May 1, 1974 was a Wednesday night. I was 18 years old and a senior at Venice High School in Los Angeles. The Dodgers have been my team since I was a child. While in high school my buddies and I would attend at least one game a week at Dodger Stadium. This game would be a little different. Instead of asking my buddies to accompany me to the game, I asked my Dad to go. Being a mid-week night game I assumed he would turn me down. He didn’t. We got a late start from home, but in 1974 I could get us from our home in Mar Vista to our seats in the left field pavilion in about 20 minutes. Only left field was open for the weeknight contest, but getting there just prior to the first pitch caused us to sit in center field, almost directly behind the pitchers. This would turn out to be a fortunate circumstance.
The pitching match-up was excellent. The ace of the Dodger staff, Andy Messersmith (he would go 20-6 in 1974) was opposing the 1969 and 1973 Cy Young Award winner for the New York Mets, Tom Seaver. Seaver was a Southern California kid. Born and raised in Fresno, he attended Fresno City College and then the University of Southern California (USC). It was the match-up of two of the best pitchers in baseball. Our seat in center field was the perfect place to watch the greatest pitching performance of my life.
Messersmith would be very good, but Seaver was in a completely different zone.
Both pitchers were in control through the first four and a half innings. Messersmith had given up a walk and three singles, but had been bailed out by two double plays and had struck out four Mets. Seaver was nearly unhittable, allowing one baserunner (a first inning walk to Willie Crawford) striking out four and allowing only one ball to leave the infield.
The 1974 National League MVP, Steve Garvey led off the bottom of the 5th for the Dodgers. Seaver got cute and tried to sneak a breaking ball by Garvey. He hung it badly and Garvey crushed it. The ball wound up in the back of the Dodgers’ bullpen in left field for the Dodgers’ first hit and a 1-0 lead.
Seaver struck out six of the next nine L.A. hitters while retiring nine in a row. Messersmith, while not as dominating as Seaver, continued to shut down the Mets until Wayne Garrett drove an Andy Messersmith fast ball into the empty right field pavilion leading off the Mets’ 8th. The game now tied, Seaver and Messersmith continued to dominate. Seaver was especially tough, only allowing an infield single to Bill Russell through the 11th inning. Both starters were still in, however, Jimmy Wynn hit for Messersmith in the bottom of the 11th and the Dodgers went to the Cy Young Award winner in 1974, Mike Marshall.
Seaver came out to face the Dodgers in the top of the 12th. Bill Buckner touched Seaver with the Dodgers third hit with one out. Billy Buck promptly stole second base. Seaver elected to intentionally walk Willie Crawford and then ended the Dodger threat when Ron Cey popped-up to shortstop Bud Harrelson and Garvey struck out for the third time. That was it for Tom, as he was scheduled to lead off the Mets’ 13th, and New York Manager Yogi Berra chose to hit for his star.
The Dodgers would score a run in the 14th to win the game 2-1. The win would improve their record to 19-6 on their way to the National League Pennant. New York, who won the National League in 1973, would have a miserable season in 1974, finishing 5th in the six team Eastern Division.
Seaver, who finished the game with 16 strikeouts allowed 3 hits and two walks (one intentional) in his 12 innings. Watching from center field was enlightening, as Seaver was awesome. Meeting “Tom Terrific” in 1992 with my daughter Anne, I brought up that game and mentioned to him that I had seen Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Don Drysdale, Warren Spahn, Steve Carlton, and many other Hall of Famers in my life, but his game that night was the best performance I had ever seen. He winked and asked if I remembered how many he struck out that night. My answer was I wasn’t sure, but I think it was about 13. He smiled and said, 16. He agreed it was the best stuff he ever had and lamented about his hanging curve-ball to Garvey. His Game Score was a career best of 106.
There’s a case to be made that Tom Seaver is the greatest pitcher of all time. We at A Sip of Sports listed him 7th, but three of the pitchers we listed ahead of him played a long time ago (Johnson, Alexander, and Grove), while a 4th was active right after World War II (Spahn). There were two more modern pitchers we listed ahead of him, but one was Roger Clemens, who we could disqualify for his PED usage. That leaves Randy Johnson as the only one listed ahead of him that doesn’t have a “but” next to his name. We rated “The Big Unit” 6th to Seaver’s 7th. That’s a pretty fine line between two all time greats. If you want to argue that Tom Seaver was better that’s very reasonable.
Seaver passed away in August at age 75. In a year that has seen the departure of several of the baseball heroes of my youth (Al Kaline, Tom Seaver, Lou Brock, Bob Gibson, Joe Morgan and Whitey Ford). That game is a major reason I will always be a baseball fan. It’s the greatest individual athletic performance I have ever personally witnessed.
Love that story!