Thursday, April 29, 2010

Long Night's Journey Into Nothingness

As I sat through last week's 20-inning marathon between the Mets and Cardinals, I couldn't help thinking "I've been here before." The Mets have played a disproportionate number of 20-inning games, and I've watched all of them, starting with that ridiculous doubleheader in 1964 in which the Mets lost a 23-inning dandy to the Giants in the second game. I remember two things most about that game: Casey Stengel, obviously not prescient, burned two pinch-hitters and a pinch-runner in the second inning, and Del Crandall sliced a double into the right field corner in the top of the 23rd to drive in the winning run.

I also caught all of the six-hour battle early in the 1968 season at the Astrodome, the longest 1-0 game in major league history. That one was pretty excruciating, like being stuck in an elevator, goose-eggs filling the scoreboard until the bottom of the 24th inning, when a ground ball darted through the legs of Mets shortstop Al Weis to give the Astros a mind-numbing victory.

And I stayed tuned in to that crazy game in 1974, also against the St. Louis, the longest major league game ever played to a conclusion, held hostage by history again. This time the Mets led 3-1 into the ninth inning, but a Ken Reitz home run off Jerry Koosman tied it, and that was the last carnage until the 25th inning. Remember Jerry Cram? Nah, I don't either. He pitched 48 innings in the majors, and eight of them were in this game--for the Mets. He entered in the 17th inning and logged eight shutout innings. In the 25th, Hank Webb tried to pick off Bake McBride, made a wild throw, and McBride came all the way around to score the winning run.

These three ordeals had two things in common: the Mets lost, and Ed Sudol was the home-plate umpire. Sudol must have turned over in his grave on April 17 as the Mets and Cardinals struggled through 18 scoreless innings, somehow both scoring in the 19th before the Mets reversed history by winning in the 20th.

It turns out, however, that none of these games marked the most futile day in Mets history. Playing on the other day, I chanced upon my candidate for that dishonor. It was October 2, 1965, and I'm sure I followed all the "action" as the Mets took on the Phillies (once again, at Shea Stadium) in a doubleheader. It was the last weekend of another lost year for the Mets, a season in which they achieved a .221 team batting average, finished 47 games out of first place, had a pair of 20-game losers (Jack Fisher and Al Jackson), and even lost their one redeeming character when Casey Stengel broke his hip and had to retire.

The Friday game was rained out, so they played a twi-night doubleheader on Saturday. In the opener, Jim Bunning, who had pitched a perfect game against them a year earlier (yeah, I watched that Mets debacle, too), held them to a pair of singles and a walk in winning 6-0. Then came the nightcap, which seemed like a mismatch of southpaws. The Mets starter was Rob Gardner, a 20-year-old who had pitched just four times in the majors, allowing 10 runs in 13 innings. For the Phillies, it was Chris Short, midway through a three-year stretch during which he won 55 games. Ed Sudol was elsewhere, Lee Weyer was behind the plate, and there was no reason to think the game would get out of hand. But it did.

There were scoring chances early, but nothing came of them. Each team left two men on base in the first inning, and Mets should've scored in the third. With one out, Ron Hunt and Joe Christopher hit back-to-back doubles, but Hunt didn't make it past third base. I haven't been able to find out why. The Sunday New York Times went to print before the game ended and included no account of the "action," and by Monday the season was over and nobody cared. But it doesn't matter. These were the early Mets, for whom scoring a run on two doubles was a bit too much to ask. A pair of strikeouts ended that threat, including one by the immortal Danny Napoleon (who replaced starting left fielder Ron Swoboda, ejected in the first inning for arguing a called third strike).

Short settled down after that, and Gardner did an excellent imitation of him. For the next five innings, each team got exactly one hit. In the bottom of the ninth, the Mets got a pair of two-out singles, but Short fanned Roy McMillan (his 13th whiff of the game) to send the death-march into extra innings.

The scenario didn't change. Gardner and Short chugged along, giving up almost nothing. The Phillies got a single in the 11th inning, only their fourth hit of the game. It didn't matter. In their half, the Mets got a single and a stolen base in what constituted a major scoring threat by this point. But Cleon Jones (a .149 hitter as a rookie that season) couldn't get him home. On they went.

Somehow, Gardner got even stronger at this point, retiring eleven Phillies in a row before Tony Gonzalez doubled with one out in the top of the 15th. He didn't go anywhere either. In the Mets half, manager Wes Westrum removed Gardner for a pinch-hitter, who did nothing. That was it for the left, who had pitched a three-hitter through nine innings and allowed only five hits in fifteen innings of wasted work. (Despite this promising showing, he went on to a 14-win career.)

Short also left for a pinch-hitter after fifteen shutout innings in which he faced 56 hitters and struck out 18 of them (tying a National League record for most strikeouts in an extra-inning game). Will we ever see anything like this again--two starters going 15 innings apiece? (No.) It matched the extraordinary 1963 duel between Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal, won 1-0 by Juan in the 16th when Willie Mays touched Spahn for a home run.

It was well past midnight by this time, and they kept playing. Relievers came in, but nothing changed. In the 18th, Westrum sent Dennis Ribant to the mound. Only four days earlier, Ribant had pitched eleven useless shutout innings in a game the Mets lost 1-0 in twelve. He had a lot of momentum going and retired the Phillies in order. Jack Baldschun matched him in the home half, fanning Christopher and Charlie Smith to end the inning.

And the game. Anybody remember curfews? A local ordinance prohibited games from going past 12:50 a.m., and the game passed that fail-safe point in the 18th inning. I'm sure Lee Weyer was very happy to pull the plug on this vigil. I'd like to know how many (few) fans were still there (only a little more than 10,000 were there at the start). Incidentally, these 18 innings took a mere 4 hours and 29 minutes to play; at today's pace, the curfew would have tolled the knell five or six innings earlier. How the times have changed.

Add it up, and you get 27 innings for the day, and zero runs for the Mets. No team has ever done so little with so many opportunities in one day of baseball. The beauty of this nightmare was that the game wasn't even suspended. It was officially a tie and had to be replayed the next day--the final day of the season--as a doubleheader which began a dozen hours after the long night's journey into nothingness concluded.

Of course, there was no way of telling how much fatigue contributed to the continuing futility witnessed by 18,000 or so fans the next day. The Mets actually scored a run in the 3rd inning off Ray Culp--thanks to an error--and were tied 1-1 until the Phillies scored twice in the ninth to win it. Al Jackson took the loss to run his record to 8-20. Business as usual. In the finale--the Mets' last chance for shinola in 1965--Jack Fisher took his 8-23 record to the mound and battled Larry Jackson of the Phillies. Each team scored in the 7th, and then things settled into an eerie reminder of the night before. Fisher kept going and surrendered nothing more through the 12th inning. It was still 1-1 when Billy Sorrell led off the 13th. He had already doubled his major league career from six at-bats to twelve, and he blasted a home run. The Phillies scored again and wound up beating Fisher 3-1, capping his 24-loss season.

That was one lost weekend. The Mets played 49 innings in less than 30 hours and scored exactly two runs, one of them unearned. They managed 22 hits and struck out 53 times. The only good news was that they didn't have to play the next day. Or the day after that. And I didn't have to watch them flail away until 1966. Their scoreless futility this month had a much happier ending. They won the game and, at this writing, have propelled that marathon breakthrough to ten wins in their last dozen games. Just don't be surprised if it happens again. They still have the knack.

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