TAMPA — The voice on the other end of the phone was once again that of a joyful winemaker whose lust for life, fun and good spirits has known no bounds.
But as Tom Seaver confided, in and around expressing his elation at what it was like just to feel good again for more than one day, his life over the last nine months has been anything but joyful.
In fact, it’s been a living hell of uncertainty, confusion, depression and downright fear. The Mets’ “Franchise,” author of 311 career victories and the highest vote plurality (98.84%) of any player elected to the Hall of Fame, was back at work at his vineyard in Calistoga, Calif., when I reached him.
“You caught me on a good day,” he said. “In fact a very good day because this is the fifth straight day I’ve felt really good. You have no idea what that means — to feel good, to feel normal, for five straight days.”
PHOTOS: METS HONOR 1969 WORLD SERIES CHAMPIONS
I admitted I had no idea. I only knew that Seaver’s multitude of friends in baseball have been worried about him, worried because, in the past year, he had become uncharacteristically distant, and when he did make a rare public appearance or pick up the phone, he was not himself. He missed the Hall of Fame ceremonies last summer for the first time since his own induction, although Hall officials attributed that to recent hip-replacement surgery.
ANDREW THEODORAKIS/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS
Nine months into his struggles with Lyme disease, Tom Seaver, shown here at his California vineyard, says he’s almost back to vintage form.
Still, as the unofficial “team captain” of the Hall of Famers, especially those members of his select group of wine connoisseurs (all pitchers) who share an exclusive BYO table at the annual Sunday night induction dinner, he was duly missed.
One of the sharpest and most astute athletes I have ever known was having trouble remembering things, and his thoughts tended to wander and become garbled in transmission.
It was last June, the day after Johan Santana hurled the first no-hitter in Mets history, when Seaver’s friends and fans became alarmed that something was amiss with their hero after he put out a congratulatory statement, saying: “I’ve never met Johan personally, but what I’ve heard about him is he has a big heart and is a huge competitor.”
PHOTOS: METS NEW HALL OF FAME MUSEUM
The only problem with that was Seaver had joined Santana in a half-hour SNY TV special in spring training of 2008 in which they talked at length about pitching strategies.
“I didn’t know what was happening,” Seaver, 68, said this week.
Seaver at Shea Stadium on July 9, 1969, the season the Miracle Mets won the World Series.
“I felt like I had the worst case of the flu every day, and then I was having trouble remembering things and making bad decisions. I was scared. I said to myself: ‘It’s like I’m getting old before my time. Why is this happening?’ I thought I’d had a stroke.”
But for Seaver, after months of private denial, the scariest incident came when his head vineyard worker, who has been with him for seven years, came into the house one morning.
PHOTOS: YANKS, METS ARE PRETTY IN PINK
“I looked at him and I didn’t know his name,” Seaver said.
That’s when Seaver’s wife, Nancy, made him finally go see a doctor. After Seaver underwent an examination and a battery of tests, the doctor informed him that he did not have dementia, had not had a stroke and was not terminally ill. He had Lyme disease.
It was not something Seaver was unfamiliar with, but nevertheless it was a shocking diagnosis. Back in November of 1991, when he was living in Greenwich, Conn., and spending much of his spare time on his favorite hobby — tending to his gardens — Seaver was first diagnosed with the often-debilitating, bacterial disease caused by infectious deer ticks.
Seaver says goodbye to Shea at the stadium’s closing ceremony in 2008.
Initial symptoms of Lyme disease infections include chills, fever, headache and muscle pain. However, Stage 3 Lyme disease, which can occur months or years after the initial infection, can result in memory loss, speech problems, sleep disorder and an overall feeling of chemical imbalance — all of which Seaver had been experiencing over the last year.
PHOTOS: METS HALL OF FAME INDUCTIONS
Seaver’s initial case was extreme — he suffered Bell’s Palsy on the right side of his face, and the doctors told him at the time that it was so severe that after they treated him with antibiotics, he would never have it again. In Seaver’s situation, a less severe case of Bell’s Palsy, doctors felt, might have returned.
“But once it gets into your blood system, it causes real problems,” Seaver said. “I’m taking 24 pills a day now, most of them vitamins, plus one penicillin pill to get my chemical balance back. It’s a cycle that kills off all the spirochetes that junk up your system. It’s been a slow process in which I’ll still feel like I have a bad case of the flu for days, but these past couple of weeks they’ve been less and less. I haven’t had a glass of wine or a beer in eight months and I don’t miss it.”
When I suggested to him that didn’t exactly sound like a ringing endorsement of his wine — his 2008 GTS Cabernet Sauvignon received a 97 rating from Wine Spectator — Seaver laughed.
“That’s OK, we’re still making terrific wine out here,” he said. “I’m out here right now in the vineyard, going up and down the rows with my clippers. I’m back to working four- to six-hour days out here, and it’s great exercise and most important for the blood flow.”
He sounded like the old Seaver, laughing easily, going on enthusiastically about his grapes, basking in the sunlight after a year of confusion and fear in the darkness.
“I feel,” said Seaver, invoking one of his characteristic baseball metaphors, “like I’m a bunt single away from feeling totally normal again.”