A Brief Phone Call That Will Last a Lifetime – The New York Extra/TheNYExtra.com
By Lenn Robbins
The year was 1984, three years out of college and working for Greenwich Time (not The Greenwich Time or Greenwich Times, but Greenwich Time) covering girls high school field hockey, Steve and Mike Young, Dorothy Hamill and dreaming of making it big one day when the Mets exercised their option on Tom Seaver.
Sports editor, Bruce Hunter, who had a dry sense of humor I would come to appreciate, looked up from his desk and casually said, “Call Mr. Seaver.”
Ha! Right! I had yet to cover a MLB game no less interview one of its greatest stars.
“Call, Mr. Seaver?” I replied.
“His number is in the Rolodex (ask your parents). He always makes time for us.”
Seaver lived in Greenwich, Ct., 45 minutes from Shea Stadium and a million miles away from where I grew up in Brooklyn, rooting for the Mets and Tom Terrific. I was nine when he led the Mets to the Amazin World Series championship of all time. There will never be another such baseball love story. Ever.
Hands shaking, tongue drying by the second, I dialed the beige, rotary phone (ask your parents). A woman answered.
“Hello,” a sweet voice answered.
“Yes, uh, my name is Lenn Robbins. I’m calling from Greenwich Time. I’d like to speak to Mr. Seaver, please.”
“I’m sorry. It’s been a very busy day. Please don’t disturb us at home. Tom’s not available.”
The woman, Seaver’s wife Nancy, who I later learned he referred to as his “Queen,” was polite but firm, a wife protecting her husband’s privacy.
“He always makes time for us,” reverberated in my head.
“Uh, would you tell him I called?” I asked, my voice cracking.
About 90 minutes later the phone rang. Some calls you never forget.
“Glenn Robbins, please.”
“This is Lenn.”
“Oh, my wife said Glenn. Sorry, how can I help you?”
Some conversations you never forget.
My childhood idol had just called me back.
My childhood idol just apologized to me for getting my first name wrong, something that has happened hundreds of times and counting.
Back then Greenwich Time had a switchboard manned by a lovely elderly lady who literally plugged and unplugged wires to connect and disconnect calls. She left at six sharp each night. If you didn’t remind her to switch the board to automatic, you could be on the phone with the governor, or someone more important, like the greatest Met of all time, and you got disconnected.
Seaver asked me how long had I been at the paper, how did the high school football team look (Greenwich High was a Fairfield County power coached by the legendary Mike Ornato and led by quarterbacks Steve and then Mike Young). Seaver then he asked me what most folks in Greenwich did, but in a more benign way.
“You sound a lot like some of the fans at Shea,” he said. “There’s one gentleman who sits on the third base side. He calls me a bum all the time.”
We laughed – Tom Terrific and Glenn.
I told him the first major league game I ever attended was 1969 World Series Game 4; told him about the time I opened a pack of baseball cards on Avenue L (The “L.”) and started jumping and down and screaming when I saw his card. I was just about to ask about the contract when the line went dead.
“No!” I screamed as I looked up at the big white face clock with the black Arabic numerals, the second hand that always seemed to move too slowly. The big hand was on 12, the little hand on 6 as I comprehended exactly the tragedy that had befallen me. “No! No! No!”
I frantically jiggled the receiver, knowing it was futile. By the time someone had switched the switchboard to automatic and I could get a dial tone (ask your parents) there was a busy signal (ask your parents!).
For years I stewed about interview that never was. Slowly that narcissistic anger faded and I took great joy in the brief, surreal conversation I had with the man who transformed the Mets from a punch line to a champion. After interviewing Hamill, America’s Sweetheart and truly one of the sweetest superstars of all time, Seaver was the second superstar I had spoken to one-on-one.
He was polite and witty, curious without being condescending.
Several weeks ago, I took a right-hand turn onto Seaver Way at Citi Field to interview two brothers and lifelong Mets fans, Mike and Joe Quinn, who lost their beloved brother, Jimmy, on September 11th. They spoke lovingly, nostalgically about the joy Jimmy derived from going to Mets games.
“The national anthem would be playing and he would turn to me and say, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this,” said Mike.
On the drive home, I found myself daydreaming on those words, “It doesn’t get any better than this,” and was reminded that I will never know a more glorious sports memory than rooting for the 69 Mets. My thoughts turned to the George Thomas Seaver I spoke to for a few minutes on the phone when I was a cub reporter.
Seaver’s family, citing dementia, announced his retirement from public life in March of 2019. Many didn’t know that the Lyme disease he contracted in 1991 from deer tick while living in Connecticut (the disease traces its name to Old Lyme, Ct., where it was diagnosed in 1975) had continued its attack on his brain. In announcing his death on Wednesday, the Baseball Hall of Fame attributed his passing Monday at the age of 75 to Lewy body dementia, an especially insidious form of dementia, and COVID-19.
I couldn’t reconcile the Seaver I spoke to on the phone that day in 1984 with a man ruined by dementia, so I choose not to. I’ll remember his brilliance on the mound and his humility off it – he cried when the Mets traded him in 1977!
And it hit me – what a lucky S.O.B. I am. Boys and girls dream of stealing a second with their idol and hopefully coming away with a scribbled autograph. My idol returned a phone call from a stranger who breached his private space. It seemed he was more interested in me and the town in which he lived than talking about himself. How Terrific is that?