . . . '' I named another pitcher who had lost a string of close games.

''That's not luck,'' Seaver said, with the coolest of disloyalty. ''He's not good enough. He's never going to make it.''

I looked shocked. These people didn't talk like this on television. ''Listen,'' Seaver said. ''You work in that big room at the Times?''

''Yeah.'' More than a hundred of the best reporters in the world sat behind identical desks in a room that went from 43rd Street to 44th Street near Times Square.

''Could you stand in front and tell me who's good and who's not?''

''Sure,'' I said. ''That's my business.''

''This is my business,'' said Tom Seaver.

So it was. It was a pleasure to watch the man work.

Richard Reeves is a syndicated columnist.

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