Excerpt from THE 1969 MIRACLE METS: The Improbable Story of the World’s Greatest Underdog Team
The Fresno City College Rams have one of the greatest J.C. baseball traditions in the country. Maloney, Ellsworth and Selma all pitched there before going to the big leagues. Scouts and college coaches paid attention to them. In September of 1963, a couple months shy of his 19th birthday, Seaver came out for what the coaches and players call “fall ball.” He was known for having made all-city pitcher at Fresno High, even if it had been “because there wasn’t anyone else to choose.” But his new height, the 30 pounds of muscle, the newfound strength, gave Tom confidence that he could not help but be noticed by coaches and players alike. After the initial period of conditioning came the moment of truth: try-outs on the mound. After warming up, Seaver got set, went into his motion, and delivered a 90-mile per hour fast ball. The ball sailed up and in, smacking into the catcher’s mitt with a loud thud. Suddenly, USC did not look like such a pipe dream. In the spring of 1964, freshman right-hander Tom Seaver was the ace of the Fresno City College team, compiling an 11-2 record against stiff competition, earning team MVP honors.
What was happening to Seaver was less a phenomenon and more common than many realize. The high school blue chipper is accorded great attention, but many times he has physically matured sooner than his peers have. Sometimes he peaks at the age of 17 or 18. Others, like Seaver, grow, gain strength, and mature in more ways than one. Few make the kind of transition that Tom Seaver would ultimately make, but many high school “suspects” in various sports go on to become “prospects” in college, in the minor leagues, and in their 20s. Some attain stardom. Scouting is a very tricky, unpredictable business.
The impossible seemed to have occurred. Seaver’s 11-2 record at Fresno City College earned the recruiting attention of Rod Dedeaux. He was a legitimate fastball artist. Dedeaux called him the “phee-nom from San Joaquin.” But Dedeaux needed to know for sure that he could compete for the Trojans. “I only have five scholarships to give out,” the coach told him. Before the ride would be offered, Seaver would have to prove himself with the Fairbanks, Alaska Goldpanners.
Today, collegiate summer baseball is a well-known commodity. Many scouts place more credence on a player’s performance in one of these leagues than they do on their college seasons. The Cape Cod League uses only wooden bats, which proves to be a great equalizer for pitchers and a shock for aluminum-bat sluggers who find themselves batting .250 on the Cape. Summer ball has a long tradition in Canada, where American collegians test themselves in such exotic locales as Red Deer, Alberta, Calgary and Edmonton. The Kamloops International Tournament in British Columbia has attracted some of the fastest baseball for decades. The Jayhawk League, consisting of teams from Boulder, Pueblo, Colorado Springs, plus Kansas and Iowa, was once a leading destination for college players. The California Collegiate Summer League, consisting of teams from the Humboldt Crabs in the north to the San Diego Aztecs in the south, has produced many stars in its various forms over the years.
But the Alaskan Summer Collegiate League is the most legendary. Over time, the league became the Alaska-Hawaii League, with teams flying in for extended road trips on the islands and the “land of the midnight sun.” “The team was put together by a man named Red Boucher,” said former Met pitcher Danny Frisella, who was a teammate of Seaver’s in Fairbanks. Boucher was the Mayor of Fairbanks.
“He got all the best young ball players up there.” Andy Messersmith of the University of California became a 20-game winner with the California Angels. Mike Paul pitched for Cleveland. Graig Nettles played for Minnesota. USC quarterback Steve Sogge, a baseball catcher, played on that team. Rick Monday was an All-American at Arizona State, where he was a teammate of Reggie Jackson and Sal Bando in a program that captured the 1965 National Championship (also producing Mets’ pitcher Gary Gentry). In the very first amateur draft ever held in 1965, Monday became the first player chosen, by the Kansas City A’s. “Monday was there the year I was and he couldn’t even make our team,” said Frisella. “I think 13 guys were signed off that team. It was semi-pro ball, and we played eight games a week. We didn’t get paid. Not for playing ball. But I earned $650 a month for pulling a lever on a dump truck. And I didn’t have to pull the lever too often.”
The man most responsible for the growth of summer collegiate baseball was Dedeaux. In 1963, when his Trojans won their fourth national championship, the press dubbed his team the “New York Yankees of college baseball.” He eventually retired with 11, having produced such stalwarts as Ron Fairly, Don Buford, Bill “Spaceman” Lee, Jim Barr, Dave Kingman, Rich Dauer, Steve Kemp, Fred Lynn, Steve Busby, Roy Smalley, Mark McGwire and Randy Johnson. His successor, Mike Gillespie, won the school’s 12th College World Series in 1998 (Texas is second with five) while producing such talented stars as Bret Boone, Aaron Boone, Jeff Cirillo, Geoff Jenkins, Jacque Jones, Morgan Ensberg, Barry Zito and Mark Prior.
If a young player wanted to test himself amongst the best of the best, he could find no more competitive environment than the USC baseball program. For Tom Seaver, having tasted real success for the first time in his life at Fresno City College, it represented the ultimate challenge. He needed that scholarship; not just to save his father from paying the steep tuition, but also to give himself imprimatur as opposed to “walk on” status. A college player generally returned to his hometown after school let out and played on a pick-up team, or a ragamuffin semi-pro outfit. The competition was not good and players benefited little, returning to school without having progressed. Dedeaux wanted his players to experience something akin to minor league life; playing nightly games, traveling, and handling a fast brand of ball that prepared them for the college season, then a pro career.
In the 1950s he sent his players to Canada, where in addition to good baseball experience they enjoyed the educational aspects of life in an “exotic” locale far from home. When Alaska became a state, Red Boucher raised money to build a first class facility and began recruiting the best collegians to Fairbanks. Dedeaux and USC were his number one source. A league was developed with teams in Fairbanks, Anchorage (the Glacier Pilots and later the North Pole Knicks), the Palmer Valley Green Giants, and the Kenai Peninsula Oilers. Teams from Canada and the contiguous lower 48 states traveled to Alaska. The sun almost never set in the summer. Lights were not needed. On June 21 a “midnight sun” game starting at 11 P.M. was played without any lighting. The Alaskan teams also traveled, playing in an end-of summer tournament called the National Baseball Congress in Wichita, Kansas. The NBC featured all the best teams from across America. The Canadian teams generally played in the Kamloops International Tournament.
Years later, when Tom Seaver became a broadcaster even before his playing career ended, he told partner Joe Garagiola of his Alaskan experience during a World Series telecast. “They play baseball in Alaska?” asked Garagiola. “Really good baseball, Joe,” replied Seaver. “Tell me about it,” inquired Garagiola, and Seaver did just that.
In June, 1964 Seaver boarded a plane for Fairbanks to join a team consisting of future big leaguers Monday, Nettles, Curt Motton, Ken Holtzman and Gary Sutherland of USC. They were All-Americans with national reputations. Seaver was immediately intimidated, wondering whether he, a junior college pitcher still battling the insecurities of a nothing prep career, could compete at this level. He had little time for contemplation once he arrived, however. Boucher’s wife met him at the airport. “We’re playing a game right now,” she told him. “I brought a uniform with me. You can put it on at the field. We may need you.” The beautiful stadium and the large crowd struck Seaver. In a town of 20,000, some 50,000 people attended Goldpanners games over the course of an entire season.
“I dressed in a shack near the field,” Seaver recalled. There was no time for introductions when he arrived in the dugout, beyond Boucher’s handshake and orders to get to the bullpen to warm up right now. The score was tied 2-2 with the Bellingham, Washington Bells in the fifth inning as Seaver hurriedly got loose, was waved into the game and “met my catcher on the way to the mound.”
He proceeded to retire the side, then met his teammates in the dugout. That night, Seaver pitched effectively in relief, earning a hard-fought victory and the respect of his all-star mates. He was used mainly in relief, later rating himself the “third- or fourth-line pitcher” on the ‘Panners. He lived with the Bouchers. Aside from being a community leader, Red was a sharp baseball man who taught young Seaver important lessons on the psychology of pitching. He was very much like Tom’s optimist mother. Seaver came to understand that half the battle was believing in himself. Through psychology and the experience of successfully testing himself against the best, he was gaining invaluable confidence. Boucher told him that each morning he needed to wake up and say to himself, “I am a Major Leaguer.”
Dedeaux coached a summer team of USC players in Los Angeles that traveled to Fairbanks. Seaver pitched and mowed them down with high heat. When Boucher yelled at Dedeaux from across the field how it was going, the USC coached cracked, “How the hell would I know? I haven’t seen the ball since the second inning.” Seaver’s scholarship offer was seemingly secured that night, but there were still bumps in the road.
In August the Goldpanners made their way to Wichita for the NBC, stopping in Grand Junction, Colorado for a tune-up against a fast semi-pro outfit. Seaver started but was hammered off the mound. NBC rules required the roster be reduced to 18 players. Boucher had to decide between Seaver and Holtzman, an All-American at the University of Illinois. He visited Seaver in his hotel room to inquire of his confidence, but the young Californian just told him to “try me.” Boucher kept Seaver. Against the Wichita Glassmen, Seaver was called on in relief with the Goldpanners winning 2-0. The bases were loaded in the fifth inning with one out. Boucher tried to steady his reliever, but Seaver just growled that he had “listened to you all summer long. Now it’s up to me. Give me the ball and get out of here.”
Confident or not, it took some doing for Seaver to steady himself. Two walks and an infield hit pushed across three runs and now the Goldpanners trailed, 3-2. A double-play kept the damage down. Over the next innings Seaver gained command. It was before the days of the designated hitter. In the eighth inning with the bases loaded Seaver came to the plate. Boucher saw something in the young man who had once batted .543 with 10 home runs in little league. He decided to let him hit. Seaver responded with a grand slam to win the game. He pitched and won a second game in the tournament, earning summer All-American honors from the National Baseball Congress. For the first time, professional scouts were evaluating him.
“We had a lot of players who could throw the ball harder than Tom,” Boucher recalled. “His fastball moved well, but he was no Sandy Koufax. His curve and slider were not much better than average by college standards. His greatest asset was his tremendous will to win. And he had this super concentration. He believed he could put the ball right through the bat if he wanted to.”
Dedeaux called Boucher and inquired of several USC players on the Fairbanks roster. Boucher interrupted him to say that Seaver would be “your best pitcher.” Boucher assured him that he would “bet on it,” to which Dedeaux replied that the Alaska manager was so high on the kid “I really don’t have any choice.” Seaver had finally assured himself of the scholarship. He arrived at USC during a golden age on campus and in Los Angeles. That fall of 1964, quarterback Craig Fertig led the Trojans to a breathtaking comeback victory over Notre Dame, 20-17. USC’s running back, Mike Garrett, would go on to become the first of the school’s seven Heisman Trophy winners.
Seaver enrolled as a pre-dental student, joined a fraternity, and quickly made friends with Dedeaux’s son, Justin. In June 1965, the very first Major League draft was held. Rick Monday, an All-American outfielder for National Champion Arizona State, was the number one pick. Because he had not gone into the Marines his first year after high school, the sophomore Seaver’s college class was in its third year, making him eligible for the draft. Already, the strategy behind obtaining maximum signing bonuses meant that college juniors would get more, since they had the bargaining leverage of returning for their senior year. A graduated senior had to take whatever was offered him or go home, his eligibility gone.
His favorite team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, drafted Seaver. He and his USC pals regularly went to nearby Dodger Stadium on his uncle’s tickets to watch the great Sandy Koufax pitch. Scout Tom Lasorda came around to negotiate. If Seaver had lacked any confidence before, making All-American at the National Baseball Congress, retiring Fairly, and compiling a 10-2 mark for Troy took care of that. Lasorda offered $2,000. Seaver came back with $50,000, arguing that Selma had received $20,000 from the Mets out of junior college and he was a seasoned Trojan star. Lasorda came up to $3,000, but that was that. The tantalizing possibility of Tom Seaver forging a career on the great Dodgers teams of the 1970s would be only that, tantalizing. “Good luck in your dental career,” Lasorda told him.
It was a real-world business lesson Seaver was not going to learn in any economics class. It also meant a return to Fairbanks in the summer of 1965. This time Seaver did not arrive in Alaska as an unknown, dressing in a shack and introducing himself to his catcher on the mound. There was sense of hierarchy on the Goldpanners, and the ace pitcher at the University of Southern California was tops on that hierarchy. It was as talented a team as any in the country, the “all-star” concept of picking the best collegians from around the nation making the Goldpanners better than most college teams and probably better than a lot of minor league clubs. The “pitching staff was so deep and talented – Andy Messersmith, Al Schmelz, Danny Frisella and I were the starters . . .” recalled Seaver. As can happen when a young athlete achieves success, a sense of overconfidence – some call it “senioritis” – can effect his performance and often requires some “negative feedback” in order to right the tilting ship. The Goldpanners again made it to the NBC in Wichita, but the plethora of talented pitchers, all vying for mound time to gain experience, strengthen their college resumes, and of course get visibility for the scouts, meant that Seaver’s toughest competition came on his own team. In Wichita, “I had a chance to win only one game before we reached the semi-finals” against the Wichita Dreamliners.
A big crowd and lots of scouts came out for a ballyhooed match-up between the hotshot Trojan hurler and a semi-pro outfit consisting of four recent big league performers; Bobby Boyd, Jim Pendleton, Charlie Neal and Rod Kanehl. Neal and Kanehl had played for the New York Mets. Neal led off the game with a triple, Boyd added three hits, and Kanehl stole home as the Dreamliners defeated Seaver, 6-3. Seaver probably could have pitched around some of the ex-big leaguers but challenged them instead, paying the price. He hated walking hitters even if it meant giving them a pitch they could hit. After getting knocked from the mound, Boyd approached him. “Kid, you got a great future ahead of you,” he told him. “You’re going to be a big league pitcher.” Seaver felt the veteran was mocking him. That night, Tom and some teammates went out for beers. Kanehl joined them, repeating what Boyd had said. Fairly had expressed admiration for his ability, too.