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Saturday, June 2, 2012
Qualls, Seaver buster, rooted for Johan

By Ian O'Connor



Of all the baseball fans pulling for the New York Mets on Friday night, pulling hard for Johan Santana to nail down his historic no-hitter, one 65-year-old Midwesterner stood out as the most unlikely of them all.

Jim Qualls, a ghost from the Mets’ past.

“I sat here with cold chills all over me while I was watching it,” Qualls said Saturday from his Sutter, Ill. home. “I really wanted Johan to do it for New York.”

On July 9, 1969, Qualls did it to New York with one out in the ninth, when the Chicago Cubs bench player broke up Tom Seaver’s bid for a perfect game with a single to left-center. Qualls would finish his abbreviated big-league career with 30 hits, plus one at Shea Stadium that made him the faceless name of the Mets’ biblical no-hit drought.

“Tom went on to have a pretty good career,” Qualls said through a laugh, “and the Mets came back and passed us that year and won the World Series. So I think they got over it.”

If the ’69 team got over it, the franchise and its fanbase did not. So when Santana no-hit the St. Louis Cardinals in the middle of the Mets’ 51st season and across their 8,020th game, the 2012 team celebrated on the field as if it had just won the pennant.

Qualls doesn’t often get to watch Mets games, but as luck would have it, he gets Cardinals telecasts in his farmland home some 150 miles north of St. Louis. He watched Friday night’s historic Mets-Cardinals game from a recliner in his living room.

“I just wish there were more people in the stands to see what Santana did,” Qualls said of the Citi Field crowd of 27,069. “Boy, there were a lot of people there (nearly 60,000) when I got the hit off Seaver, and I remember most of them booing me when I got to first base.

“I was afraid somebody was going to come up and bloop one in off Santana, and a couple of them scared me.”

Allen Craig’s short fly to Kirk Nieuwenhuis scared him the most. Craig had come up with one out in the ninth, just like Qualls did 43 years back. But Santana had better luck than Seaver. In fact, Santana had better luck than any Mets starter ever had.

“It’s been a long time coming for the Mets, and I’m very happy for them,” Qualls said. “I used to get some letters from New York right after my hit, people saying I’d better not ever walk the streets of New York ever again, but those letters came from kids.

“I still get a lot of New York and New Jersey fans who send me cards and pictures to autograph, and they’re almost always polite. I didn’t have a long career, but it’s the one hit I’m remembered for.”

The next time Seaver crossed paths with Qualls that season, during pregame jogging in the outfield, the pitcher yelled a profanity at the rookie and said, “You cost me a million bucks.” Seaver was joking ... Qualls thinks.

But now the Qualls curse is dead and buried, and the semi-retired farmer is happy to have been exorcised.

“Johan deserved it,” he said, “and so did the Mets. All they ever hear about is the boys across town, and all the big money the Yankees have, but not (Friday) night. I’ll be kind of pulling for the Mets now, at least until they play the Cubs.”