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Sunday, July 9, 2006




July 9, 2006 -- YOU can never be certain just how well these things will work out. You hope for the best. You hope that you give a kid the ball one day and he'll start making magic right away. That's all it really is, of course: hope, and wishful thinking, and the fervent belief that one of these days, another Tom Seaver will drop out of the sky, another Dwight Gooden, a kid around whom you can build everything.

That's the special magic of a kid pitcher, after all. It's why, in 1969, there was never any doubt that Seaver was the heart and soul of the Mets, even though Cleon Jones hit .340 that year. It's why, in 1985, it was Dwight Gooden who got his picture on the side of a building in Manhattan, while Darryl Strawberry had to be content with milk ads.

It's why, if Mike Pelfrey is everything the Mets hope he is, if he becomes everything they so desperately want him to be, he'll be the one around whom Mets fans will plan their weeks in the years ahead, more than Lastings Milledge, more than Jose Reyes, more, even, than David Wright, who's as close to Roy Hobbs as you'll find without a movie script.

Pitchers are just different. They've always been different. Their starts are an event. Their games are a happening. Wright plays every day. Reyes plays every day. You miss them today, you'll catch them tomorrow. Not so with a starting pitcher, who gets 34, 35 times a year to do what he does, only 17 or 18 of those at home. When you get a good one, he's a must-see.

Maybe Pelfrey can be that some day. He's certainly been the object of an inordinate amount of interest, publicity and fan speculation. Mets fans have been waiting for another Seaver, after all, from the moment the last Seaver went away.

What's funny, of course, is that part of the reason the last Seaver was able to become what he became is that he did it with hardly any fanfare at all. Mets fans knew he was good. Maybe they could believe he'd be great. But how could anyone guess that Tom Seaver would become Tom Seaver, the Franchise, the guy who made the Miracle possible, the man who caused an entire city to lapse into a deep depression when he was traded away on June 15, 1977?

Because here's the thing:

Nobody could know. Nobody did know. Would you like to guess how many people showed up at Shea Stadium for Tom Seaver's major-league debut? Here's a little background: it was the second day of the season. It was April 13, 1967. The Mets were coming off the greatest year in franchise history, which is to say they finished in ninth place rather than 10th, had failed to lose 100 games for the first time in team history, and had clearly established ownership of the town, since the Yankees had finished dead last in '66.

Seriously. Take a guess.

Give up?

Five thousand and five people were there. Alfred Hitchcock was one of them, and he got himself a good seat, right behind the Mets dugout, and it's likely that as brilliant as Hitchcock might have been at knowing how to thrill the hell out of people, he wasn't remotely sure what he was watching. Because nobody was.

Not even Seaver, who received only one piece of advice from manager Wes Westrum before taking the mound: "I told him that they use the same bat and the same ball and the same home plate in the big leagues," Westrum said.

After allowing two runs on six hits and four walks, and striking out eight, Seaver left with one out in the fifth inning (proving that even supposed superhero pitchers of yesteryear didn't always go nine), but the Mets wound up winning the game 3-2, and moving to .500 (at 1-1) for only the second time in their history.

"I just ran out of gas," Seaver, all of 22, said, apologetically.

There was twice as much interest at Shea when Gooden made his home debut on April 19, 1984: There were 10,705 in the park that night. He went five innings, threw 118 pitches, struck out seven, and allowed four unearned runs in his last inning of work after Ron Gardenhire, then the Mets' shortstop, fumbled a two-out grounder by Andre Dawson. There were no K cards, and nobody stood on strike two. All of that would come later.

"I had trouble locating my fastball and curve until I broke a sweat," Gooden, 19, said apologetically. "Once I got loose, I was OK."

Mike Pelfrey walked into a different situation yesterday due to the Mets' enormous lead in the division. He put forth a similar effort to his ancestral predecessors, going five innings and getting the win, while Seaver and Gooden settled for no-decisions.

What he does from here is up to him. And that'll be the fun part.

Mike Vaccaro's e-mail address is His Yankees-Red Sox book, "Emperors and Idiots," is available at bookstores everywhere.


If you've spent too much time suffering over the semi-professional basketball team that plays its home games at the Garden, then you deserve a chuckle or six, and you'll thoroughly enjoy the following site: Trust me.



I can't guarantee that the folks who go to today's France-Italy finale in the World Cup are going to see any honest-to-goodness goals before they get to the penalty-kick phase of the game, but I am pretty certain that the tailgate food beforehand should blow away anything you see at Giants Stadium.



Tonight wouldn't be a terrible night for "Entourage" to start getting its fastball back, by the way. And any time they want to bring E's girlfriend back in play would be A-OK by me, too.



People who moan about the All-Star Game deciding the World Series seem to forget that the old system was even dumber, alternating the home-field between the two leagues regardless of who had the better record.


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