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Vintage Seaver

The Hall of Fame pitcher puts the same preparation into growing grapes for his Napa Valley wines that he did to win 311 games in majors

July 05, 2007|Ross Newhan | Special to The Times

CALISTOGA, CALIF. — Amid the vibrant green of the sun-splashed vineyard, surrounded by a forest of redwood, Douglas fir, manzanita, tanbark oak and madrone, it is difficult to tell whether the bounding Brandy, a black lab, or its master is more content.

The dog's gleeful gait expresses what its master verbalizes.

"If I had a dream," Tom Seaver says, "it couldn't get any better than this."

At 62, in jeans and work shirt with pruning shears on his belt and a John Deere backhoe in the tool shed, the Hall of Fame pitcher has found peace and passion on Diamond Mountain, 800 feet above the fertile Napa Valley and its ever-expanding string of wineries, some large and some small.

The Seaver vineyard is among the smallest. He is growing cabernet (sauvignon) grapes on 3 1/2 acres of his 115-acre maze of bush, trees and spectacular vistas.

Each morning, as the sun summons him to another work day in the vineyard, Seaver tends to shake his head at the good fortune that enabled him to find this bit of heaven.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday July 07, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 47 words Type of Material: Correction
Vineyards: In a chart in Thursday's Sports section listing some famous sports figures who have vineyards, the location of John Madden's property and Peggy Fleming's was given as Napa Valley. Madden's vineyard is in Livermore Valley, and Fleming's is in Los Gatos in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

"I've always said that I'd rather be lucky than good," he says. "It's like when you hang a slider with runners in scoring position and the batter pops it up and everyone says to you, 'That was a great pitch in that situation,' and you kind of laugh to yourself knowing the truth."

The truth is that perseverance and vision -- and luck -- were major factors in Seaver and his wife Nancy locating this acreage on Diamond Mountain (named long before the baseball man arrived) and imagining what it could become.

Now, having recently bottled his first wine under the GTS (George Thomas Seaver) Vineyard label and preparing to sell by mail, Seaver is experiencing the same creative vibes that he did on the mound, a mental and physical craftsman who came out of USC to win 311 games, strike out 3,640 batters, receive three Cy Young Awards and be voted into the Hall of Fame in 1992 with a first-ballot percentage of 98.84 , still the record.

How often did a manager come to the mound with runners on base and the game on the line, he recalled, and ask him what pitch he intended to throw, only to have Seaver respond, "I made that decision yesterday."

"In many ways," he said, "what we are doing now in growing grapes is similar to what I did when pitching -- the organization, the attention to detail between starts.

"In many ways there is a sequential rhythm and analogous nature to the two seasons, and I'm sure that was a large part of the attraction for me."

It was 30 years ago that the pitcher referred to as "The Franchise" was traded by the New York Mets to the Cincinnati Reds for Pat Zachry, Doug Flynn and Steve Henderson in a deal that stunned the Big Apple and stemmed from what had become a bitter and divisive relationship with Mets Chairman M. Donald Grant.

As the Mets faltered in the wake of the 1977 trade, Seaver, who had won 25 games in pitching the amazing Mets to a World Series title in 1969 and 19 more in the 1973 pennant season, went on to continued success with the Reds and Chicago White Sox before ending his career with Boston in 1986.

Looking back from Diamond Mountain, his severed ties to the Mets having taken years to heal (he ultimately returned as a team broadcaster for six years starting in 1999 and still does periodic promotional work), Seaver said that the trade represented both his "worst and best day."

He said that while it would have been great to spend his entire career with the Mets, he couldn't be sure that he would have gone on to win 300 games considering the way Grant was tearing the team apart, and "the bottom line is that I'll always be grateful to have experienced everything I did."

It also was some 30 years ago, with Seaver still in his pitching prime, that a brother-in-law asked what he intended to do when he retired.

"I told him that I intended to go back to California and grow grapes," he said. "It just kind of emerged from the back of my mind and I think there was an amalgam of reasons."

Seaver had grown up around agriculture, his father having been in the raisin business in Fresno, and he had begun sampling wines, enjoying the experience, at USC, an education that he and Nancy expanded during several off-season bicycle trips through the wine regions of France.

The more Seaver read and explored the process of growing grapes and producing wine, the more he unearthed the similarities between the seasons, the more he began to envision a vineyard in his future.

"Nancy would ask me if I was sure I would like it," Seaver said, "and I would tell her, 'No, but I know there's an itch.' I also knew that whatever I eventually did there had to be a physical involvement. Look at my [scarred] fingers and [dirtied] nails. I call it the red badge of courage. For me, sitting in front of a computer would be instant death. Nancy has the computer. I don't."

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