This was one Hall of Famer challenging another Hall of Famer to pitch to a third Hall of Famer — and Seaver did not back down. He ran the count full to Winfield, then fanned him on a changeup and went on to complete the game.
“He was the most intelligent pitcher we’ve ever been around,” La Russa said. “He was a great competitor and had really good stuff, but as he got older, he was still great because he knew how to pitch. Like Greg Maddux, in a way — they would look at a hitter, know what the hitter was thinking and pitch away from it. He was the perfect pro.”
In those later years, especially, Seaver had an intuitive understanding of how to work around his limitations. Early in the 1985 season, after beating the Tigers in Detroit, Seaver noticed the home plate umpire, Jim Evans, at the hotel bar. He tapped Evans on the shoulder, thanked him for a job well done, but told him he had missed one pitch: a 1-1 fastball to Kirk Gibson in the middle innings. Evans was puzzled; he had called the pitch a strike.
“I don’t want you to call that pitch a strike,” Seaver said, as Evans recalled a few years ago. “That was a mistake. I got it up too high, like a ball or two above the waist, and I don’t want any batter to get used to swinging at that pitch. My fastball is still my best pitch, my bread-and-butter, but if I keep throwing that one up there, they’re going to kill me.”
Seaver would share such insights with teammates, with conditions. (“You had to earn his respect,” La Russa said. “He didn’t give it up carelessly.”) With the Reds, he saw something in Mario Soto, a young pitcher from the Dominican Republic who lacked polish but yearned to be great. Every morning at spring training, Soto would show up at 6 a.m., practicing his changeup alone against a concrete wall in the outfield.
“The only guy that discovered me and found out what I was doing was Tom Seaver,” Soto said a few years ago. “He was my teacher.”
Soto would sit beside Seaver during games, and at one point, Seaver asked him a question that seemed elementary: “Do you try to throw a strike with every pitch?”