A crowd of 59,088 fans jammed Shea Stadium in Flushing, N.Y. on Wednesday night, July 9, 1969.
My dad and I and two uncles were among them, sitting in the next to last row of the upper deck, courtesy of free tickets we got through a program sponsored in those days by Borden’s Dairy.
This was the first year of divisional play in Major League Baseball, and the New York Mets were in uncharted territory, trailing the Chicago Cubs by just 4 1/2 games for first place in the National League East. This from a team that had never finished higher than 9th in a 10-team league.
They were a stratospheric 12 games over .500, and Tom Seaver was about to take the mound. Could it get any better?
It turned out it could. And it did.
My mind went racing back to that unforgettable night at Shea on Wednesday night after I heard the sad news that Seaver, a Hall of Famer and indisputably the greatest Mets player ever, had passed away at the age of 75. He’d been suffering from a form of dementia and had dropped out of the public eye for the past few years.
For Mets fans of that era, he will always remain “Tom Terrific,” or “The Franchise.” Not a single one of us will ever forgive the team for trading him to the Cincinnati Reds in 1977 in the middle of a bitter contract dispute.
But that was a long way off on that humid July 1969 night. Later that month, Neil Armstrong would take “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” For us, it was the Mets who were out of this world.
Suddenly, our team was good. Suddenly we had our Mickey Mantle or Wille Mays. With No. 41 on the mound, the impossible dream could — and eventually would — come true.
With thanks to “Met-rospectives: A Collection of the Greatest Games in New York Mets History (SABR, 2018)” for some detail backup, here are my memories of that Amazin’ night.
The Mets scored a run in the first against Cubs starter Ken Holtzman, and knocked him out of the game with two more in the second. Seaver, a right-hander who had joined the Mets in 1967, had begun to transform the Mets from laughingstock to contender. He was already 13-3 when he took the mound for what was, to that point, the biggest game of his career and in Mets history.
I don’t really remember when I started to think about a no-hitter, but by the sixth inning or so, I think we all started to get into it. He retired the Cubs in order in the sixth and again in the seventh and the eighth. Nobody sat down while the Cubs batted.
Randy Hundley led off the top of the 9th. Incredibly, the slow-footed catcher tried to bunt his way on. Ever hear 59,088 boo in unison? Seaver fielded it and threw Hundley out easily.
Then came Jimmy Qualls. Friggin’ Jimmy Qualls. A rookie who would have no other big moments, Qualls dropped a clean single to left-center on the first pitch, well beyond the reach of center fielder Tommie Agee and left fielder Cleon Jones.
We all went completely silent for a moment, in disbelief that of all the Cubs players, this guy had gotten a hit off of Seaver. This guy?
Then, just as suddenly, came the longest standing ovation of which I’ve ever been a part. Seaver got the next two hitters easily. The Mets won 4-0 and moved to 3 1/2 out.
Seaver ended up 25-7 that season with 17 other complete games. He would go on to win the first of his three Cy Young Awards and lead the Mets to the 1969 World Championship.
That July 9 game has been forever called “The Imperfect Game” by Mets fans.
But a more perfect pitcher or player will never again wear the orange and blue.
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