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It was the longest game in baseball history. And it made a hero of one man for a day

<em>The Longest Game</em> is a new documentary from ESPN's 30 for 30 and Radio Diaries.
The Longest Game is a new documentary from ESPN's 30 for 30 and Radio Diaries.

Baseball is sometimes called "the timeless game." Unlike football, basketball or soccer, there's no clock and the two teams keep playing until there's a winner.

In theory, the game could go on forever.

On April 18, 1981, two minor league teams met for an early season game of no real consequence. It was AAA baseball, one step below the major leagues. The Pawtucket Red Sox were playing the Rochester Red Wings at McCoy Stadium in Pawtucket, R.I.

On the field were future hall-of-famers Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken, Jr. and 20 other players all hoping to make it to the big leagues.

Dave Koza was Pawtucket's first baseman.

"To be a part of AAA, you're only one step and 40 miles from Fenway Park," Koza said. "If you keep playing hard, maybe you can get to the top."

It was a cold night, 45 degrees with a strong wind blowing straight in from center field, which made it hard to score. By the end of 9 innings, the game was tied at 1. And it stayed that way into extra innings.

Dave Koza makes what would be the crucial hit of the game.
/ Worcester Red Sox
Worcester Red Sox
Dave Koza makes what would be the crucial hit of the game.

Bob Drew was doing the play-by-play for WPXN Rochester Radio. His fiancée, Linda, was listening at home and set up a small tape recorder to capture his voice over the airwaves – creating the only known recording of this historic game.

The two teams played past midnight, past a league curfew, into the wee hours of Easter Sunday morning. Both teams scored in the 21st inning and they played on.

Pawtucket's manager, Joe Morgan, was ejected in the 22nd inning and still the game continued. The few fans left in the stands were tired and hungry, so the concession stands started giving away free food and coffee.

The players were so cold they started fires in metal trash cans and burned their broken bats. The night reached 2 a.m., and the ballplayers were still playing hard, inning after inning.

"There's a hunger infused throughout the night," said Dan Barry, a New York Times journalist and author of Bottom of the 33rd. "Everyone on the field, they all wanna make it to the major leagues. Those who have already been to the major leagues want to get back. Those who have never been can't wait. But also the managers want to manage in the major leagues. The umpires want to ump in the major leagues. It's gnawing at all of them."

At 4 a.m., after 8 hours of gameplay, it had reached the 32nd inning. Pawtucket's General Manager Mike Tamburro finally got the league president on the phone, who instructed the umpires to suspend the game.

Two months later, on June 23, 1981, they picked up where they left off — top of the 33rd inning, but this time before a sold-out crowd of nearly 6,000 and scores of reporters from around the world.

Pawtucket Red Sox Dave Koza singles with the bases loaded and no one out.
Boston Globe / Boston Globe via Getty Images
Boston Globe via Getty Images
Pawtucket Red Sox Dave Koza singles with the bases loaded and no one out.

In the bottom of the 33rd, Pawtucket's Dave Koza went up to the plate with the bases loaded and no outs. He hit a single to left field, driving in the winning run.

"For one day, Dave Koza was the king of baseball," says former Pawtucket General Manager Mike Tamburro.

Although Koza never made it to the major leagues, his bat and his portrait did make it to the Hall of Fame, as the hero of baseball's longest game.

You can hear the full story of The Longest Game onESPN's 30 for 30 Podcast. It features the voices of players Cal Ripken, Jr., Wade Boggs, Dallas Williams and Dave Koza. As well as Annie Life, Mike Tamburro, Tony Maners, Linda Drew, Bill George, and Dan Barry, who wrote a book about this game called Bottom of the 33rd.

This story was produced by Nellie Gilles of Radio Diaries, and edited by Deborah George, Ben Shapiro, Joe Richman. The senior editorial producer was Eve Troeh and line producer was Cath Sankey.

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Nellie Gilles