In the 42nd Inning

Vincent L. Scarsella

 

In the bottom of the 42nd inning of the last game of the season, with two outs and nobody on, Johnson had the funny notion that maybe, just maybe, this game could last forever.

 

Kloski was up, hitting a paltry .209, and Moose Kelso, after eleven innings, was still throwing heat.  Kelso lifted his long tree-trunk of a leg high up off the mound and snapped the ball toward home plate with sudden force, twisting and snorting like some deranged Arabian racehorse.

 

“Strike two!”  shouted the ump, McCray.  Somehow, he was holding his own, bellowing out balls and strikes

with his usual zeal.

 

From the dugout, the manager, Dickie Thompson, yelled:  “C’mon, Kloski.  Put your goddamned bat on the ball for a change!”

 

Kloski stepped out of the batter’s box and glared into the dugout with a kind of smirk as if to say,  “What the hell do you think I’ve been trying to do all the months of this lousy season?”

 

As Kloski stepped back into the batter’s box, Thompson started to pace the dugout in front of his tired, haggard players.  Suddenly, he stopped and looked straight at Johnson.

 

“That bastard Kelso still looks fresh,”  he said, for no particular reason other than he needed a face to complain to.  Removing his cap, he passed a hand through his gray slick of hair.

 

Johnson was one of only three players that hadn’t yet gotten into the game.  For forty-two straight innings, he had sat and watched the long game progress toward no discernible conclusion.

 

He was up from Spokane for the September run, after another respectable season in the minors, hitting .275 with 19 homers and 74 runs batted in.  But at thirty-two, time was a wasting. 

 

For his part, Thompson wondered why the organization had wasted him time calling Johnson up to the majors in the first place when they had a couple of promising rookies down on the farms that could have used the experience.  It was probably some kind of misguided charity, giving Johnson a chance to make into the major league record books before he exchanged his spikes for a career selling life insurance.

 

“How can that bastard be so fresh after all this time?”  Thompson asked, still looking directly at Johnson.   

 

But before Johnson could even shrug at him, there was a thok.  Kloski had actually hit the ball.  Thompson whirled around and watched wide-eyed as Kloski rambled toward first. 

 

He’d smacked a liner to left, lifting his batting average to .210.  With two outs in the bottom of the 42nd, they had something going, their first base runner since the 39th

 

“Jesus H. Christ,”  Thompson muttered.

 

The game was tied, 11 to 11, but there was no way of remembering how it had gotten to that point.  It had started at 1:35 that Saturday afternoon.  It was now close to midnight.

 

The first ten innings had been a classic pitcher’s duel, clipping along with speed and zest to a 1-1 tie in just over two hours.  The pitchers, Ed Palmer and Cal Hunter, had long since showered and changed into street clothes and were now yawning with their teammates in their respective dugouts.

 

The next three plus games of innings had not nearly lived up to the intense perfection of the first ten.  Now, the game was incredibly bogged down.  Neither team was able to crack that key hit, register that needed strike out, or make that leaping grab to end the game.  Instead, the game remained deadlocked, in the bottom of the 42nd inning, with Kloski stepping off the bag at first, two outs, and a dugout full of tired, indifferent, and disgruntled players.

 

For Johnson, it meant more than that.  He had already missed a meeting with Kelly’s father about financing a business venturea school of baseball instruction—he hoped to start once this long, disappointing baseball career was over.  He had even made a veiled promise to Kelly that now that he had made it to the bigs – and would have his name etched forever in the major league record books – that he could quit satisfied and start his baseball school with an open heart.

 

But after three weeks up, he hadn’t played a single inning.  Not a single play.  He was on the roster, and that was something, but the record books would have nothing to record if he didn’t get into a game for at least one play.  He wasn’t sure what Thompson’s problem was, why he had it out for him, but this was the last game of the season, and his time was running out.  Luckily, the game meant something for the other team – a win and they’d tie for the wildcard berth.  Therefore, the game couldn’t be suspended or called.  It had to be completed, no matter how long it took.  Someone had to win and someone had to lose. 

 

That’s when the idea struck Johnson – this game could last forever.

 

Thompson conveyed a signal—a steal sign—to Candalerra, the third base coach, who flashed it to Kloski.  The players on the bench who caught it, including Johnson, were incredulous.  A steal sign?  Couldn’t be, not with a lead foot ape like Kloski running against Moose Kelso’s supercharged fastball, still being jugged at ninety-five plus miles an hour.

 

But somehow, by some grace of the Almighty, Thompson’s crazy tactic worked, taking Carl Herwilliger, the opposition’s veteran catcher, by surprise.  With his eye distracted momentarily by the funny sight of Kloski off and running and clod-hopping toward second, he bobbled Kelso’s fastball an instant in the palm of his glove, couldn’t quite find the handle in his throwing hand, and managed a lifeless toss to second.

 

Kloski was safe, his first stolen base not only for the season, but his career.  And what had long ago become professional baseball longest’s game moved one step closer to completion.

 

 

Back in the top of the 34th, just after the public address announcer had moaned that they had surpassed the longest professional baseball game in history—a 33 inning affair over two dates between Pawtucket and Rochester in the AAA International League back in ‘59, and had long exceeded the longest major league game—a 1-1 tie played between the Boston Braves and Brooklyn Dodgers over 26 innings in 1921, Thompson turned and reflected for everyone in the dugout to hear:  “Well, boys, all of you in the lineup tonight will make it to the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown. And ain’t no one ever gonna beat this record.  Ain’t never gonna be another game this long.”

 

That fact seemed irrelevant to most of the tired, glum faces right then.  A couple of guys just yawned. 

 

But it suddenly did matter to Johnson.  If a miracle happened, and Kloski crossed home plate with the winning run, the name, Michael L. Johnson, would not appear in the box score.  He had not played.  For all the rest of his life it would be as if he had never existed.

 

Johnson looked up at Thompson when it was clear that Kloski was safe, hoping that at least he’d put someone in to run for him.  Like him. 

 

Thompson was clapping his hands.  His face had contorted into a warped, tired grin.  Whether he wanted to believe it or not, Johnson saw that it did matter to Thompson who won the game.

 

Then he turned and searched up and down the bench.  Only Devon Jones, a scrawny fleet black kid, an outfielder, called up from Memphis; a utility stiff named Hanxall, who’d been with the club all year but right now was nagged by a sore right ankle and a hamstring pull; and Johnson, had not played.

 

Thompson pointed to the speedy Jones and told him to go in and run for Kloski, momentarily dashing almost all hope in Johnson’s mind that he’d ever get into the game.  Jones quickly stretched in the dugout and ran out to second.  Kloski ran in huffing and laughing and got glad-backed by a couple of grateful teammates next to where he placed his tired ass.

 

On deck was Carl Millen.  He’d looked bad three straight at-bats against Kelso, striking out twice and popping up weakly to third his last time.  He was 2 for 15, hitless in his last 10 tries.  Not only that, he looked beat-up and sleepy.

 

At the plate, however, stood Duke Slater, the team’s only legitimate home run hitter.  He was a most respectable 9 for 15 in this game.  Better yet, he was red hot.  In his last six at-bats, Slater had smacked a home run (with a runner on to tie the game at 11 in the bottom of the 31st), a double, and had even cracked a double and a single off Kelso’s steaming fastball. 

 

Their pitching coach trudged out to have a word with Kelso.  The big hulk looked down at the coach’s gestures with a blank stare until the McGrary marched out and rudely broke up the one-sided conference.

 

Johnson looked at the scoreboard just to be sure.  The number, “2”, blared under the “Outs” sign.

 

“C’mon!”  shouted Thompson.  “Let’s get this over with already!”

 

Kelso sneered at Thompson as the pitching coach slowly retreated back to the dugout.  Then he defiantly strode up the mound, took a deep breath, and stared down Slater.

 

But it was clear as he took a slow wind-up from the stretch position that they had directed him to walk Slater intentionally, and pitch instead to the struggling Millen.

 

In protest of the strategy, a smattering of boos rose up from the hundred or so diehard fans who had remained scattered in the stands about the cavernous ballpark.

 

“What a bunch of chicken-shits.”  Thompson spat.  He looked back at us and raised his arms.  “Friggin ridiculous.”

 

But, of course, he knew the strategy was sound. 

 

The grumbling lasted four pitches.   

 

“Hold it Carl,”  Thompson shouted out to Millen as he took a step from the on-deck circle toward home plate.  “Hanxall’s gonna bat for you.”

 

Millen returned to the dugout with a disagreeable scowl and threw down his helmet and bat while Thompson patted him across the back.  Everyone stayed out of Millen’s way as he took an empty spot at the far end of the bench and brooded.  It never felt good being pinch hit for, not even in the bottom of the 42nd inning in the last game of the season. 

 

For his part, Hanxall didn’t exactly look happy either.  He drew in a breath, got up after a moment, fetched his bat, and limped noticeably up the dugout steps.  In the on-deck circle, while the public address announcer indifferently announced the change, Hanxall limbered up as best he could, stifling one or two yawns in the process.  Right then, Thompson’s decision, like so many others that long game, didn’t appear sound. 

 

From the mound, Kelso glared with an impatient scowl while Hanxall slowly went through the ritual preparations for pinch hitting.  He swung his bat perhaps ten times, stretched his back five or six, lifted up his socks.  As he prolonged the ritual, it seemed like a deliberate stall with the sole point of annoying the rookie pitcher, Kelso. 

 

Finally, Hanxall stepped into the batter’s box, and the game was set to resume.  Jones and Slater stepped tentatively off their respective bags as Kelso pumped and wheeled and hurled a smoking hard slider toward home plate.

 

McCray held up a hand and shouted:  “Ball!”

 

With all the drama that might possibly be milked from this long worn out game, the count went full; then, Hanxall had the nerve to foul off nine straight pitches.  Nine! Earlier in the game, his teammates would have congratulated him for a good at-bat, no matter how it turned out.  Now, they simply thought the effort annoying.

 

Johnson happened to glance up at the small round clock on the top of the old scoreboard after the ninth foul ball, and saw that they had just gone past midnight into the following day.  This game was going into its twelfth hour.

 

Kelso’s face was hot with anger and frustration as he got another ball from the ump.  He crunched it into his hand and tossed it back and forth into the pit of his glove.  There was no way Kelso wanted to leave the game.  He glanced back at the scoreboard just to be sure of the situation:  3 and 2 was the count; 2 outs, in the 42nd inning; score tied 11 - 11.  He took a deep breathe, walked down the mound, and handled the rosin bag.

 

Watching all this, with one foot on the top step of the dugout, Thompson leaned forward with a hand on his knee.  The fingertips of his other hand were tapping at his lips.  He was a famous nail-biter and by now, his nails were down to nubs.

 

“Jesus H. Christ,”  he yelled to the mound.  “Just pitch the goddamned ball.”

 

From the crest of the mound, Kelso sneered into the dugout again trying to find Thompson.

 

With a huff, he took one long dark look down at Hanxall.  After another breathe, he went into his stretch.  He glanced back momentarily at Jones, reared and hurled a steaming fastball that sank as it spun end-over-end perhaps ten thousand times as it zeroed in on Hanxall’s strike-zone.

 

At the last possible instant, Hanxall swung and just barely tipped yet another foul ball.  This time, it careened off the slant edge of his bat and slashed into his bad ankle.  In the next instant, he took a short hop, and fell in a lump onto the dirt next to home plate.

 

Thompson, frozen at the top of the dugout steps, stared for a moment while Hanxall writhed and flopped in bitter agony.  Finally, Doc raced out and tended to him.  Everyone watched silently as Hanxall was made to lie flat on his back and Doc sprayed the damaged ankle with a can of icy-hot.

 

After a few minutes, Hanxall managed to sit up with his bad leg stretched out.  Doc trotted over to the dugout and approached Thompson.

 

“He’s finished,”  Johnson heard Doc say.  “It’s shattered.”

 

Thompson looked up to the heavens and threw up his hands.  After moment, his eyes scanned the bench looking for Johnson.

 

“Okay, Johnson,”  he said.  “Here’s your big league chance.  Go up there for Hanxie and be a real hero.”

 

Johnson was frozen for a couple seconds after the order sank in.  His legs wobbled as he moved off the bench and climbed the cement dug-out steps to the on-deck circle.  The tired batboy came over and listlessly handed him a 33 inch bat.  Johnson stretched out and took some swings as a couple tired ballplayers helped remove Hanxall from the field.

 

“Just relax, Johnson, and pretend it’s triple A,”  Thompson said before Johnson moved on toward home plate.  Then he cringed up his old wrinkled face, pleading.  “Just don’t swing at no balls, will ya kid?  Take a goddamn walk if you hafta.  But if it’s in there, hit the ball, will you please, and end this friggin nightmare of a game.”

 

With a grunt, Johnson dreamily walked away from him.  His legs were numb, powerless.  His mouth was so dry, he couldn’t reply to Thompson.  It was going to be Johnson’s first major league at-bat.  And this was certainly not how he had always dreamed it would happen.  This was not how he had envisioned breaking into the Show.

 

Heading for the plate, he saw the ump, McGrary, and Herswilliger waiting.  Under his mask, Johnson could see that Herswilliger was pale, mirthless, as tired as a man could even get.

 

The PA guy finally gave the tired announcement of Johnson’s entrance into the game as a pinch-hitter for Roy Hanxall.  None of the few fans remaining so much as even clapped.  The only thing Johnson heard was the sudden thumping echo of a roasted peanuts bag being popped somewhere far up in the mostly empty stands. 

 

“Good luck, pal,”  Herswilliger said as Johnson settled into the batter’s box.  He shrugged half-heartedly and glancing back, saw Herswilliger wink. 

 

“Count’s three and two,”  McGrary told Johnson.  Then, without giving Johnson a chance to think, the ump shouted: “Play ball!” 

 

In that moment, Johnson was completely alone, in his own world, like being under water, without a clear human sound.  His complete attention was riveted on Moose Kelso’s tense eyes.  He had the ball in his throwing hand and was glaring in at Herswilliger for the sign.

 

Johnson would get only one pitch, unless he fouled it off, either a strike or a ball.  Johnson guessed that Kelso would wheel and heave whatever he had left in his fastball.

 

Finally, with a confident nod, Kelso stepped into his motion.  Johnson began to tense as   Kelso looked back momentarily at Jones who took a cautious lead off second, and gave an obligatory glance over his right shoulder, at Slater.  Then, he came around, finally, with his feyes fierce upon his immediate target:  Johnson.  As Johnson’s father had grilled into his head from the time he was five or six, he was looking for the ball at Kelso’s release point.

 

Kelso’s arms came down in the middle of his motion and for one split second stopped at his belt buckle.  Then, he was moving again, pumping and whirling.  Suddenly, his arm came up over his head and Johnson saw the pitch, as predicted, his hardest, rising fastball.

 

He swung.  He hit it.

 

A hard hopping grounder bounced past Kelso and that was the last Johnson saw of it as he began to streak toward first.  He knew at once that it had a good chance of bounding up the middle into centerfield.  Of becoming a hit. 

 

Two steps later, Johnson saw that this had happened, and he was racing toward first.

 

At that same instant, he began watching Jones.  Inconceivably, he had stumbled momentarily out of the gate on this way to third.  Their centerfielder had been playing shallow, playing for exactly a sharp single his way.  And, Johnson remembered, the guy had a good arm. 

 

Johnson continued watching as Jones gathered his momentum and raced furiously with a single purpose in mind:  to beat the throw to the plate and score the winning run.

 

Johnson saw him rounding the bag at third with the rolling arms of Candalerra sending him home.  Jones was only a third of the way there when the center fielder scooped up the ball and began his throw to the plate.  From the time it left his hand, Johnson knew it was a perfect strike.  Jones slid, but ended short, right in the middle of Herswilliger’s glove.

 

He was out.

 

Then Johnson knew it:  he would be playing baseball forever. 

 

 

 

Epilogue

 

The game, of course, did not go on forever.  In fact, after Jones was thrown at the plate, the game was suspended due to a city ordinance which prohibited “entertainment contests” from going past midnight.  The game resumed the next day at 1:00 PM, to a paltry crowd of about a hundred, and the visiting team promptly scored five runs before Thompson’s players registered an out.

 

They failed to score in the bottom of the 43rd inning, and the longest game in baseball history ended on that dry note.

 

Although Johnson got a chance to play right field for half an inning, he did not get a fielding chance or a second at-bat. 

 

Therefore, his major league batting average will forever remain 1.000.

 

Vincent L. Scarsella has been an attorney for the past 26 years, who for the past 12 has been in charge of the office in Buffalo, New York that investigates professional misconduct by lawyers. He is married and has three children. Mr. Scarsella's short story, The Cards of Unknown Players, published in the Fall 2000 edition of East Tennessee State University's Aethleon: The Journal of Sport Literature, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His publishing credits include pieces in The Leading Edge, Antimuse and Aphelion, as well as forthcoming stories in Fictitious Force, and the short story anthologies Strange Pleasures and Justice Wears A Dress.

 

Photo Courtesy of dreamstime.

 

 

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Fiction Copyright © 2006 Vincent L. Scarsella. All rights reserved.