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Forty years ago, little-known Qualls spoiled Seaver's bid at perfection

If you happened to be thumbing through the Newsday sports section on Thursday, you may have noticed an unusual box score: Mets 4, Cubs 0, in New York. Time of game: 2 hours, 2 minutes. Then you read the not-so-fine print: the game -- a Tom Seaver one-hitter -- was played 40 years ago, when the Mets were becoming the Miracle Mets, winners of the '69 World Series. Newsday is paying tribute to the team.

That game was more than a one-hitter. Shea Stadium was packed and the Cubs were in first place, but the Mets were coming on strong. I was a nine-year-old kid that summer, listening to the game on a transistor radio in a backyard tent at my parents' house in Patchogue, L.I., in the heart of Mets country. Seaver retired the side -- and you need all this to understand the rising tide of tension -- in the first inning, the second, the third, the fourth, the fifth, the sixth, the seventh and the eighth. He retired the first batter in the ninth. Seaver was two outs away from perfection.

In sports, as in life, there's not much that's perfect. The 300-game in bowling, hard to improve on that. The '72 Miami Dolphins, who won 14 games and never lost, people call that "The Perfect Season," although it wasn't like every game was shutout. There's Nadia Comaneci and all those 10s she piled up at the '76 Olympics. I happen to be sympathetic to the argument about whether human beings (the judges) can put the stamp of perfection on what another person does, but if you want to call that performance perfection, enjoy. That's all a long time ago now.

As you get older, you stop holding up perfection as some sort of ideal, or I have, anyway. The legendary golfer Ben Hogan once had a dream, or a nightmare, in which he recorded 17 consecutive holes-in-one then lipped out on the last. Maybe he did himself a favor. What are you going to do for an encore after shooting 18? But at age nine, I had one and only one dreamy notion of perfection: a pitcher recording 27 consecutive outs. I grew up on the World Book encyclopedia, and right in it, under Baseball, was a picture from Don Larsen's perfect game in the '56 World Series, Yogi Berra leaping in his arms, when it was over. That picture has legs.

And here was Seaver on a summer night in '69, one out in the ninth, the Mets leading, 4-zip. And up comes Jimmy Qualls. You know Ron Santo, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams. Jimmy Qualls? Jimmy Qualls. He lines a clean one-out single to the left-center. Jimmy Qualls. I probably hated the guy. Forty years later, I was on the phone with the man.

He couldn't have been easier to talk to. "Most people think it's the only hit I got that year," he said. It wasn't. Qualls was 22, a bench player who had 30 hits that year, for a .250 batting average. Now lives in rural Illinois, in Sutter, 350 miles from Chicago and 240 miles from Kansas City. He works for a veterinary supplies company. His major-league career was parts of three seasons.

"I'm tickled I got that hit," Qualls said, "but it wasn't my best hit of the year. We lost the game." His manager, Leo Durocher, never said a word to him about breaking up Seaver's bid at perfection. Then again, Qualls notes, Durocher didn't say anything to Qualls when he knocked in a game-winner later in the season, either.

But it's the ninth-inning hit -- on July 9, 1969, in front of nearly 60,000 people at Shea Stadium -- that people remember. At the time, Qualls, he got a lot of "hate mail, like, 'When you come back to New York, watch your step,' but I didn't take none of it serious -- it was just kids," he said. Today, the letters, one or two or three a week, are much more gentle. "I'll sign anything for anybody, as long as it's for the right reason," Qualls said.

In the past 40 years, the only time he's seen Seaver is when the Hall of Fame pitcher is on TV. The only thing Qualls resents is when people call it a bloop single. "It wasn't no blooper," Qualls said. "It was clean. Seaver said at the time it was a good solid hit."

If you see a clip of Seaver recording the last out in that game, it's difficult to read his body language. His hands go on his hips and he sags a little as he stares off into the outfield for a moment. He seems more disappointed than anything else. Then his catcher, Jerry Grote, comes out and puts an arm around him, and elation seems to come over him.

Seaver today lives in the Napa Valley, in the heart of the California wine country, where he is the owner of GTS Vineyards. I spoke with him on the phone after I spoke to Qualls, and before we even got to his 40-year-old one-hitter, Seaver was explaining to me how he follows the game today not on TV, but by reading box scores every morning in USA Today, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times. No Internet for Tom Terrific. (No Web site for his vineyard, either, but you can get information about it by mail: GTS Vineyards, Box 888, Calistoga, CA, 94515.) "I love seeing how who's hot, how many innings the pitchers go, how long the games are," Seaver said.

I told Seaver how Newsday was running box scores every day from the Mets '69 season, and that I had taken a sneak peak at the Jimmy Qualls game. Seaver asked, "How long was it?"

He said he couldn't remember exactly what he was feeling right after the game. "The very first thing might have been something like, 'What could have been,'" he said. His guess is that he went from disappointment to elation in the time it took Grote to reach the mound. His wife, Nancy, went through something similar. She was allowed on the field after the game, Seaver said, and her first words were, "You lost your perfect game." Her husband reminded her that the Mets had actually won the game, 4-0, on a one-hitter, over the Cubs, whom the Mets were chasing in the National League East.

I asked Seaver which mean more to him, his one-hitter in '69, or his no-hitter in '78, when he was pitching for the Reds. "The one-hitter," Seaver said. "I had better stuff that night, and we were making a move on the Cubs." He talked some about the kind of control he had that night. "This is bringing me the chills," Seaver said. When he lived in Greenwich, Conn., he'd see Mets fans daily and was asked about the one-hitter regularly. Since 2001 he's been in Calistoga and his life there is chiefly about growing grapes and making wine. He moved to there, with Nancy, after their daughters were through college, and took up his newest challenge. He's still working in confined spaces. His vineyard is just under four acres. "Sandy Koufax came by a while back," Seaver said. "He seemed to enjoy our wines." It was Koufax who came up with the name for one of Seaver's wines, "Nancy's Fancy." Seaver talks about the journey to Cooperstown as the real thrill, not just getting inducted. With his wine, it's the same thing. He loves the step-by-step, season-by-season, year-by-year process.

Seaver knows there's no perfect bottle of wine: not Nancy's Fancy, not the '82 Lafite Rothschild, not some bottle of rose in an old Billy Joel song. What can be perfect in life? Not much. You can play baseball and record 27 consecutive outs. Forty years ago, Seaver came close, and a million Met fans were right there with him. He didn't quite get there. A man with 31 career hits got in his way.

And all these years later, Qualls remains tickled that he got the hit. Why shouldn't he be? He did his job that night. He reached, on a clean single -- not a bloop job -- to left-center. But it's not the thing he's most proud of in life. Not in baseball (the game-winner later in the season ranks much higher.) Not out of baseball, either. For that, he looks much closer to home.

"I have three children," Qualls said. "They're all growned up now and they turned out half-decent."

Turns out, the man did a lot in his life.

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