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Shea's Summer of Tears left fans torn

Shea's Summer of Tears left fans torn

NEW YORK -- The seats not filled by human beings were filled with the overflow of ambivalence. Not until the first Interleague game between the Yankees and Mets 20 summers later would Shea Stadium be so fractured as it was that Sunday afternoon in 1977. The Mets in one dugout, the Reds in the other. Jerry Koosman starting for the Mets and -- some folks still have trouble fathoming this part, much less saying it -- Tom Seaver starting for the Reds.

Even when the dear departed Dodgers and Giants returned to oppose the Mets in the Polo Grounds and Shea, the ballparks weren't so severely split. Those tugs of emotional war didn't compare with what Shea experienced Aug. 21, 1977, when Seaver returned to Shea in the uniform of an enemy.

The Reds, for goodness sake! Seaver was no more a Red than Cincinnati was a borough. What was he doing in that getup? How could he bear wearing gray if Koosman and Buddy Harrelson were dressed in white? What would Gil Hodges have said? And that white "C" on his cap. It was a scarlet letter.

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To some gathered at Shea that afternoon, the "C" stood for something else: "Cry."

Among those who teared up 31 years ago Thursday was the Mets shortstop, Seaver's sidekick, Harrelson. It isn't wise to have vision impaired when standing in a big league batter's box, 60 feet, six inches from a guy who could throw as Seaver still threw then. But for Harrelson, the personal overtook the professional for an instant in the first inning. Already staked to a 1-0, lead, Seaver retired Lenny Randle on a fly ball, bringing "his" shortstop to bat.

Their kinship, their seasons in the sun, the Marches in St. Pete, the off-days in St. Louis and Philly and Chicago, the ground balls the pitcher hadn't handled but the shortstop had -- Buddy always had Seaver's back -- the shared misery of losing, the rings they had won eight years earlier ... All of it crowded into Harrelson's head and made it leak.

"Buddy said he cried," someone told Seaver when the game over. Seaver looked up with a start. "He did?" he said in a voice half incredulous, half understanding.

"It was such a difficult ... unnecessary day," Harrelson would say decades later.

Days after he had struck out looking with compromised vision, he could joke about it.

"I was hoping Tom wasn't as choked up as I was," Harrelson said. "I was counting on his control. What would have happened if he couldn't see either?"

A new direction

It had been the Summer of Tears in Flushing. While the Yankees were ascending to the World Series throne, the Mets were disintegrating. Seaver, afforded the stately nickname "The Franchise," had been exiled, traded away -- did it matter to whom? -- on June 15, when board chairman M. Donald Grant tore up the roots of what had grown next to Roosevelt Ave.

The following morning, Seaver emptied the locker on Pitcher's Row in the home clubhouse at Shea, the one just to the right of the clock. His time was up. Spanky was leaving Our Gang.

Farewell Shea Stadium

The franchise had spoken the previous night. At times that morning, The Franchise couldn't speak. Both wept that morning. Seaver borrowed a pad and pen from a reporter and silently expressed himself. It hardly was a fond farewell.

Before the discord became public, personal and messy, Grant and Seaver had squabbled about money. Clouds had begun to form months earlier. Grant had received the support of Daily News columnist Dick Young, whose writing eventually prompted Seaver to say "Get me outta here."

Grant accommodated, and the darkest days of the Mets began. They reverted to what they had been before Seaver's arrival in 1967, a sad-sack team devoid of championship talent and hope. Their next winning season was 1984. The contrast between Grant's frugal ways and the over-the-top spending of George Steinbrenner couldn't have been greater. New York's teams were separated by more than a river and the Triborough Bridge.

Steinbrenner had bought Reggie Jackson the previous offseason at a time when Grant said "We won't bid crazily [in the free-agent market]." And then Grant traded the symbol of the Mets' success, the player who remains the only Hall of Famer depicted on his plaque wearing a Mets cap.

The Mets matched the Dodgers, Giants and Yankees that day. The two National League franchises had betrayed their followers by leaving 20 years earlier. The Yankees had allowed the franchise to fall into disrepair, coldly cutting Casey Stengel, then Yogi Berra when all they had done in their final seasons was manage teams to American League pennants.

Seaver's situation was different from theirs because money clearly was the issue. Free agency had been initiated the previous November. And Seaver was the Mets' first genuine luminary. The Dodgers had given Brooklyn Pee Wee, Jackie, Gil and Duke, the Giants had the wonder of Willie, the Yankees had Joe D. and Mickey, Yogi and Whitey and all those Octobers.

And the Mets had Tom Terrific. Then they un-had him.

The trade, Young's columns and developments that preceded the trade spawned the ambivalence that Sunday in August. Even before the 46,265 paying customers gathered inside Shea that afternoon, the old Irish cop who worked the door to the Mets' clubhouse knew what to expect. "You know what they want to see, don't ya?" Bill Madden said. "Tommy pitch a perfect game and the Mets win."

Neither happened. Seaver buried his former team. His departure and that of Dave Kingman the same night had transformed the Mets into certified have-nots. The Mets' marketers tried to retain some of the appeal the team had developed. "Bring your kids to see our kids," was the ad campaign.

But the public's reaction was "Don't try to kid us."

The crowd that day was the second largest to see the Mets play at Shea in 1977, exceeded only by the 52,784 who paid to see the game against the Astros three days after the trade. It was Jacket Day and, coincidentally, the day Seaver made his first start for the Reds, in Montreal. The New York Times report the following morning began thusly: "Tom Seaver hurled a three-hit shutout yesterday, but the Mets lost 4-3."

But this was Aug. 21. The Mets were in last place, 27 games from first with a 49-73 record. They had lost 38 of 61 games since the trade, including 13 of the 16 preceding Seaver's return. Seaver arrived with a 13-5 record; Koosman's record was 8-15. Shea loved Koosman. But Seaver was the ballpark's first love.

The Reds won, 5-1. Shea went away dissatisfied. There was no other way.

Ever the professional, Seaver spoke analytically after the game, as was his wont. He didn't deny the emotion, but there was no need for another pad and pen.

In reminiscing last month, Seaver said: "That day wasn't as hard as the day I was traded. I had a game to pitch. I knew how to put aside emotions on the days I had a job to do. ... But I don't want to say it was easy. You know, I do have feelings. But I channeled the energy into pitching."

He pitched a complete game, striking out 11. He even singled and scored two runs. He clearly was a former Met.

And Harrelson said, "I wish I could say I was surprised."

Marty Noble is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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