CHARLOTTE, NC, March 31, 2014 – Opening Day of baseball season has a unique quality about it unlike any other sport. By August, when the Dog Days arrive and many teams have long since disappeared from the pennant races, September often becomes a month for players to play out the string until next year.
But Opening Day is special. Every team is undefeated and there are no magic numbers. The weather is still cool in many places, but the first pitch heralds the official beginning of warmer weather.
As a former professional baseball player, I had the privilege of playing in the one of the most historic of baseball’s games and a sport that thrives on history. As a tribute to the Opening Day of the new season, here is my personal story in two parts of a game I will remember forever.
The record stood for 15 years until 1981 when the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings went 33 innings before the Pawsox won, 3-2. That game, however, was not completed in a single night.
Just before game time on that eventful night in 1966, future Hall of Fame manager, George “Sparky” Anderson completed his daily ritual of posting the line-up on the dugout wall. As a utility outfielder, I would be playing left field replacing Ernie “Sweetpea” Davis who was in the throes of a horrible slump.
It was a typical sultry Florida night as 740 fans braved the heat for what would become a historic evening.
For six and a half innings, the starting pitchers matched zeroes. During the seventh inning stretch, Cardinal catcher Gary Stone raced a motorcycle around the bases before it was raffled off to a lucky fan.
St. Pete drew first blood in the bottom of the seventh when Terry Milani singled and went to second on a throwing error. Sonny Ruberto bunted in front of the plate, sending Milani around third to score when Marlins catcher Charlie Sands made a wild throw to first. Ruberto advanced to third on the throw and later scored on a single by Frank Rodriquez.
Then the game got weird.
In the top of the eighth, Miami’s Charlie Sands singled. Manager Billy DeMars sent in a pinch hitter for Hank King who had been pitching in relief of the Marlins’ starter. Lloyd Fourroux went to the plate and was down 1-2 on the count when he drove the next pitch over the left field fence to knot the game at 2. Though pinch-hit home runs are rare, but hardly unprecedented, the real oddity was the fact that Fourroux was a pitcher.
Neither team scored again until the top of the 11th when Tim Thompson, the third Cardinals pitcher, gave up three straight singles and a run to put Miami ahead, 3-2.
However, it was the way the inning ended that had everyone shaking their heads. Following the front end of a double play at second, first baseman Terry Milani was pulled off the bag at first to keep the inning alive. Running from second, Carl Cmejrek rounded third and headed for home. Milani picked up the ball and charged the runner.
With faking throws, Milani accidentally let the ball slip as Cmejrek broke for the plate. The ball took one bounce before hitting Cmejrek in the left knee as he kicked it to home for a bang-bang out at the plate.
The Cardinals answered with a run in the bottom of the 11th to tie the score at 3, but it would take 18 more innings to complete the game.
During the marathon stretch, Miami’s only threat came in the top of the 22nd when Dennis Denning hit a long fly ball to left.
Manager Billy DeMars said after the game, “I knew it was in for a home run, then this kid out there (Bob Taylor) leaps in the air, sticks his glove over the fence and grabs the ball.”
It was probably the best catch of my professional baseball career. It was certainly the most memorable. Oddly enough, it was the first putout I had made in left field all night.
As the game slogged onward to the 27th inning, the managers and umpires held a meeting and decided to quit if it was not over after 30 innings. With the meeting was in progress. a Miami player ran on the field and snapped a picture of the home plate summit with the scoreboard in the background.
The 30th inning would never arrive, but the final stanza was just as strange as the rest of the game. Miami pitcher of record, Mike Herbert, led off with a resounding double. Dennis Denning was walked intentionally, putting runners at first and second to set up a potential double play. Gary Carnegie followed with an unplayable bunt, loading the bases with no outs.
On the next pitch Fred Rico hit a sharp grounder to right that hit Carnegie in the leg as he was running to second. Dead ball. Herbert, who had scored, was sent back to third while Denning returned to second.
The next batter, Carl Cmejrek, had one mission, to get the lead runner home. He lofted a long fly out to center allowing Herbert to tag and make the score, 4-3. In the process, Denning, trying for an insurance run from second, was gunned down at the plate to end the inning.
Nevertheless, the damage had been done. The Cardinals went down 1, 2, 3 in the bottom of the 29th and seven hours after it began history was made with a final score of 4-3.
For myself, to have competed in the longest uninterrupted game in professional baseball history while playing for future Hall of Fame manager, Sparky Anderson, is the highlight of a largely unheralded minor league career. Still is remains a form of personal immortality I am able to pass along to my children and grandchildren.
There was also one final element of irony for the losing Cardinals, however. Miami arrived home at 8:30 a.m. after a four plus hour bus ride before returning to the park at 11 to play a day/night doubleheader.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe. Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com).
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