Even Tom Seaver wasn't perfect

Debby Wong-US PRESSWIRE

The Mets do not have a perfect game. They have the imperfect game, where a lone ninth-inning single played the part of Cindy Crawford's or Carlos Beltran's mole.

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Tom Seaver is considered one of the greatest pitchers of all time. Jimmy Qualls, with 31 career hits, is considered a semi-retired farmer in Downstate Illinois. Seaver owns a winery. Qualls grows soybeans. This is the story of how, on July 9, 1969, a single soybean was chucked into Tom Seaver's Merlot.

By early July, the '69 Mets had outgrown their 'pleasant surprise' status and were making a move against the division-leading Cubs. The staff ace had done his part, winning six straight starts before the Mets finally had their chance against the Cubbies at Shea, down just 4.5 games. Over 50,000 fans were on hand, the most Shea had seen since the Beatles closed with "Long Tall Sally."

In the first inning, as he struck out two batters and induced a flyball to right field, Seaver felt tight in his shoulder and couldn't get comfortable. He loosened up in the second to strike out Al Spangler and Hall of Famers Ernie Banks and Ron Santo. The arm felt right.

"If I had to pick a game where everything came together as perfectly as I could want it," Seaver would say, using that word, this was the one.

In the bottom of the second, Seaver himself cracked a one-out single to drive in the game's first run. Back on the mound, he made quick work of the bottom third of the Cubs' order before steam ploughing through the lineup a second time. In six innings and eighteen batters, Seaver fanned nine and induced five grounders and four fly balls. He did it with "at least three different speeds of fastball," a curveball, and a slider—and control that brought him "the chills."

The Mets scored in the seventh inning on a solo home run by Cleon Jones, putting the team ahead 4-0. The defensive field had become eight faceless mitts and the heroic figure of Tom Seaver. He retired the next six batters to tee up a ninth-inning try at perfection.

"Gil Hodges asked us if we knew anything about him," Seaver said of the rookie center fielder Jimmy Qualls. The stats said only that he was a .234 hitter in 47 career at-bats. "Bobby Pfeil, our second baseman that night, remembered him in the minors from five years before. We decided to throw him hard stuff."

Standing ovations marked the end of three separate innings and welcomed Seaver to the mound in the ninth. "I felt I was levitating," he said. "I felt like I was coming off the ground."

"I felt I was levitating" -Tom Seaver

About this time, Seaver's regular shortstop Bud Harrelson, stationed with a National Guard unit in upstate New York, "did something only a kid is supposed to do." Turning to a fellow bar patron, "I said, 'Hey, I know him. I know Tom Seaver. Tom Seaver is a friend of mine.'"

The cheers became a cascade of boos aimed at the Cubs' Randy Hundley (father of a one-month-old Todd Hundley). Hundley squared to attempt a bunt single. Seaver pounced on the dribbler and fired it to first for the twenty-fifth out.

Then Qualls.

The eighth hitter.

The rookie.

"I never saw a place to go with him," Seaver would reflect. "I had never faced him before. He hit me hard three times. I pitched him inside, and then he went with a pitch and got the hit." Just like that.

And just like that, "I felt as if somebody had opened up a spout in my foot and the joy all went out of me."

Seaver, 24, lifted his cap and retired the next two batters to rapturous applause. He came to appreciate his July 9 effort as the greatest performance of his entire career—the first of five one-hitters with the Mets. His line: 9 IP, 1 H, 0 R, 0 BB, 11 K (Box).

Meanwhile, Jimmy Qualls just wants you to know one thing. "It wasn't no blooper," he says of his single to center field. "It was clean."

On June 2, 2012, Tom Seaver picked up the morning paper and learned that Johan Santana had pitched the Mets' very first no-hitter. Jimmy Qualls watched it live, and was "just kinda rooting for him."

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