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"He was riding around on an ATV," remembered Joe Winograde, a painting contractor in Napa, California. "You could tell he was digging it. He wore bib overalls and a flannel shirt. Pretty sure he had his dogs up there, too."
That was the Tom Seaver folks like Joe, who happens to be my nephew, knew in the Napa Valley long after Seaver had traded in his spikes and glove for a shovel and pruning shears. His passion switched from striking out big league hitters to growing cabernet grapes on 3½ acres of Diamond Mountain outside of Calistoga.
Without identifying the client about a dozen years ago, a general contractor hired Joe's company to wash and restain the siding of a home overlooking the famous valley.
"Turned out it was Tom Seaver's house," Joe told me in a phone conversation last week after Seaver died at 75. "I was excited as a baseball fan about working on his house, more so than a regular celebrity."
Winograde's bevy of scrapers, sanders, painters, sprayers, and stainers has worked on a multitude of fancy Napa homes and wineries over the past 26 years. I've accompanied him on a number of jobs, and the work is specialized, intricate, and professional. He knows the area like the native Napan that he is.
"(Diamond Mountain) is one of the most spectacular hillsides in Napa," Joe told me. "The wine is premium on that side of the valley from volcanic eruptions that happened long ago so the soil is one of the best areas to grow grapes. There's a ton of grapes all over Diamond Mountain."
Forget about finding Seaver's cabernet at your local Binny's or corner wine shop. The production is limited to about 400-500 cases per vintage, and it sells anywhere from $150 to $400 per bottle. It's almost as rare as Seaver was as a pitcher, that combination of raw talent and intelligence which translated into 311 big league wins over 20 seasons, including 2½ with the White Sox. Perfection was Seaver's game whether it was pitching or growing grapes.
Once Joe got the job at Seaver's house, he called me with the news but said he was hesitant to engage the Hall of Fame pitcher in casual conversation.
"I saw him around the property when I was up there with my guys a few times, and thought, 'Man, it would be great to talk to him,'" Joe said, "but, you know, I don't just approach people or whatever. That's when I called you."
I appreciate any memory refresher I can get, so I now recall what I told Joe. I figured the usual inquiries about the Miracle Mets and even his 300th victory when he was a member of the White Sox were commonplace for Tom Terrific. Instead, I advised my nephew, ask him about pitching for the Alaska Goldpanners in the mid-60s when he was a college student at USC majoring in dentistry. No doubt this would pique Seaver's curiosity.
Based in Fairbanks, the Goldpanners were organized in 1960 by a guy named Red Boucher, who wanted to bring the top collegiate talent in the country to Alaska for a summer of baseball. A league was formed in the 49th state, and, in addition, because Boucher could raise funds, the Goldpanners barnstormed all over the Pacific Northwest and as well as Hawaii.
The 'Panners' signature event was and remains the Midnight Sun Game every summer solstice, beginning at 10:30 p.m. and ending before the sun briefly dips below the horizon.
Boucher, a ceaseless promoter, died in 2009, but his ballclub is very much alive today. Seaver pitched two summers (1964-65) in Alaska, reaching the finals of the National Baseball Congress tournament in Wichita in '64 before getting beat. Teammates included future major leaguers Rick Monday, Craig Nettles and Curt Motton. Among the approximately 300 Goldpanner alumni who advanced to the major leagues are Barry Bonds and Dave Winfield.
Joe finally got an opportunity to meet Seaver and his wife Nancy. "I said something like, 'My uncle is a baseball historian,'" Joe said. "I propped you up a bit and said some untruths about you. I was armed with the [Goldpanner] information and hoping just for a chance to break the ice. That really worked.
"From that conversation he took an interest in talking to me and invited me into his office. He showed me his collection of baseball memorabilia, which was impressive. The thing he really wanted to show me was his collection of Hall of Fame bats all signed in cases and mounted perfectly on this big wall. That was pretty cool."
The past few years were not kind to a man who made time to take an interest in my nephew, who is as hard-working and dedicated to his craft as Seaver was to pitching and farming. Suffering from Lewy body dementia, the national icon was sequestered in the home that Joe painted until Seaver passed last week.
In a moving and emotional report last October in Sports Illustrated, Tom Verducci described a final visit to the Napa Valley of former Mets' teammates Bud Harrelson, Jerry Koosman, Art Shamsky and Ron Svoboda. The photo of the men at a local lunch spot, far from the main stage of New York where Seaver rose to notoriety a half-century ago, gave credence to the uncomplicated life that one of baseball's greats embraced long after his playing days. He lived close to the land, among family and friends, far removed from the adoration once attributed to such an illustrious star.
As Joe's work neared completion, the general contractor called Joe to say he had something for him ,which turned out to be a signed baseball. "To Joe. Many thanks. Tom Seaver, Hall of Fame '92."
The Games Continue
Meanwhile, as the platitudes and tributes to Seaver streamed across the nation, the surging White Sox carved up the Kansas City Royals four straight after stumbling Tuesday and Wednesday against the Twins in Minneapolis.
The formula whereby a team splits with the top teams and beats the tar out of the also-rans is approximately half the story for the Sox, who stand at a season-high 11 games over .500 and in first place in the American League Central. They've won 16 of their last 20, a record matched only by Tampa Bay.
After sweeping the Royals, the Sox are a whopping 15-2 against Kansas City and Detroit but just 4-8 when tangling with Minnesota and Cleveland. Digesting this information results in a couple of conclusions: Regardless of the talent and performance of the Tigers and Royals, the Sox have played their best baseball against those clubs. And despite their sub-.500 records, at last investigation major league baseball still is being played in Detroit and Kansas City.
But Rickey Renteria's fellows haven't played particularly well against the Indians and Twins. In a painful 8-1 loss to Minnesota on Wednesday, the Sox committed four errors, and pitcher Reynaldo Lopez was yanked in the second inning and presented with a bus ticket to Schaumburg.
In six games against Cleveland, the Sox have scored a tick under three runs a game. That number is close to six against all other opponents. Of course, credit Cleveland's pitching, but the Sox will need both to pitch and hit better against the Tribe in order to turn around their record.
Eight of the final 14 games of the season will pit the Sox against Minnesota and Cleveland, starting with a four-game set at The Grate next week after five games this week against Pittsburgh and the Tigers, who have a combined record of 31-46. We all can be excused for our enthusiasm and excitement about this ballclub. It is vastly improved. We'll know just how much the last half of this month.
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