Welcome to The Happiest Recap, a solid gold slate of New York Mets games culled from every schedule the Mets have ever played en route to this, their fiftieth year in baseball. We’ve created a dream season consisting of the “best” 79th game in any Mets season, the “best” 80th game in any Mets season, the “best” 81st game in any Mets season…and we keep going from there until we have a completed schedule worthy of Bob Murphy coming back with the Happy Recap after this word from our sponsor on the WFAN Mets Radio Network.
GAME 079: July 3, 2004 — METS 10 Yankees 9
(Mets All-Time Game 079 Record: 23-26; Mets 2004 Record: 40-39)
From a Mets fan perspective, the Subway Series is only as good an idea as the Mets’ chances of winning are reasonable. In 2003, for example, when the eventually 66-95 Mets went 0-6 in this twice-annual rite of MLB marketing, the Subway Series was a ghastly idea. In 2004, however, it was looking pretty bright on this sunny Saturday.
Were Art Howe’s Mets suddenly a powerhouse? Not exactly. There was something particularly random about their roster as they continued on their four-year journey from defending league champions through -’00s oblivion to whichever route took them back to something approaching respectability. They were a hodgepodge of scattershot free agents, late-career transients, organizational fodder, a youngster or two of promise and holdovers from better days when the Mets beating the Yankees a few games didn’t seem like it should be all that daunting a task. The Mets were a pennant winner at the very beginning of the same decade, one that wasn’t even at its midpoint. Yet the Mets had less fallen on hard times than plummeted there post-2000.
But the records had to be thrown out when the Subway Series rolled around…though the Mets might not have been so quick to discard theirs, considering that as 2004 reached July, the Mets were straddling the line of not-bad/not great. After stumbling to the kind of start generally predicted for them (9-15), the Mets weren’t awful. They weren’t outstanding, but that would have been too much to ask. Since the out-of-the-gate misstep — and despite an 0-5 detour into deepest, darkest Howeville on a particularly gruesome trip through Minneapolis and Kansas City — they had arrived at the second game of the Shea half of intracity competition at 39-39, or 30-24 since they bottomed out.
For the 2004 Mets, it was progress. For the 2004 Yankees, the Mets were merely another item on a grinding itinerary of chores they had to check off because their contract with MLB apparently told them they had to. The Yankees tended to dismiss every Subway Series ahead of time as if it was optional, even though the six games were surely going to be wins or losses on their permanent record as much as any other 156 they had to play.
“It’s not a rivalry,” Yankee manager Joe Torre sniffed. “It’s a rivalry more to management than it is to me or the players, because you don’t have to beat them out for anything in terms of the division. It’s more a battle for recognition in the city — not in the standings, in the city. I still put it in the exhibition category. Not that you’re not trying to win, but you’re still playing a team from the other league.”
Exhibitions don’t count. These did. The Saturday game counted as much as any of 162 to the Mets, probably more. They had taken one of three in the Bronx the weekend before, and that one, a 9-3 win, certainly struck a chord for the boys from Queens. “This was a big deal for us because we had something to prove,” the ever frank Cliff Floyd offered. “From what I read, the Yankees were chilling, downplaying it. They were probably looking forward to the Red Sox. For the New York Mets, it was big.”
It got bigger once the Mets grabbed the Shea opener on Friday night, 11-2, when Kaz Matsui (5 RBI) had the game of his American career. Now the year’s competition had it Mets 2 Yankees 2 with two to play. One team was .500 but hungry. The other was eternally setting its playoff rotation months in advance, but had that luxury because, essentially, it was that good. How would all that translate on Saturday afternoon at Shea?
Messily is the first word that comes to mind, which isn’t a bad thing from the Met point of view, because if things are going a little too neatly, it usually means they aren’t going the Mets’ way. Give the Mets a mess — particularly if they’re in one of their mongrel roster phases — and they stand a fighting chance.
The first mess was Matt Ginter’s, a Quadruple-A righty who had never started a game in parts of four seasons with the White Sox. When the Mets called him up from Norfolk after he was acquired for 2000 remnant Timo Perez, Howe inserted him into the rotation and he was quite competent for a time. Ginter’s time, unfortunately, was running out in the first inning, as the Yankees hung a quick two-spot on him. Mike Piazza got half of that back in the bottom of the first when he drove in Matsui from second, but that run was returned post-haste to the Yankees when ex-Met Tony Clark led off the second with a home run. The Yankees led their “exhibition,” 3-1.
Floyd, who was not ashamed to care about winning, took the lead back for the Mets on a three-run homer in the bottom of the third…but Ginter couldn’t hold it. His own error allowed one run and Miguel Cairo’s double brought around two more and, just like that, the Yankees held a 6-4 edge.
But the Mets kept clawing as if something more than a modern-day Mayor’s Trophy was at stake. Yankee starter Jose Contreras, who shut them down with ease at Yankee Stadium six days earlier, wasn’t nearly as sharp this time around. In the bottom of the fourth, the Mets took advantage. Ex-Yankee Shane Spencer led off with a double and, one out later, Ty Wigginton homered. The Mets had Ty’d it at six. But soon enough, in the top of the sixth, the former Met Clark got his revenge with a second home run on the day, a two-run job off reliever Dan Wheeler that put the Yankees up, 8-6. Yet more power was coming from the Mets side in the bottom of the inning when recent acquisition Richard Hidalgo led off with yet another homer. The Mets were within one, at 8-7.
Yes, it was quite messy. And the Shea scoreboard grew only more cluttered in the bottom of the seventh when Spencer, six years earlier a September phenom in the Bronx, bloomed again, lashing a two-run double off Tom Gordon to give the Mets a 9-8 lead — a margin that didn’t make it to the middle of the eighth. A walk of Bernie Williams (by another Yankee castoff in Met clothing, Mike Stanton), a Wigginton error and a sacrifice bunt set the stage for Ruben Sierra to loft a sac fly off Ricky Bottalico to plate Williams from third to tie the game at nine.
Ginter. Spencer. Wheeler. Hidalgo. Bottalico. What a dizzying array of journeymen appearing as Mets, and what a deluge of runs to which they were party in one form or another. On some level, maybe Torre was right about these games playing as exhibitions. The box score was going to look like something scribbled once upon a time at Al Lang Field. But as the ninth approached, it was clear that the Yankee manager, for all his nonchalance, had his veterans make this bus trip.
The modern-day Murderers Row the Yankees sported (and paid handsomely) was due up. Gary Sheffield led off against Bottalico by grounding to Matsui. One out. Then Alex Rodriguez lined to the Japanese shortstop. Two out. Howe judged Bottalico to have done all he could, so he brought in the stubbornest of Met holdovers to get one more out: John Franco.
Franco had been a Met since 1990. He gave up the losing hit of the deciding game of the first Subway Series in 1997. He was the winning pitcher in Game Three of what some had come to view as the only “real” Subway Series between the Mets and Yankees, the 2000 Fall Classic. He was also the last pitcher to throw for the Mets in Game Five that October, coming into the top of the ninth after Al Leiter left his heart on the field for eight-and-two-third innings, or just long enough for Luis Sojo to smash it into 38 tiny pieces (one for every bounce his game-winning grounder took on its trek to the outfield).
John Franco had been around the Mets and the Yankees. And now it was his charge to keep the Mets viable for one more out, to get them to the bottom of the ninth in position to win. And John Franco, being John Franco, would find a way to turn Shea Stadium into Adventureland.
Jason Giambi took Franco to a 3-2 count and doubled. With first base open, Howe decided to put Williams on first and have Franco go after Tony Clark…the same Tony Clark who’d already homered twice in this game. The lefty Franco did not give up a home run to switch-hitter Clark. That’s not the sort of thing Franco did. Instead, he gave up an infield hit to load the bases. Vintage Franco. Now, though, the Mets required the other side of that vintage, the part of the Brooklyn boy who usually (or at least often) found a way to extract himself and his team from these kinds of messes.
Another murderous Yankee switch-hitter came to bat, Jorge Posada. As with Giambi, Franco worked Posada to three-and-two after (naturally) falling behind three-and-oh. The sixth pitch of the at-bat came down and in to the Yankee catcher and…
“It seemed like it took forever to call a strike,” Franco said, but that’s what home plate umpire Chuck Meriweather called it. Posada was livid. But more importantly, Posada was out and the game was still tied.
It had all been exhausting. Now came the time to strive for exhilarating. Either because it was a tie on the road or because Torre so disdained these affairs, he withheld Mariano Rivera from the battle and sent Tanyon Sturtze to the hill to start the bottom of the ninth. First thing the ex-Devil Ray did was walk Kaz Matsui. Mike Piazza came up with a chance to be a hero, but he popped out. Cliff Floyd walked and Sturtze hit Hidalgo to load the bases.
Up for the fifth time was Shane Spencer. Shane Spencer was a Met mostly because Vladimir Guerrero wasn’t. Guerrero was the prime free agent of the class of 2003-04. The market was such that he was quite available to the Mets for a relatively nice price. Rightly or wrongly, GM Jim Duquette judged him a less than ideal fit, and the best right fielder in the National League was off to Anaheim. Hence, pre-Hidalgo, the Mets endured with a platoon of two former Yankees, Karim Garcia and Shane Spencer in right. Garcia had just about worn out his welcome and would be shipped to Baltimore in a couple of weeks. Spencer’s expiration date was similarly imminent, but in the interim, he was making himself useful filling in in center for Mike Cameron, unavailable for this round of the Subway Series. If you were a Mets fan, you might have preferred Cameron (never mind Guerrero) up in this spot: bases loaded, one out, tie game.
But you had no complaints with what Spencer did. He swung at Sturtze’s 1-2 delivery and the ball squibbed maybe 35 feet up the first base line. The pitcher grabs it tentatively and then flings it toward Posada. It soars over the catcher’s head. Matsui, charging down from third, crosses the plate.
Mets win 10-9, and the ensuing celebration at Shea — in front of 55,120 alternately stunned and jubilant partisans and set to the team’s clubhouse-generated anthem, “The Way You Move” by OutKast — reminds nobody of an exhibition reaction. This was for keeps, and the Mets didn’t mind laying claim to it. It’s a triumph for every Met, no matter how tenured. Franco, the elder statesman, is the winning pitcher. It turns out to be the final win of his two-decade big league career. Spencer might not have been a Met for long and might not be a Met for long after, but he gets what it means to win in Queens: “For us, it was a test. It shows we can play with the best. To sweep ’em would be pretty sweet.”
The Mets would have that opportunity 24 hours hence.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On June 29, 2002, the Mets chose a particularly opportune afternoon and locale to be relentless in their scoring. In the second game of the season’s Yankee Stadium installment of the Subway Series, the Mets got on the board in the first. Then the second. Then the third. And like that, practically to the end. The Mets scored in eight of nine innings — all except the seventh — to romp to an 11-2 win. Highlights included a Jay Payton triple that comically exposed Yankee right fielder Enrique Wilson as the out-of-position shortstop he really was; home runs from DH Mike Piazza and his caddy, catcher Vance Wilson; an absolute moonshot (or sunshot, given that it was a day game) produced by Mo Vaughn; and a straight steal of home by Roger Cedeño, the first time any Met had taken that base that way in 31 years. Almost incidentally, Al Leiter pitched seven solid innings of one-run ball.
GAME 080: July 8, 1969 — METS 4 Cubs 3
(Mets All-Time Game 080 Record: 18-31; Mets 1969 Record: 46-34)
They don’t throw Bar Mitzvahs for baseball teams, but if ever a franchise noticeably came of age, it was the 1969 Mets on a Tuesday afternoon in July. When it was over, 25 men could collectively declare, “Today, we are a contender.”
Maybe they already were when the brilliant day at Shea commenced. After all, they were well above .500, in second place and a mere 5½ games out of first. There was a hurdle that had to be cleared, though, and it could be found in the 25 men wearing gray uniforms, the division-leading Chicago Cubs. At no point in the previous seven seasons of Mets baseball was there a sense that something beyond the “time of your life” (per Ruth Roberts and Bill Katz) was at stake when a baseball game was played at Shea. This here…this would be something different. This would be the time of the Mets’ lives, the time for them to step up in class, the time to make a statement, the time to bring an essential truth to Cliché Stadium.
It was time to tell the Cubs and everybody else that a pennant race was, for the first time ever, going to include the New York Mets. Gone as of July 8, 1969, were all traces of the old Mets. Well, the roster didn’t change in the dead of night, but then again, it didn’t have to. Throughout the first half of 1969, Mets fans were only waiting for their moment to arise.
Prior to their first date with destiny, when you spoke about the Mets, it was the Mets whose birthright was loss and last place. Those Mets shed that unwanted skin in April and May and June of ’69. Those Mets ceased to exist somewhere between Spring Training, when Gil Hodges suggested 85 wins was doable for a team that had never lost fewer than 89, and July 8, when the Mets laid out the not-so-welcome mat for the Cubs.
It was a whole new ballgame, and it had the good fortune to be monitored minute-by-minute by 17 different writers contributing notes, observations and asides to editors Dick Schaap and Paul Zimmerman for a book called The Year The Mets Lost Last Place. The book put a microscope to “nine crucial days” in the life of the franchise, starting with July 8. You couldn’t ask for a better opening chapter in baseball or literary terms.
On “the day the Mets became a contender,” as TYTMLLP put it, the world was ready and waiting. New York sat at the kitchen table with a knife in one hand, a fork in the other and a napkin tied around its neck, hungry for a baseball team like this. A Mets team like this.
“Ever since 1965, when they outdrew the Yankees by half a million spectators, the Mets have been the baseball team in New York, and the Yankees have been the other team,” the book said in real time. Problem was the Mets were locally pre-eminent without portfolio. National League baseball was the Metropolitan Area’s preferred variety, but what the people really wanted was winning National League baseball, a commodity absent since the heyday of Don Newcombe and Dusty Rhodes. Now they were getting it. “For the first time in at least five years,” TYTMLLP reported that summer, “New Yorkers by the millions were talking baseball.”
Mets baseball. Talking about it, relishing it, mainlining it. The laughs were of the “with us” rather than “at us” nature. Everybody was in on the joke that the Mets were no longer a joke.
Everybody included Joseph Ignac of Elizabeth, N.J., 65 and without a team to take seriously since the Giants won in ’54. He took two hours of buses and subways to be first in line at Gate E for a general admission seat the morning of July 8. “As he heads for the park, Ignac is looking forward for the first time to watching his team fight to become a pennant contender.” The boxscore says 55,095 other Mets fans had the same notion that Tuesday afternoon.
Everybody included Jerry Koosman of Morris, Minn., summering at a rented house near LaGuardia Airport. He stepped into his backyard and was gratified that it would be “a beautiful day for a ball game. Just the way I like it — not too hot, not too cool.” Thirty-seven years later, in the runup to the 2006 playoffs, Matt Yallof of SNY asked Kooz to reflect on what it was like to pitch in New York in October 1969. I always liked pitching in cool weather, Kooz answered literally and practically. Over four decades, whatever the season, Jerry Koosman always kept his cool.
Everybody included Frank Graddock, settled in front of his television in Ridgewood, Queens. Graddock stayed put there throughout the game, one that commenced at 2:05 PM. The action on Channel 9 was far along by 4 o’clock (this was 1969; nine innings took only 129 minutes), but it wasn’t over. Mrs. Graddock — Margaret — only knew 4 o’clock meant the serial Dark Shadows was coming on on Channel 7. Dark Shadows was a huge show then. Frank Graddock’s wife watched it every afternoon.
This, however, wasn’t just any afternoon in 1969. There were no VCRs, no DVRs and apparently Frank did not consider radio an option. As TYTMLLP chronicles, a screaming match over which channel the Graddock TV would be tuned to ensued. It would turn fatal. While the Mets were maturing, Frank Graddock had been drinking…drinking enough to lose all sense and perspective.
The Graddocks’ domestic dispute yielded dark shadows of its own. Of course Frank Graddock deserved to be charged, as he would be the next day, with the first-degree murder of his wife after literally beating the life out of her. Of course it was a heinous response to something as silly as what would appear on the TV screen. Yet if you read that Margaret Graddock tried to change the channel from 9 to 7 while the Cubs led 3 to 1…you can’t sympathize with Frank to the point of endorsing his actions, but you can’t help but think Margaret could have stood to have missed a few minutes of Dark Shadows.
Jerry Koosman kept his cool while the passions of the Metropolitan Area heated up: 8 hits, 4 walks but only 3 runs against the most dangerous lineup the N.L. had to offer through 9 innings. Ferguson Jenkins, though, was coolest of all. Cleon Jones reached on an Ernie Banks error in the fourth. Ed Kranepool touched him for a solo home run in the fifth. And that was it. For eight innings, Fergie Jenkins was almost perfect. The Mets trailed by two against a pitcher emerging as one of the best of his generation.
Then they didn’t.
Ken Boswell pinch-hits for Koosman to start the bottom of the ninth and lofts a ball that is catchable in a devil’s triangle among the shortstop Don Kessinger, the second baseman Glenn Beckert and an unaccomplished centerfielder named Don Young. Young would have had it had he seen it. He didn’t. Because Beckert and Kessinger had backpedaled on the ball, no one covered second. Boswell acts quickly enough to stand there with a gift double.
Tommie Agee fouls out. One out. Donn Clendenon steps up. Donn Clendenon stepped up in mid-June as the righty first baseman Gil Hodges required for his platoon with Kranepool. He’s gotten a slew of big hits since he was traded here from Montreal. Now Donn’s batting for Bobby Pfeil. Clendenon steps up for real: a long shot to left-center. Young’s got this one in the webbing of his glove.
Then he doesn’t.
He hits the fence and the ball squirts loose. Three months later Agee would make a similar play against the Orioles but hold on ice cream cone style. Nobody could know that on July 8, just as Boswell couldn’t know whether Don would maintain control of Donn’s ball. Ken thinks carefully before proceeding and goes only as far as third on the Clendenon double.
Cleon Jones, one of two Mets baserunners during the first eight innings, is up next. Cleon entered the game batting .354. He’s 0-for-3, including reaching on that earlier error. He will end the day at .352, 1-for-4, because he shoots a liner to left. Don Young has nothing to do with this play on which Boswell, then Clendenon score. It is 3-3. The Mets have tied the Cubs.
Jones on second. Art Shamsky up. Leo Durocher orders an intentional pass. Wayne Garrett, a rookie, grounds to second, a second out that moves the runners up. Durocher could walk the next batter, Kranepool, to face light-hitting J.C. Martin. Martin’s starting because he’s a lefty and Jenkins is a righty. It’s not like Jerry Grote, a righty, is a better option for Gil. It’s not like there’s another Clendenon waiting in the wings. (And it’s not like Leo’s making a call to the bullpen; again, this was 1969.) Leo tells Fergie to face Ed.
Ed Kranepool’s a Met from just after the Mets were born in 1962. Ed has not overly distinguished himself across the eight seasons he’s been a Met. A famous banner a few years earlier asked, “Is Ed Kranepool over the hill?” Ed isn’t old — he’s 24 — yet he’s already somehow ancient.
But Ed Kranepool did hit a home run off Ferguson Jenkins in the fifth inning, the only hit the Mets had most of Tuesday. And Ed Kranepool collects their fifth and final, a bloop single to left that scores Cleon from third. The Mets win, 4-3.
Ed Kranepool was an eternal disappointment and .227 hitter when the afternoon began. He is a hero when it ends.
Jerry Koosman was the winner, but so were the millions who had invested themselves in his team. Joseph Ignac, 65 of Elizabeth, for example. He had a two-hour trip home on the subway and the bus. So what? He could have flown. “Never once, in his eight seasons of cheering for the Mets,” it was written in The Year The Mets Lost Last Place, “has he felt so good. For the first time, he doesn’t miss Willie Mays quite so much.”
Less than seven hours later, the early edition of the Times is on the streets. “The story of the Mets’ rally is on the front page of the newspaper,” TYTMLLP reports. “The Mets have been on the front page before, but only once for winning a ball game, way back in 1962, when, after nine consecutive defeats, they scored the first victory of their existence.”
That existence was now from another time. The Mets existed on a different plane, in a different context, for different stakes starting July 8. The news was the stuff of the front page of the New York Times, but Don Young didn’t have to wait until eleven that night to read it. He hears it immediately from captain Ron Santo and skipper Leo Durocher. He absorbs the blame for the first-place Cubs losing to the second-place Mets — and he’s facing a benching the next day for sure. The Mets are a team coming together. The Cubs are individuals falling apart at the first sign of stress, the first instant they dip from 5½ to 4½ ahead of the team that couldn’t have possibly beaten them but did.
“Now it is 1969,” Mark Mulvoy wrote that July in Sports Illustrated as the dust settled from the Mets encountering the Cubs, “and in the fairyland of Shea Stadium, the toad has turned into a prince.”
The transformation was official as of July 8. The Mets were reborn and rebranded as an honest-to-goodness baseball team that was likely to beat any other baseball team any day of the week. Nothing would ever be the same. In the short-term of 1969, that (save for the tragic fate of the late Margaret Graddock) was all for the best.
Since? All for the best, too, considering you wouldn’t want to rewind to 1962 and its attendant follies. Yet you can only come of age so many times. The Mets would fall and rise and rise and fall repeatedly in the decades ahead, but expectations changed for the Mets that second week of July and they changed forever. The Mets would never get away with losing again. They’d be just like everybody else after 1969.
“It is different now, obviously,” Leonard Shecter reflected once the year the Mets lost last place was complete. “Casey Stengel is gone. A pennant has been won, and a world championship. It is a glorious thing, and yet it is somehow sad. For what we feel for the Mets now will never quite be the same as what we felt for them in [their] first two years. We have tasted victory and we shall root not for survival, but for more victory. It was inevitable, we understand now, for this to happen; it’s only that it happened so soon, so swiftly. Still, the Mets are still there (at slightly higher prices) and there is still much joy to take from them.”
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On July 4, 2004, the City of New York experienced a shifting of its tectonic plates as the head-to-head balance of baseball power within the five boroughs undeniably transferred from the Bronx to Queens. It was on this Independence Sunday that the New York Mets swept the New York Yankees at Shea Stadium and clinched, for the first time ever, a season’s Subway Series.
The heretofore unbelievable came to pass primarily on the strength of a Met power surge and an episode of Yankee boneheadedness. Trailing 5-4 in the top of the eighth, Hideki Matsui led off against Orber Moreno with a double. Jorge Posada singled him in to tie the score at five. It may have looked like a typical backbreaking Yankee rally, except with one out, a grounder by Miguel Cairo struck Posada between first and second, eliminating the Yankee catcher from the basepaths. Joe Torre attempted to undo the fairly obvious correct call with a long-winded argument that the ball had passed first baseman Mike Piazza when it hit Posada (therefore Posada couldn’t be out) but crew chief Mike Reilly wasn’t buying what Torre was selling, since another Met infielder, second baseman Ty Wigginton, still had a chance to field the ball and was conceivably impeded by Posada’s poorly positioned body.
Speaking of Wigginton and chances, his opportunity to go down in franchise history as the Met who sparked the first-ever Mets’ sweep of a three-game Subway Series came leading off the bottom of the eighth, when it was still 5-5. It didn’t stay that way once Wiggy ripped into Tom Gordon’s second pitch and launched it over the left field wall to put the Mets out in front, 6-5. It was Ty’s second homer of the game and third of the weekend. Earlier, Met newcomer Richard Hidalgo homered for the third game in a row, all against Yankee pitching.
The 6-5 lead was placed in the hands of closer Braden Looper, and Looper, enjoying a superb first season in New York, retired Bernie Williams and Derek Jeter on three pitches, gave up a single to Gary Sheffield but then teased a grounder to third out of Alex Rodriguez. Wigginton, having moved to third, grabbed it and threw it to second baseman Jose Reyes…and there it was.
The Mets swept the Yankees out of Shea Stadium. That was a first, just as it was a first for the Mets to have taken the entire 2004 Subway Series four games to two. The Yankees were still a first-place club in the American League East and the Mets were still a striving unit a little over .500 in the National League East, but this was bigger than any given notch in the standings. Cliff Floyd summed up the feelings of not just the Mets but Mets fans everywhere when he analyzed the events of a weekend when the Mets outscored the Yankees 27-16 and outwon them 3-0:
“Does it mean anything? Probably not. But it means a lot to us.”
GAME 081: July 9, 1969 — METS 4 Cubs 0
(Mets All-Time Game 081 Record: 17-32; Mets 1969 Record: 47-34)
It’s known as the Imperfect Game, which is ironic in that it may be the most perfect regular-season game the New York Mets have ever played. The “imperfect” aspect refers to a base hit leaving an indelible blot on the otherwise sparkling ledger of the Mets’ starting pitcher.
As if every Mets starting pitcher hasn’t experienced such a smudge every time he has started as a Met.
The base hit that lingers as this game’s imperfection — a clean single off the preternaturally obscure bat of Jimmy Qualls that fell between Cleon Jones in left and Tommie Agee in center — has come to define the Wednesday night in question. As convenient a shorthand as it makes, Qualls’s ninth-inning, one-out safety shouldn’t. Everything that preceded it was too perfect.
The perfection associated with the Imperfect Game peaked the inning before Tom Seaver lost his claim to universal baseball immortality. That was in the eighth inning, mere minutes before Qualls, playing center only because Don Young failed at fielding the prior afternoon, became not so much the answer to a trivia question as a phrase only Mets fans could truly understand when a no-hit bid grew serious en route to its inevitable evaporation.
Since July 9, 1969, everyone from icons like Ernie Banks to nonentities like Paul Hoover have done some version of what Jimmy Qualls did. There’s been Wade Boggs and Jim Lyttle and Joe Wallis and Chris Burke and Eric Young and Kit Pellow and Damon Berryhill and Chin-hui Tsao and Leron Lee and Cole Hamels and Antonio Perez and Phil Nevin and Edgar Renteria and Benny DiStefano and Geoff Jenkins and Cristian Guzman and Vince Coleman and Luis Rivera and Aaron Boone and Davey Concepcion and Keith Moreland and Paul Blair…all wrecking Met no-hitters when they felt within the grasp of possibility, but nobody else who ever became “Jimmy Qualls”. That’s because the role had been filled to — if you’ll excuse the expression — perfection.
But we know that. We also know that the Imperfect Game was, in actuality, a rousing 4-0 victory by the second-place Mets over the first-place Cubs, pulling the unlikely contenders to within 3½ of the suddenly vulnerable N.L. East frontrunners. We know that 59,083 (50,709 paid) jammed into Shea Stadium to see what Seaver and the Mets could do to the Cubs and that they saw more than they probably imagined. That they didn’t necessarily imagine a perfect game speaks to the limits of the Metsopotamian imagination after seven seasons when not losing 90 games seemed as good as anything could possibly get.
We know, too, if we’ve done our reading (The Perfect Game: Tom Seaver and the Mets by Tom Seaver with Dick Schaap) that Seaver threw Qualls a sinker and it sank Tom’s heart:
“I didn’t want to believe that I’d come so close to a perfect game and lost it.”
And that it sank Nancy Seaver’s heart as well, at least until her husband cheered her up with incredibly wise words for a 24-year-old:
“What are you crying for? We won, 4-0.”
To which, Nancy added her own hard-earned wisdom:
“I guess a one-hit shutout is better than nothing.”
What we might really want to keep in mind about this one-hit, eleven-strikeout masterpiece in the heat of a burgeoning pennant race against the team the Mets were aiming to catch was how divinely, absolutely, unceasingly perfect it was before Jimmy Qualls got in its way. And we can do that thanks to magic of the recording technology that captured Lindsey Nelson’s call of the top of the eighth inning over WJRZ-AM:
Tom Seaver on the mound for the New York Mets. Through seven innings he has retired twenty-one consecutive batters, and Ron Santo, who leads the National League in runs batted in with seventy-four, is up to lead off. He has struck out and flied to center.
Rod Gaspar has come in in right field now in place of Ron Swoboda for the New York Mets. Rod Gaspar, that’s a defensive move by manager Gil Hodges.
Wayne Garrett comes in at second base now and Bobby Pfeil moves over to third as Charles comes out of the ballgame.
Here’s the pitch to Ron Santo. Swung on — hit in the air to deep centerfield, Agee going back, he has a bead on it, he’s there, and he makes the catch.
Listen to the crowd, riding on every pitch of the ballgame now, riding on every play as Tom Seaver has retired twenty-two consecutive batters at the start of the ballgame.
Wayne Garrett is playing second base. Bobby Pfeil is playing third.
In the history of the Mets, the longest that any Met pitcher has ever gone without allowing a hit, seven-and-one-third innings, by Al Jackson, in Pittsburgh against the Pirates. Seaver has gone seven-and-one-third here.
The pitch to Ernie Banks is high for a ball.
The crowd is humming.
Here is the one-oh pitch now to Ernie Banks. Swung on and missed, it’s one-and-one. Seaver has struck out nine and he’s walked none in this game tonight.
This will be a one-one delivery, it’s on the way — curveball, swung on and missed, GOOD curveball. One-and-two now to Ernie Banks, as Seaver faces the heart of the batting order of the Chicago Cubs.
Santo opening up with a LONG fly to center, Banks is at the plate and Al Spangler’s on deck.
Here’s a one-two pitch — swung on and fouled back, he’s still alive at one-and-two.
In the first inning, Kessinger struck out, Beckert lined out, Williams struck out. In the second inning, Santo struck out, Banks struck out, Spangler struck out. In the third, Hundley flied out, Qualls flied out, Holtzman struck out. In the fourth, Kessinger struck out, Beckert grounded out, Williams grounded out. In the fifth, Santo flied out, Banks grounded out and Spangler struck out.
There’s a swing and a foul ball back and out of play.
In the sixth, Hundley grounded out, Qualls grounded out and Abernathy struck out. In the seventh, Kessinger lined out, Beckert flied out, Williams grounded out. Here in the eighth, Santo has flied to center.
The count is one-and-two to Ernie Banks and Seaver’s pitch is on the way — curveball misses WAY outside, caught in the webbing of the glove by catcher Jerry Grote, who leaned WAY out. Count goes to two balls and two strikes now.
Here is a two-two delivery to Ernie Banks. Swung on, fouled back, it’s out of play, the count HOLDS at two-two, as 38-year-old Ernie Banks continues to foul that ball off.
The Mets lead by a score of four to nothing. Here’s the two-two pitch — swung on and missed, he struck him out! Listen to the CROWD! Strikeout number TEN for Tom Seaver.
He has retired twenty-three consecutive batters from the start of the ballgame.
Left-hand batter Al Spangler’s coming up. He’s been up twice and he struck out swinging both times. The Cubs are batting in the top half of the eighth inning here at Shea Stadium.
There’s a swing and a miss at strike one!
Seaver again takes the sign from Jerry Grote, two men out and nobody on base. He’s into the motion again and here’s the strike one delivery.
It’s in there for a called strike two!
Oh-and-two the count now, to Al Spangler. Seaver again takes the sign. Here is the two-strike delivery — it’s high and away for a ball, one-and-two.
Nancy Seaver, Tom’s wife, seated in one of the lower field boxes, on the EDGE of her seat, RIDING with every pitch of this ballgame. Here’s a pitch now — swung on and missed, he struck him out!
The side is retired. Seaver has gone through EIGHT innings; he has retired TWENTY-FOUR consecutive batters; he has not allowed a HIT or a BASERUNNER; he’s getting a STANDING OVATION; he’s gone LONGER…without allowing a hit than any MET pitcher in the history of the New York Mets.
That was his ELEVENTH strikeout.
No runs, no hits, no errors and none left. In the middle of the eighth inning, the score IS the Mets FOUR and the Cubs nothing.
ALSO QUITE HAPPY: On July 8, 1984, the Mets couldn’t have closed the first act of their renaissance season with any more of a showstopper: the sweep of a five-game series from the Cincinnati Reds. It was only the second five-game sweep the Mets had ever executed, and it remains the only time they’ve reeled one off at home. The 7-3 win that finished quashed Cincinnati a fifth consecutive time was earned on the pitching of erstwhile Red Bruce Berenyi, who went seven-and-two-thirds innings, striking out ten of his former teammates. The June 15 trade deadline acquisition — picked up to bolster the Mets’ young staff — had his win secured by Jesse Orosco’s 17th save. Orosco would be flying after the game to San Francisco to join teammates Darryl Strawberry, Keith Hernandez and Dwight Gooden on the N.L. All-Star squad. It was the first time the Mets had sent that many players to the midsummer classic.
Of greater significance, 1984 was the first time the Mets ever went into the All-Star break as a first-place club. They led the Chicago Cubs by a half-game with exactly a half-season to go. Their success left the Mets in such a good mood that when the fifth game of the Cincy series was over, they treated some lucky Shea fans among a paid Bat Day attendance of 48,916 to an additional unexpected act of customer satisfaction, emerging from the first base dugout and tossing their caps into the crowd. “The fans have supported this team in bad times,” Danny Heep said, “and we just thought it would be a nice gesture.”
Thanks to Joe Dubin for providing audio from the game of July 9, 1969.