Game on! And on. And on.
Thirty years later: a nostalgic look back to April 18, 1981, and the longest battle in professional baseball history.
Three thirty in the morning.
Holy Saturday, the awkward Christian pause between the Sorrow and the Joy, has surrendered to the first hushed hours of Easter. The cold and dark cling to the rooftops in a Rhode Island place called Pawtucket. Triple-decker houses, packed with three, four, six sleeping families, loom over its empty, half-lighted streets, while the river that tumbles through its deserted downtown releases a steady, dreamy sigh. Yet somewhere in the almost sacred stillness, a white orb disturbs the peace, skipping along the night-damp grass, flitting through the night-crisp air, causing unrest.
Under the powerful lights of tired, middle-aged McCoy Stadium, small clutches of people – two dozen at most – huddle like straggling immigrants in the steerage of a ship, watching that white dot dance through the night. Some are drinking coffee and hot chocolate, even champagne and Chivas Regal, as a cold April wind slaps their faces for the audacity of their presence. They will not leave.
They are watching a baseball game, an early season professional baseball game of no particular importance, a Triple A game between the Red Wings of Rochester, New York, and the Pawtucket Red Sox. But why? Why is it being played now, at 3:30 in the morning on the holiest day of the Christian calendar? In frigid, unconscious Pawtucket?
The answer: The game is tied, inextricably, maddeningly knotted – in the 31st inning. The Red Wings and PawSox have two runs apiece, and baseball rarely abides a tie. You win or you lose.
Awhile back, maybe an hour ago, maybe two, this inning-by-inning standoff in Pawtucket quietly distinguished itself from every other professional baseball game ever played. It is officially the longest in history, imprisoning, among others, a weary Rochester broadcaster who wonders whether anyone even hears his radio dispatches back home:
“That’ll bring up Dan Logan. Struck out his last time up in the 29th inning. Singled in the 27th. Runner at first base. Two away. Here’s the pitch to Logan. Misses outside, ball one. . . .”
Of the thousands of games played every year, and of the hundreds of thousands played over the past century in ballparks gone and still standing, in Yankee Stadium in the Bronx and City Stadium in St. Joseph, Missouri; in Fenway Park in Boston and Haymarket Park in Lincoln, Nebraska; in Bisbee, Arizona, Paducah, Kentucky, Waterloo, Iowa, and Wenatchee, Washington; everywhere and anywhere in North America – of all those many baseball games that came before, no game has lasted as long as this one. More than any other ever played, this game is testing the imagined charm of two baseball teams playing on and on.
Strong and insistent winds blowing in from the outfield have created an invisible wall that even the hardest-hit flyballs cannot penetrate. Sometimes the wind borrows the baseball to juggle for a while, like some magical Easter egg, before losing interest and allowing it to drop. The ballplayers, meanwhile, are feeling the weight of the night in their arms, their legs, even their heads. And so the innings have dribbled like spilled beer into Sunday, with each one some variation of the inning just completed, the 30th.
Rochester: groundout, strikeout, strikeout.
Pawtucket: groundout, groundout, single, flyout.
No television cameras are filming the game, which means that much of what is occurring, or not occurring, will be left to the mercy of memory, that most flawed of recording devices. The rest is mostly preserved in the meticulous baseball cryptography of the official scorer hunched now in the press box, as serious about his charge as any Columban monk who illustrated the Book of Kells. In the 10th, the scorer started using three different colors of ink – blue, red, and black – for each inning. With every careful stroke of his pen, his score sheet gradually becomes a work of art: the Book of Pawtucket.
So glimpse now over the scorer’s shoulder at his masterpiece in progress. Stop at any name and try to divine that player’s future based on how well he has performed on this long, long night. Pause here, for example, to read the string of symbols that tells the game story of Pawtucket’s third baseman, Wade Boggs. Three singles and a double in 12 at bats so far. This 22-year-old bundle of superstition, a curious incarnation of a Southern gentleman jock, is said to be nothing more than a Punch and Judy hitter when what you really want from your third baseman is power. Right?
Notice, too, the lackluster performance of Rochester’s tall, movie star-handsome third baseman, with eyes an almost otherworldly blue. True, the Baltimore organization sees this 20-year-old as the Oriole third baseman of the future. But in tonight’s endurance-testing game, does his subpar performance – 11 outs, two walks, and a single – begin to cast doubt on those big plans? Does this ballplayer, this Cal Ripken Jr., have what it takes to play at the Triple A level, much less in the Major Leagues?
And what about that rock-hard first baseman for Pawtucket? His name is Dave Koza, and baseball has been his purpose since the age of 11, when merchants in his Wyoming hometown chipped in a total of $175 to send him to a baseball camp in Oklahoma. In this game, he is 4 for 12 so far, a respectable, even impressive night. An adequate fielder, he has some clout, having hit 27 home runs in 1979 and 13 last year, all for Pawtucket.
In fact, he’s been playing for Pawtucket for several years now: a few games in 1977 and ’78, and all of ’79 and ’80. And here he is, in 1981, stuck in Pawtucket again – stuck in Triple A, the last stop before the Major Leagues.
At 3:30, though, do these ballplayers care or even know that they have broken a record? A record that is less about achievement than it is about frustration? Most of them are too tired, too cold, and too hungry to contemplate the historic import of the night. They stamp their feet. They blow into their hands. They fold into themselves on the narrow dugout benches and gather around fires that lick from a couple of 55-gallon drums, fires fed by broken Louisville Slugger bats, many of them imprinted with the names of athletes freezing here, the someday baseball famous and soon-to-be baseball forgotten.
The Rochester players hope to be summoned one day by the Baltimore Orioles, their parent club – a fitting phrase, given that every swing, catch, and throw by these sons of the minor leagues is meant to shout to the front office daddies: Look at me! Look at me!
And the Pawtucket players, oh, these Pawtucket players, freezing in a shallow dugout along the third base side, want so badly to be called up to the Red Sox. “Called up” is another apt phrase, for Boston is 45 miles to the north, 45 miles that might as well be 4,000, so otherworldly is the Major League experience from that of the minor leagues. Word has come down that up in the big leagues, your locker overflows with cleats and gloves and other treats, all free. Imagine.
Well then, the minor leaguer thinks. If freezing in Pawtucket will deliver me from Pawtucket and Rochester and Toledo and Syracuse, then bring on a blizzard.
Note: After more than eight hours and 32 innings of play, the league president finally halted the game. On June 23, 1981, the teams reconvened at McCoy Stadium, where PawSox player Dave Koza drove in the winning run in the bottom of the 33d inning.
Dan Barry is a national columnist for The New York Times. This piece was adapted from his book Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game (HarperCollins), which comes out this week. Copyright©2011 by Dan Barry. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.