My all-time favorite Tom Seaver story

We have all been busily organizing our thoughts and our memories about Tom Seaver these last few days. If it’s possible, the thing that made Seaver matter so much to us has almost taken a backseat — the fact that he was, almost certainly, one of the 5-10 greatest pitchers ever.

My favorite story is the first one he ever told me, the first time I ever interviewed him. This was in 1998, and I was doing a story about the 15th anniversary of the Mets acquiring Keith Hernandez. My premise was that Hernandez’ arrival in 1983 was the same change agent that Seaver’s in 1967 had been for the first Mets champions.

Seaver eagerly agreed with my premise.

“Remember, I was in that team when Keith got here,” Seaver said. “But by then I was of the old school. Players would seek my advice, but I was already a museum piece to them, even if they wouldn’t say those words to me. But Keith got here and it was like the air was restored to the room. He was so serious. And all business. I liked that. And I knew things were about to change for the better.”

Then Seaver shared a story of his own, and this has stayed with me ever since. On the evening of May 21, 1969, Seaver threw a three-hitter at the Braves’ Fulton County Stadium. The Mets won, 5-0, and improved to 18-18 on the season. It was the first time they had ever been .500 that late in the season. This was a big story for the New York newspapermen waiting outside the busting clubhouse.

Tom Seaver in 1983.AP

Seaver was all of 24. And he knew, by instinct, this was as big a moment as he’d ever faced.

“I hated — hated — the idea that we were always looked at through the prism of how bad the team had been. I was serious. This was my life. I wasn’t pitching to be a punchline for anyone. And even though I was a kid, I wanted my teammates to feel the same way. And by ’69 I had a lot of kindred spirits.”

So he gathered them around him as soon as they returned to the clubhouse. And he delivered his orders.

“These guys are gonna want to celebrate that. I say [nonsense] to that. We haven’t done a thing yet. We’re .500 — that’s mediocre. I don’t want to be mediocre. We need to treat this as just another game. One step on the way to where we want to get. Who’s with me?”

They were all with him.

The writers entered, tried goading and coaxing the players so they could write purple rivers of praise and left with notebooks blander than grits.

The late Maury Allen covered that game for The Post. I asked him about it once.

“They didn’t give us a thing!” he said with a laugh. “Some of us had been waiting seven years to write about them as a legitimate baseball story, and we were ready to blow them up and just write glowing stuff. And they wouldn’t let us. And not just the players.”

Indeed, even manager Gil Hodges followed the lead of his young star.

“We’ll drink champagne,” he told the writers, “but not tonight. We’ll wait until we win the pennant.”

Allen said years later: “We thought Gil had lost his mind. Because how could you think otherwise?”

The funny thing was, the Mets immediately went into the tank, lost five straight, fell to 18-23, and the writers figured they’d blown their one chance ever to write nice things about the Mets. But Seaver knew a message had been sent.

“They never treated us like a bunch of loveable clowns after that,” he said. “From then on when we lost they criticized us, but that was a lot better than when they felt sorry for us.”

They’d reached legitimacy. Under Seaver they would soon reach even greater heights, of course, but even years later Seaver was proud of the night he’d demanded to be treated like a real baseball team. And who better to execute that maneuver? He wasn’t The Franchise for nothing.

Vac’s Whacks

Intellectually, I think everyone knows that when Edwin Diaz and Aroldis Chapman smile after allowing killer home runs, they are neither happy about it nor minimizing what just happened. But, man, it would be good if they could stop doing that. (The smile, I mean. But also the killer home runs.)

Every good thought you can muster, please, for one of the genuinely good sporting people in our midst, Hofstra basketball coach Joe Mihalich.

Alex Rodriguez thinks he was cheated? I mean … does that even need a punch line?

If you grew up around here in the ’80s, then you surely left behind huge chunks of skin at Action Park. “Class Action Park” on HBO Max will bring your back to those days pretty easily. And from the safety of a couch.

Whack Back at Vac

Vac: It’s only right that The Franchise takes over ownership of the WhackBacks this week.

Roland Chapdelaine: All day I was expecting it. I watched SNY and MLB, saw all the videos, the interviews, the memorials. Then the Mets took the field, and all these twenty-somethings who weren’t born until after Seaver was a Hall of Famer, had brown dirt on their right knee. And then I lost it.

Tony Giametta: It says something that even the greatest Met player of all time, who gave them their first taste of credibility, could not escape the malpractice of upper management in losing him not once, but twice, in his career.

John Buonagura: There’s one word that describes Tom Seaver’s career: unforgettable

Denis Fenton: We knew it was coming but it still hurts. I, like so many of our generation (born in 61) who are Met fans, idolized Tom Seaver. Yes, I got lucky the way so many New York kids of the ’60s and ’70s got lucky. A bit of my childhood died last night.

@JoeDeeee: My first sports hero and still is. Classy, courageous and more perfect than Mary Poppins herself. I cried at the age of 10 in 1977 and doing the same at the age of 57. R.I.P. Tom, you were truly Terrific. Thanks for everything.

@david_troyan: Tom Seaver not only is the greatest Met, he defines what the team does best: starting pitching. The thread runs through Seaver and Koosman to Gooden and Darling to deGrom and Thor. He truly epitomizes the franchise.

Greg Doyle: Every kid growing up a Met fan on Long Island wanted to be Tom Seaver. We waited for him to pitch then scoured the newspaper for his stats. We were devastated when he was traded, but our love for the franchise never faded. His passing is the very sad end to an era.