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Tom Seaver was almost on the Cleveland Indians instead of the Mets

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Fifty years ago today, events were set in motion that came very close to landing 21-year-old Tom Seaver on the Indians, instead of the Mets.

Topps

Tom Seaver, an excellent college pitcher, had been drafted by the Dodgers in 1965, but they balked at his request for a $70,000 bonus, and he remained unsigned. On February 24, 1966, the Braves signed Seaver for $40,000. A few days later though, MLB commissioner William Eckert voided that agreement, leading to a bizarre series of decisions that culminated in a three-team lottery for the rights to Seaver. With just a little luck, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball history would have spent his best years in Cleveland, instead of Queens, and the Indians might have been a very different team.

Eckert's decision was based on the University of Southern California (of which Seaver was still a part) having played in two pre-season exhibition games by the time he signed with the Braves. Seaver himself had not appeared in either game, but Eckert said the contract was in violation of the rules all the same, specifically a rule that college players could not be signed once their season had begun. Seaver was initially content just to play out the year and go back into the draft in June. The NCAA decided that since Seaver had signed a professional contract, he was now no longer eligible to play for USC. Not having pitched an inning for the Braves or Trojans, Seaver was suddenly ineligible to play for either of them.

Said Seaver:

"So now to the professionals I'm an amateur and to the amateurs I'm a pro, and I'm stuck. My dad got in the middle of it. There was going to be some legal action somewhere because I wasn't going to be thrown in the street. I lost my scholarship and everything."

Seaver's father threatened to sue MLB, at which point Eckert decided that while the Braves couldn't have him, if another team was willing to match their $40,000 offer, Seaver could be theirs.

It seems incredible now, but only three teams decided they were willing to match the contract Seaver had agreed to with Milwaukee, and so it was that the Mets, Phillies, and Indians were each entered into a three-team lottery. Whether they drew straws, bounced ping pong balls, or generated a random number, I don't know. But whatever the methodology, it came out in favor of the Mets. Seaver spent only one year in the minors before making his MLB debut in 1967 and winning the NL Rookie of the Year Award. He would go on to be the absolute best pitcher in baseball over the next dozen years, winning three Cy Young Awards during that time while averaging 7.0 WAR (per Baseball-Reference). If you want a modern-day comparison for that sort of production, imagine what Clayton Kershaw has done for the last six seasons... then have it last twice as long.

Those years were dark ones for the Tribe; only twice in those twelves seasons did they post a winning record, and they never finished closer than 14 games out of first place. Tom Seaver himself would not have been enough to make up the gulf between the Indians and a pennant. Perhaps he'd have gotten them close enough for ownership to buy when instead it sold, and maybe Cleveland wouldn't have gone 41 years without seeing the Tribe in the postseason. Even if he hadn't, he would have made every fifth day of the season an event. If only that lottery had turned out just a touch differently...