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Remembering 33 innings, 25 years later

| Thursday, June 22, 2006

PROVIDENCE, R.I. -- They played baseball through the night and into the morning, as the scoreless innings mounted and daybreak drew nearer.

By the time the minor-league game finally ended -- after eight hours, in the 33rd inning, on a bases-loaded single to left field -- it was part of baseball history.

On Friday, the Pawtucket Red Sox celebrate the 25th anniversary of the longest game in professional baseball history, their 3-2 victory over the Rochester Red Wings that spanned two nights over two months and boasted future big-league stars like Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr.

"It was a little difficult to stay focused, because in the back of your mind, you've got to be thinking, 'Geez, when is this game going to end?' " said Dave Koza, who drove in the winning run for Pawtucket.

The game began April 18, 1981, at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, a low-scoring duel between the Triple-A affiliates of the Baltimore Orioles and Boston Red Sox.

The score was tied, 1-1, after the first nine innings, the next nine innings, and beyond. As the game dragged on, players struggled through bitter cold and wind to push another run across the plate.

Batter after batter failed.

"Guys that were big-league players and on their way to being big-league players couldn't get a hit and couldn't do anything to change the course of the game for 32 innings," said Dallas Williams, a Rochester outfielder who went a remarkably futile 0 for 13 and is now the hitting coach for the Triple-A Ottawa Lynx.

At one point, Sam Bowen, a home run hitter for Pawtucket, belted a ball that sailed out of the park and looked to be a homer -- until it was blown back onto the field and caught.

"I remember thinking, 'This is different,' " said Bruce Hurst, who was the seventh pitcher of the night for the PawSox and later pitched for Boston.

As the game wore on, the temperature dropped into the low 40s. To keep warm, players built a bonfire in a metal trash can with wood from broken bats.

Finally, in the 21st inning, Rochester scored to go up, 2-1. But just when it seemed the game would end, the PawSox tied it in their turn at bat.

"People were very upset as it went on," said Marty Barrett, who later went on to play with Boston. "They were like, 'Come on,' especially after it got on to 1 o'clock."

But minor-league ballplayers also are hungering to make it to the majors. A dominant pitching performance or dizzying power display can get them a chance at the big leagues. Giving up wasn't an option.

"The team that we had, you play for a certain amount of innings, you're not letting this one go," Koza recalled. "You're going to win this."

Several players on the field that night went on to success in the major leagues.

Boggs, a Hall of Fame Red Sox third baseman, was 4 for 12 that night for Pawtucket. Ripken would be celebrated for his endurance long after the longest game, setting the record for consecutive games played and earning the nickname "Iron Man" with the Orioles.

Boggs, Hurst and Barrett were among the members of the 1986 Boston team that reached the World Series.

"We ran the gamut," said Hurst, who recalls striking out Ripken around 4 a.m. and facing him in the major leagues. "We went from, 'OK, let's win this thing' to 'OK, I don't care who wins this thing,"' to realizing that the game had a shot at breaking a record.

At the time, the record in the minor leagues was 29 innings, set in 1966, according to Freddy Berowski, a researcher at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. The record for a major-league game is 26 innings, established in 1920.

The game was suspended shortly after 4 a.m., after 32 innings, on the orders of the International League president. Hurst remembers the sun peeking out as he and his wife drove home that Easter morning.

The game resumed in Pawtucket on June 23 when the Red Wings returned to town. With major-league baseball interrupted by a players' strike, little Pawtucket became the focus of the sports world. Players say representatives from Japanese and British media outlets attended the game.

But that night, the longest game in history ended in stunningly quick fashion.

Steve Grilli, who wasn't even with the Red Wings when the game began, came in to pitch the 33rd inning. He loaded the bases, and the pitcher who relieved him threw a 2-2 curveball to Koza that was lined into left field. Barrett came home with the game-winning run.

"The competitive juices in my body were flowing and, unfortunately, I disappointed myself and the rest of the team," Grilli said.

The 33-inning record has held ever since. The PawSox will honor the 25th anniversary with a players' luncheon in Providence and a ballpark ceremony.

Hurst says he ran into Ripken on a golf course not long ago.

"We both looked at each other and said, 'Remember that night?' Through it all, through his Hall of Fame career, through it all, that's still the night we talk about."

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