Although I didn’t cover that unforgettable, marathon baseball game during the spring — and summer – of 1981, I feel as if I did, thanks to countless hours of research and scores of interviews with the participants.
Over time, I’ve come to feel the soreness in Dave Huppert’s knees, ankles, quads, hamstrings and right shoulder after the Rochester Red Wing caught 31 of the record-setting 33 innings that night and morning before the game was suspended on April 19 at 4:07 a.m.
I can visualize Cal Ripken Jr. and his Wing mates gathering broken bats for kindling to fuel a trash barrel fire they started in the dugout to keep warm during that raw Rhode Island weekend at Pawtucket’s McCoy Stadium.
I still chuckle every time I hear the story about Luis Aponte’s wife not believing him when the PawSox reliever arrived at their apartment in the wee hours that Easter Sunday morning and said he was just getting home from the ballpark, not a night out on the town.
I cringe when I think about poor Wings centerfielder Dallas Williams, who compiled the ugliest batting line in baseball history by going hitless in 13 at bats. As he told me years later, “I had a bad month that game.”
And I understand completely the disappointment the players and managers from both clubs experienced when the game was over in just 18 minutes after resuming to national and international media attention 65 days later.
Forty years have blown by since the PawSox eked out a 3-2 victory in what remains the longest, most bizarre game in professional baseball history. And for those who were there — or felt like they were — baseball’s version of “War and Peace” seems as vivid as four minutes rather than four decades ago.
The marathon, which surpassed by four innings the previous longevity record, took eight hours, 25 minutes to play. It was three innings shy of being a quadruple header (or a double-double header, if you will), and was the equivalent of a football or basketball game going 10 overtimes. Fourteen pitchers combined to throw 823 pitches, striking out 60 batters and teaming up for 29 scoreless innings.
Wings hurler Jim Umbarger gave new meaning to the term “long relief” by pitching 10 scoreless innings. Of the 41 players who participated, 25 either played or would go on to play Major League Baseball, the most notable being Ripken (two hits in 13 at-bats) and Wade Boggs (four-for-12). Ripken, who would become baseball’s all-time “Iron Man” by playing 2,632 consecutive games, logged all 33 innings.
“That game,” joked Umbarger, “prepared Cal for his streak. What’s a few thousand games in a row when you’ve played in one that lasted an eternity?”
Ripken loves reminiscing about that game, and chuckles every time he’s asked about that Louisville Slugger bonfire he and his teammates ignited.
“We gathered up debris and even put some broken bats in the fire,” he recalled. “The way the guys were hitting, we could have thrown all the good bats into the barrel, too. It wouldn’t have mattered.”
Bob Drew, the former Wings general manager/broadcaster who worked all 33 innings, attempted to keep warm by imbibing cup after cup of coffee.
“That would have been fine, but there was just one problem — there was no bathroom in the press box, and there wasn’t enough time between innings to race downstairs to the restrooms,” Drew said, who spent 20 seasons working in minor-league front offices, including six in Rochester. “By the time the game got into the mid-20s — innings, not degrees — my bladder was ready to burst.”
Like Umbarger, Aponte was scintillating in relief — striking out nine of the 14 batters he faced while pitching the seventh through 10th innings. At around 3 a.m., PawSox manager Joe Morgan gave him permission to go home. Xiomara Aponte didn’t exactly greet her husband with open arms.
“Where have you been?” she demanded to know upon his arrival. “At the ballpark,” he responded. “Like heck you have,” she snapped. “You’re lying.”
Since there was no local radio broadcast of the game and no internet reporting, Aponte had no way to corroborate his story. He reportedly was forced to return to McCoy, where he slept in the clubhouse.
If it hadn’t been for an omission of curfew regulations in the umpire’s rule book, Aponte and everyone else might have gotten home at a more reasonable hour. It wasn’t until PawSox General Manager Mike Tamburro finally tracked down International League President Harold Cooper that the game was halted with the score knotted at two after 32 innings.
MLB was on strike when the game resumed that June 23, so the eyes of the sports world — including camera crews from Great Britain and Japan — focused on Pawtucket and the marathon. Steve Grilli, who had been with the Toronto Blue Jays organization when the first 32 innings were played, was tapped by Wings manager Doc Edwards to pitch the bottom of the 33rd. It did not go well, as the veteran hurler plunked leadoff hitter Marty Barrett with his first pitch before surrendering a single to Chico Walker. Russ Laribee was intentionally walked to load the bases, and Edwards brought in Cliff Speck, who yielded a game-winning single by Dave Koza. While winning pitcher Bobby Ojeda hugged Barrett at home plate, the strains of Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?” could be barely heard above the roar of the sold-out crowd of 5,756.
“We obviously were disappointed to lose, but we might have been even more disappointed it was over so quickly after it had resumed,” Ripken said. “I think everyone wanted it to go a lot longer. The feeling was, ‘Heck, let’s get it up to 40 innings. Let’s put it so far out there, no one will ever be able to touch it,’ though I suspect 33 innings is long enough to never be broken.”
The game — like Ripken — is immortalized in Cooperstown, with artifacts, including the cluttered, handwritten scorebook, on display. Thanks to the recollections of Ripken and his fellow baseball marathoners, I continue to feel all these decades later as if I were there in that McCoy Stadium press box chronicling the longest and strangest game of them all.
Best-selling author and nationally honored journalist Scott Pitoniak is the Rochester Business Journal sports columnist. You can read more about the longest game and other strange-but-true stories in his book, “Memories of Swings Past: A Lifetime of Baseball Stories,” available in paperback or Kindle at amazon.com.