Rick Wise was bewildered.
He couldn't believe it's been 50 years, half a century, since the night of June 23, 1971. The date he put up one of the most dominant individual performances in baseball history. The time he pitched a no-hitter and hit two home runs in the same game.
"It's hard to believe it is 50 years," Wise told me over a recent phone call, chuckling. "Five decades, I mean, for crying out loud. But, you know, I still remember almost everything about that game. I might not remember something a week ago, but I remember a lot about that game. It'll never disappear from my mind."
Funny enough, Wise didn't even want to come to the ballpark that night in Cincinnati. He had been sick with the the flu most of the week leading up to his start and felt terrible waking up that morning. It was the Jordan flu game before the Jordan flu game.
"I did not want to go the park," Wise remembered. "I just didn't feel good."
But he knew it was his turn in the rotation and he had to gut it out. His pregame routine suffered for it.
"Warming up, I felt like the ball was stopping about halfway to the plate," Wise told me. "I felt so weak, I thought I'd better locate my pitches or I'm not gonna be around long."
The Phillies starter was also facing a star-studded Reds lineup that featured Pete Rose, George Foster, Johnny Bench, Tony Pérez and Dave Concepción. It wasn't a team you wanted to face when healthy, let alone while getting over a virus.
But the righty got through the first three innings pretty smoothly. He wasn't striking guys out, but Reds batters were being aggressive and hitting the ball right to where his defense was playing. Getting into the flow of the game helped him sweat out whatever sickness he was battling. It also helped that he was playing on the steaming hot Riverfront Stadium turf, which could make things extraordinarily toasty.
"The heat from the Astroturf built up all day," Wise said. "It had to be 120 or 130 even at 6:30 p.m."
The Phillies staked Wise to a 1-0 lead after an RBI groundout in the second inning, but in the top of the fifth, Wise thought his team might need a bigger cushion. After a Roger Freed double, the pitcher hit a two-run home run to make it 3-0, Philadelphia. Wise always prided himself in being a solid hitter (he hit 15 homers for his career, including six in 1971).
"I tried to help myself every time I could," Wise said. "I felt the opposing pitcher had to throw to nine hitters. All through my amateur career, I always hit third, fourth or fifth. I liked it and worked at it."
On the mound, Wise continued to work his way through the tough Reds lineup. He said he remembers only three balls reaching the outfield (though the Reds had six flyouts), telling me shortstop Larry Bowa made a nice play at one point, as did third baseman John Vukovich. He struck out just three batters and walked one -- so close to a perfect game. He, of course, remembers that at-bat that got away nearly pitch by pitch.
"It was Concepción in the sixth," Wise recalled. "I fell behind him, 3-1, and I overthrew a fastball. I tried to overpower the ball and it was high in the zone. Definitely a ball."
Unlike most pitchers who might say they had no idea they were pitching a no-hitter, Wise realized it pretty early on. "You sit in the dugout and you see it out on the scoreboard," he told me. His teammates were kind of avoiding talking to him, and his manager, Frank Luchessi, was getting more and more stressed as the game progressed.
"He was having a fit," Wise told me. "He was so nervous, pacing up and down the dugout, looking at people as they came off the field."
Wise's stuff -- slider, curveball, fastball -- got sharper and stronger into the later innings. He was also locating his spots and able to set his defense where the ball might be hit.
And then, in the top of the eighth inning, maybe feeling even a 3-0 lead wasn't large enough, Wise got into another fastball for a solo homer. Phillies (mostly Rick Wise): 4, Reds: 0.
Wise didn't let the cheers from his teammates or the adrenaline from hitting two homers distract him from shutting down the Reds. The game was close and he knew he had to keep it that way. He got three outs in the bottom of the inning, got the first two in the ninth -- the second on a sprint to cover first base.
And then he had to face one of the best hitters on the planet to register the no-no: Pete Rose stepped into the box, a man who'd lead the league in hits seven times during his long career and rarely took an 0-for-the-day.
Rose connected on a hard liner to the left side, but the ever-trusty Vukovich was there to make the grab.
There it was: a no-hitter on 93 pitches -- and the first and only time that a pitcher has hit two homers while throwing a no-no. Wes Ferrell, Earl Wilson and Jim Tobin had hit one during their no-hitters, but nobody did it twice.
"It was just a tremendous feeling," Wise said. "You can't describe it."
Although Shohei Ohtani is an extraordinary two-way phenomenon this year (Wise called him a "tremendous athlete"), the imminent reality of a universal DH and the inability of starters to go nine innings will likely make it so Wise's feat never happens again.
The postgame show was more excited to talk about his homers than the no-hitter and teammates even complimented him on his hitting, rather than his pitching -- joking that hitting two dingers was more impressive. (Which, maybe it was?)
Wise donated his bat, glove and a ball from the game to Cooperstown. The Phils also sent him a nice framed keepsake from the night.
Wise had some other amazing performances in '71. He hit two more homers during a game in August and retired 32 straight batters during an extra-inning affair with the Cubs in September -- the equivalent of a perfect game, plus five more outs (he also got the game-winning hit in the 12th!). But he said nothing will top what he did that night 50 summers ago.
"I mean, it's the only one ever," Wise said. "All in all, the way I felt that day is the story, really. Other games, I felt just overpowering warming up. Really had good stuff. ... And then you don't get out of the first or second inning. You know, that's baseball. No matter how you feel, you have to get out there and compete and give your team a chance to win."
Rick Wise definitely succeeded in doing that, and then some.