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Draft Spotlight: Tom Seaver

Tom Seaver Tom Seaver was not an overwhelming prospect as an amateur, but he came on strong late in his college career and shot to the majors

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Tom Seaver went into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992 with the highest percentage of votes (98.84) of any player on record. It culminated a brilliant 20-year major league career that included 311 wins and three Cy Young Awards.

But there was little in Seaver’s amateur background to indicate that he would evolve into one of the game’s greatest pitchers.

Seaver began his pro career in a swirl of controversy in 1966, when his rights were awarded to the New York Mets in a special lottery arranged by the commissioner’s office. The Atlanta Braves had selected Seaver in the secondary phase of the January draft, with the last pick in the first round, and agreed to terms on a $40,000 bonus on Feb. 24. But because the University of Southern California had already begun its 1966 spring schedule, Seaver was ineligible to sign and commissioner William Eckert nullified the contract. Because Seaver had signed a contract, the NCAA also ruled that he was also no longer eligible to play in college. It was a classic Catch-22 scenario.

Seaver’s father threatened a lawsuit, and in an unprecedented move, Eckert set up a special drawing for Seaver’s services with a condition that the pitcher would be paid a bonus of at least $50,000. The Mets, Philadelphia Phillies and Cleveland Indians elected to participate, and on April 3, 1966, the Mets had the good fortune to pull Seaver’s name out of a hat. A day later, they signed him to a contract that provided a bonus of $51,000.

Eckert also fined the Atlanta organization $500 and forbid the Braves from signing Seaver for a period of at least three years.

“I did it for the interest of the boy and the public,” Eckert said. “The youngster had previously signed a contract with another club in good faith, only to learn that he had been improperly contacted. It was not his fault the contract was later invalidated.”

Seaver made an immediate impression on Mets officials, especially after getting off to a hot start at Triple-A Jacksonville. “He’s the best pitching prospect in the minor leagues,” proclaimed Jacksonville manager Solly Hemus. “Wonder Boy reminds me of Robin Roberts the way he throws, only he’s faster than Roberts. He knows what he’s doing and has great poise. If he’s not injured, he’s going to be one of the big stars of the game.”

Seaver went 12-12, 3.13 with 188 strikeouts in 210 innings, at Jacksonville in his one and only season in the minors. A year later, he was in the big leagues to stay, and by 1969 steered the Miracle Mets to their improbable World Series triumph, winning 25 games.

But it wasn’t always that way for Seaver. As a high school senior in Fresno, Calif., in 1962, a 5-foot-10, 165-pound Seaver was so frail that few colleges showed interest. He spent the next year working in a local packing plant and in the Marines, and when he enrolled at Fresno City College in the fall of 1963 he matured into the team’s ace.

Seaver joined the USC rotation in the spring of 1965, and while he went 10-2, 2.47, his raw stuff didn’t overwhelm scouts and he wasn’t picked until the eighth round of baseball’s inaugural draft by the Los Angeles Dodgers. The two sides never came close to a deal, as Seaver’s $70,000 asking price was not met by Dodgers scout Tommy Lasorda.

As a 21-year-old junior, Seaver was eligible for the draft’s new secondary phase the following January, and almost overnight became a prospect with legitimate raw stuff.

“Some clubs wouldn’t give him more than $4,000 because he had a below-average fastball,” veteran Southern California scout Al Kubski said. “But he pitched against a team called the Crosby All-Stars just before the draft and was facing active major leaguers. He struck out 12 in five innings. I found out then that, yes, a fastball can be improved after a pitcher becomes older. It’s unusual but it can happen, as I saw with Seaver.”

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