Forty years ago, little-known Qualls spoiled Seaver's bid at perfection
If you happened to be thumbing through the
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
As you get older, you stop holding up perfection as some sort of ideal, or I have, anyway. The legendary golfer
And here was Seaver on a summer night in '69, one out in the ninth, the Mets leading, 4-zip. And up comes
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,
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,
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
I told Seaver how
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,
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. "
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
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.