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MLB: Napa Valley coaches, fans remember longtime Calistoga resident and baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver
MLB

MLB: Napa Valley coaches, fans remember longtime Calistoga resident and baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver

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Tom Seaver, who was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1992, moved to the Napa Valley 10 years later with his wife and daughters to be a winemaker and probably to enjoy a little anonymity.

But those who got to know him, especially Earl Dunckel and Karen Mitchell, said he was always willing to talk baseball and was quite the storyteller.

Seaver was giving back to the game until his final months. He passed away on Aug. 31 at age 75 from complications of Lewy body dementia and COVID-19.

In 2016, he even agreed to throw out the first pitch at St. Helena Little League’s opening day ceremony and give a speech to the players.

Justin-Siena senior Max Zuntz was one of those players. Zuntz could never have dreamed his name would share a baseball with the great Seaver one day. But it happened this past January, thanks to the fact his neighbor owned a bakery that the Seaver family frequented many times over the years. Model Bakery owner Karen Mitchell said she had such a friendly relationship with the Seavers that when Zuntz’s May birthday was coming up, she broke her own rule – don’t bother the celebrities – by asking Seaver to sign a ball that she would give a most appreciative friend for his birthday.

He readily obliged, writing “To Max, Best of Luck, Tom Seaver, HOF ’92.

Seaver wasn’t just another celebrity to Mitchell. His daughter, Anne, worked at Model Bakery’s Napa store at Oxbow Market when it opened in 2008. Still, Mitchell told the story with so much emotion, one might have thought she’d kept the ball.

“People that know about baseball stats said ‘How in the world did you ever do that?’ Well, I just smiled a lot,” Mitchell said. “Tom would come to the bakery for lunch with his caregiver two or three times a week and he’d been a regular customer and friend for a while. He didn’t normally (sign memorabilia) unless it was for charity; famous athletes are pretty careful about getting their signature out there. But he did it as a favor for me because it was Max’s birthday and Max is such a baseball fan.

“Max’s sister, Chloe, worked for me, too, doing pastries. I’ve known the whole family since they were children. I told him the ball was valuable these days and to not ever lose it. I think he’ll keep it forever. He’s a baseball fan. He and his dad have been to Cooperstown (New York, home of the National Baseball Hall of Fame) and he knew the whole story about Tom. I was so tickled that we were able to get that present for him.”

So was Zuntz, who said he pitches for the Braves and “can also plug in wherever I’m needed in the field,” and he’s done extensive research on Seaver.

“He’s a bit of a baseball legend,” Zuntz said. “I’ve always followed the sport and he’s one of those all-time greats you hear about. He was well-spoken to the media. I’d already known about most of his accolades and baseball achievements, but … anytime you get a ball signed by any ball player, you’re naturally interested in seeing what they did on the field, so I definitely looked up some highlights and what not – films from the 1969 Miracle Mets. That was quite the story. It was cool that he was part of that.

“I definitely had a lot to learn from him mechanics-wise and certain parts of his delivery. My coach (Justin-Siena head coach Jeremy Tayson) told me to start looking at (Seaver’s) glove-side mechanics and arm action.”

Seaver joined a struggling New York Mets franchise in 1967 and won Rookie of the Year, and led them to a World Series title two years later. He went 311-205 for his 20-year career with five 20-win seasons, a 2.86 ERA, 3,640 strikeouts and 61 shutouts. The three-time National League Cy Young Award winner also played for the Cincinnati Reds (1977–1982), the Mets again (1983), Chicago White Sox (1984-86) and the Boston Red Sox (1986). He threw a no-hitter for the Reds in a 4-0 win over the St. Louis Cardinals on June 16, 1978.

“It’s funny,” said Zuntz, whose family lives in St. Helena, “because up here in St. Helena most people know him more for wine than baseball. But you mention his name and he’s probably a top-five pitcher of all time. He definitely had quite a journey from getting traded from the Mets and all. I didn’t know him personally. But having the ball, you feel some sort of connection. He was definitely part of the community. He was definitely someone the Little League kids around here knew of, like ‘Hey, we have one of the best pitchers of all time living Upvalley.’”

Little League connection

Joe Herdell was in his second season as president of St. Helena Little League in 2016, when Seaver graced Crane Park with his presence on opening day.

“That was a great opening day, it really was,” Herdell recalled. “Tom was really excited about being a part of that day for us and he made it just that much more special. He was asked to throw out the first pitch and that was pretty much it. But while we were on the mound after he threw out the first pitch, I asked him if he wanted to say anything and he said ‘Absolutely.’ He grabbed the microphone and turned around and faced the kids who were lined up behind us around the infield and talked directly to them rather than facing the crowd. He talked about how being a professional athlete paled in comparison to the strides he made as a Little Leaguer and how those days meant so much to him.”

Herdell, now the SHLL umpire-in-chief, said he knew Seaver through business because his company printed the Seaver Vineyards wine labels for a while.

“He would come into the shop and, of course, you’d have nothing but baseball lovers in there and Tom would tell just incredible stories about some of the incredible people he played with,” said Herdell. “The way he told a story was captivating and hilarious – he always made people laugh and had a smile on his face and always had a great demeanor about him.

“One story was about how he got two wins on the same day. He was the starting pitcher in an extra-inning game that was suspended from the day before, so he finished that game and got the win in the new game. The more I read about him, he basically had his own (drop-and-drive pitching) style but a relatively lengthy career for a pitcher, so that just goes to show you that mechanics are everything. You don’t necessarily have to be a 100-mile-per-hour pitcher to have incredible success, you just have to be consistent and know what you’re doing.”

Herdell said another story was about how Seaver, who called his own pitches, quelled his catcher’s worries that a runner at second base was trying to steal their signals one day.

“Tom told him ‘Keep signaling 2-1-3-4 and I’ll throw the fastball on the first pitch, then on the second pitch, then on the third pitch, and we’ll keeping doing it.’ Nobody figured it out,” Herdell related. “That always kept the hitters off balance.”

Valley coaches admired Seaver

Dunckel, a lifelong Giants fan and current head coach of the Calistoga High varsity baseball team, played high school ball at Woodside Priory in Portola Valley for a head coach who had played triple-A ball for the Orioles.

“He brought our consciousness to teams other than the Giants and he was a big Seaver fan,” Dunckel said. “I was hooked when he pitched his no-hitter against the Cardinals. He was hard on the Giants, but he was hard on everybody. It’s hard to not be a fan of a guy who’s that good. More of my memory of him is since he moved to Calistoga, when he was living over by the (Mount St. Helena) Golf Course. He was such a congenial guy. I loved to talk baseball and he was more than happy to talk baseball with me.”

Dunckel has been playing men’s baseball for about 30 years, currently for the Cardinals of the Redwood Empire Baseball League’s 45-and-over division, and said Seaver would give him pitching advice.

“He taught me some new grips on pitches and absolutely improved my pitching. He sure had a lot of room to talk down to me if he wanted to, but that was not him,” said Dunckel, who recently retired as a firefighter after 32 years. “I was introduced to him by the butcher in town. He was very, very approachable. You’d expect a guy with his kind of resume would be a little bit aloof and standoffish because he’d been bombarded by everybody for so many years. Not so. He embraced Calistoga and all the people. I’m a huge fan just because he was such a good person.

“To be perfectly honest, I’ve never drank his wine, but I’ve heard it’s really good. Now I’ll probably try it.”

American Canyon head coach Matt Brown said, like Dunckel, that he was too much of a Giants fan growing up to pay much attention to the Mets or Reds while Seaver was with them. But he said he heard fellow Napa High graduate Troy Tallman had a long conversation with Seaver at the Napa Premium Outlets food court.

“He’s a legend and is one of the top pitchers of all time,” Brown said of Seaver.

Darrell Quirici, a St. Helena High graduate who has been the Saints’ baseball head coach since 2013, said he was a fifth-grader when Miracle Mets won the World Series.

“If you were lucky enough to have the right teacher,” recalled Quirici, who had Alta Meldrum, “they would wheel a TV into your classroom so you could watch the Fall Classic. The ‘69 Mets beating the Orioles is still a vivid baseball memory of mine. But my first recollection of Tom Seaver is when I was a Little League playing 9- or 10-year-old who also had a passion for collecting baseball cards. All of us kids at that age knew the stats of all of the great players and Tom Seaver was certainly one of the best.”

Quirici said he got to meet Seaver when the legend came to address the St. Helena High baseball team in the spring of 2011.

“I was an assistant to Brandon Farrell,” he recalled, “and the late Bill Connolly arranged for Tom to talk to our team about his life and baseball career. We all sat in left field and he stood above us and shared his life story: growing up in Fresno, a stint in the Marine Corps Reserves, playing college ball at USC, and his major league career. He drove home the point that even though he was somewhat undersized, he overcame that through hard work and dedication to his craft. I also remember him telling us how he developed the circle change (pitch) and what a huge impact it had on his 300-plus-win career.

“He was a great role model and a gentleman. I think it’s awesome that this baseball immortal chose our valley to settle down in for the final chapter of his life.”

Napa High head coach Jason Chatham said he also collected baseball cards in his youth and heard of Seaver that way.

“I was really young when he was ending his playing career, but I remember my grandfather telling me how great Seaver was,” he said. “Seaver was one of my first pitching icons, along with Nolan Ryan. One day I finally got a Tom Seaver card in a pack of Topps cards. My grandfather smiled and said, ‘That’s a good one. Keep that.’

“I have no idea what happened to that card, but I do know that Seaver was a competitor in the truest sense of the word. He averaged 16 wins a year over a 20-year career. That’s incredible. And in terms of pitching mechanics, it’s still fascinating to watch YouTube video of his drop-and-drive delivery. He is unquestionably one of the all-time greats in the sport.”

Tayson said he was too young to have seen Seaver pitch live, but has seen plenty of video.

“It is well known that Seaver is among the more outstanding examples of controlling what you can control and finishing what you start,” the Justin-Siena coach said. “Even when playing on teams with the Mets that were inconsistent winners, he always won more than he lost and took it upon itself to finish what he started.”

Vintage head coach Rich Anderson said Seaver came up during a bygone era.

“Tom Seaver’s name just meant baseball in the early seventies. He was iconic,” the coach said. “There was no SportsCenter or social media back then, so players like Seaver were legendary because they weren’t oversaturated. You only read about him, heard him on the radio, and occasionally saw him on TV. This made him mysterious, or bigger than life, as a result. I just don’t think his type of impact can happen again. Times are just different.

“One of my favorite memories was when I was 13 and playing Babe Ruth. We had a 15-year-old pitcher named Doug Pike on the team. The Pike family is famous in Napa for having so many good baseball players. I even coached Tyler Pike at Vintage. Doug was our best pitcher on DP Painting and he modeled his pitching after Tom Seaver. His leg would drag against the dirt when he delivered and it would leave a smudge on his pants, just like Seaver. Being 13, I thought it was the coolest thing ever.”

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Sports Reporter

Andy Wilcox is a sportswriter-photographer for the Napa Valley Register. He's had similar roles in Walnut Creek, Grass Valley, Auburn, Tracy and Patterson. He grew up in Ohio. His wife, Laura, is a pastry chef. He also enjoys playing guitar and piano.

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