08/19/1985 at 01:00 AM EDT
"Ninety percent of this game is 10 percent mental."
Anonymous clubhouse wit
Tom Seaver has a vice. Yes, Tom Terrific, who just became the 17th pitcher in history to win 300 games, has a terrible human weakness. This loving husband, devoted father and ace of the White Sox staff has become a devoted crossword puzzle addict. "I started doing them to get away from the game," says the 40-year-old right-hander, who began experimenting with the New York Times crossword when he was with the Mets. "Now I'll do any one that's lying around."
He'll even do yours if you let him. In the Chicago clubhouse a week before his landmark 4-1 win over the Yankees, Seaver, in his underwear, strolled over to a teammate who was struggling with the crossword in USA Today. "What do you need?" asked the three-time Cy Young Award winner, who leads the Sox with a 12-8 record and 2.92 ERA. Before the guy could reply, Seaver blurted out the answer to 44 across: P.S. I Love You—a Beatles song.
See, out of control. And it'll take more than a couple of sessions at Acrostics Anonymous to solve Seaver's puzzle problem. Its roots, Dr. Freud, are deep-seated. It all goes back to the inner game of baseball.
When Seaver came up to the Mets in 1967, he possessed a blazing 95 mph fastball. But just as singular as his golden arm was his baseball mind. If the hitter guessed inside fastball, he would get a slider outside. "He was a student of the game," recalls his then manager, Wes Westrum. One of his more vivid lessons came at the quick hands and bat of Henry Aaron. Along with Sandy Koufax, Aaron was Tom's boyhood idol. "I knew his every mannerism," says Seaver. In his rookie year in Atlanta, Seaver got Aaron out on a fastball away, followed by a slider down and in. "Next time up I threw the same pitches," says Seaver, laughing at his naïveté. Bad Henry blasted it for one of his 755 home runs. "Great big lesson," says Seaver. "Major league hitters adjust."
So do major league pitchers. As his hummer dropped to an eminently hittable 85 mph, Seaver has had to compensate—with guile. He now lives, and wins, by his wits. In victory No. 300 (he's lost 189 times), with men on first and third and the game on the line, he threw five tantalizing fastballs to the dangerous Dave Winfield—followed by an achingly slow change-up. Winfield struck out looking as if he were swinging at pitches from another time zone. Strangely, Seaver seems not to miss his missing fastball. In fact he admits there are certain pleasures in winning with mental jujitsu. "There's more satisfaction in it," he says. Is the game more fun? The puzzle connoisseur considers the word: "The noun is not 'fun.' That's too simplistic." What the fiercely competitive Seaver feels on the mound is something far richer and more complex. "I think Tom has become a student of himself," says catcher Carlton Fisk, coming dangerously close to the poetic.
Ultimately it was Seaver's competitiveness, his pride, that led to one of the most traumatic moments in the annals of New York baseball—the exile of "The Franchise" to Cincinnati. After 10-plus years with the Mets, Seaver and his wife, Nancy, had become the city's golden couple. They were seen everywhere, including the Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade. Then, in the midst of Seaver's rancorous salary dispute with the Mets, New York Daily News columnist Dick Young implied that Nancy was jealous of the salary earned by Seaver's friend and ex-teammate Nolan Ryan. Furious that his wife's name was being dragged through the mud—and suspicious that the Mets had planted the story—Seaver called GM Joe McDonald and screamed, "Get me outta here."
Three years later the team was sold to Nelson Doubleday, and Seaver was reacquired in 1983—only to be lost again in the free-agent compensation pool of 1984. Once again Mets fans howled with pain. Seaver belongs to New York just as surely as Pete Rose belongs to Cincinnati.
And so Seaver's historic performance was bittersweet for New York fans. As 54,000 cheered his emotional homecoming, Seaver's wife of 19 years and their daughters, Sarah, 14, and Anne, 9, looked on from a box next to the visitors' dugout in Yankee Stadium. Though Seaver may have been pitching his way into the Hall of Fame, Anne's view of her father remained unspoiled. After the eighth inning, Seaver leaned into the box and whispered to her, "Just three more outs to go." "Good," replied Anne, her eyes aglow. "Then can we go swimming?"
Though he tried, on this day Seaver was unable to finish his usual pre-game crossword puzzle. "I was too nervous," he says. "I felt like I was levitating. I got stuck on a three-letter word for obese." By now Tom Terrific must be back down to earth. So we offer him a clue in a special baseball crossword: Six letters, headed for the Hall of Fame, watching him over the years is more rich and complex than mere "fun." Solution: S-E-A-V-E-R.