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Mets’ Tom Seaver became ambassador, friend of Little League

As he stood in Dr. Creighton Hale’s office at Little League International in South Williamsport, Tom Seaver stared out the window as fans flooded into Lamade Stadium.

A train rolled by down the hill near the park, Seaver said to everyone in the office, “This looks like a Norman Rockwell painting.” Seaver went on a 5-minute soliloquy about the importance of Little League Baseball in his own life.

It was 1988 and Seaver was only two years removed the final season of his Hall of Fame career. Little League President and CEO Steve Keener, who was in the office with Seaver that day, remembers Seaver looking down upon Lamade Stadium, calling it an “iconic little jewel of a ballpark in the middle of a valley that could be any town and any hamlet in America.”

Seaver’s relationship with Little League Baseball began that day. He became the charter member of Little League’s Hall of Excellence, which honors former Little Leaguers who have shown a commitment to excellence in their profession and exemplify the values learned in Little League.

Seaver made himself available to Little League anytime he was needed from that day forward. The Hall of Fame pitcher died Wednesday at 75 from complications of Lewy body dementia and COVID-19.

“I’ve known a lot of people in baseball and a lot of people with our program who we’ve lost. And they all hurt, but this one stings,” Keener said. “When he came here for the World Series, we spent some time talking and he loved music and I’m a music fanatic and we liked some of the same artists. We just seemed to have a little bit more in common, but not our baseball ability. When we talked, very rarely did we talk about baseball.”

Bill Shea, who was integral in bringing the Mets to New York after both the Dodgers and Giants left for California, was President of the Little League Foundation and routinely made trips to the World Series in South Williamsport. In 1988, he decided to bring Seaver with him.

Knowing he was coming, Keener and then Little League President and CEO Hale wanted to do something special for Seaver. Just having him throw out the first pitch before a game didn’t feel like enough. Keener brought up the idea of creating a Little League Hall of Fame, but Hale suggested they create something to help Little Leaguers strive for excellence. Thus the Hall of Excellence was created and Seaver ended up being the charter member.

In all, 59 people have been inducted into the Hall of Excellence, ranging from baseball players like Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken Jr. to politicians such as Joe Biden, George W. Bush and Dan Quayle, to athletes in other sports such as Austin Dillon, Hale Irwin and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and more.

After being inducted that day, Seaver handed Keener his business card with his home phone number and address and said to call him if Little League ever needed anything.

“He was such a very special guy and man,” Keener said. “He was everything we’d want aspiring Little Leaguers to be. He was gracious, thoughtful and kind. “I couldn’t think of a better person to be our charter member.”

A year and a half later, Shea invited Hale and Keener to the New York Baseball Writers Association dinner where Seaver was receiving the William J. Slocum/Jack Lang Award for Long and Meritorious Service. The two met with Shea and Seaver during a pre-ceremony cocktail party and caught up.

As Seaver stepped to the podium to receive his award, Keener said he repeated some of the very things he said almost 18 months earlier standing in Hale’s office in South Williamsport to a room of 2,000 people in the New York Sheraton Hotel.

“I wish I had the video camera running,” Keener said. “I’m sure the Chamber of Commerce wishes I had it running, too. He implored every person with Major League Baseball or playing Major League Baseball to go (to the Little League World Series) at least one time. It was incredible how sincere he was. He recognized what the game gave to him and he knew it was his job to give back.”

So when Keener called Seaver in 2013 asking for his help, Seaver never hesitated. Little League was hosting its first Intermediate World Series in Livermore, California, less than 100 miles from Seaver’s home in Calistoga. Keener barely had the question out of his mouth asking Seaver to swing by before Seaver asked what time Keener needed him there.

Seaver showed up and spent the day speaking with now Penn College president Dr. Davie Jane Gilmour about life, baseball, wine and the important things in life.

“Everything he said resonated to the kids, too,” Keener said. “We couldn’t have asked for a better ambassador for the event. He was such a good friend of our program.”

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