‘The Longest Game’ celebrates the unsung hero

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When I was growing up in Rhode Island during the ’80s, at the old McCoy Stadium, fans would receive cheap plastic souvenir cups at the concession stands with the purchase of large drinks. The cups celebrated the Pawtucket Red Sox’s 33-inning game against the Rochester Red Wings in 1981, a Major League record for the longest game in baseball history.

I remember these plastic souvenir cups—the box score encircling its perimeter—stacked in my parents’ kitchen cupboard next to the water glasses. I remember filling those PawSox cups with Tang, or Juicy Juice, or Pepsi if my parents were feeling benevolent.

Recently, I came across an ESPN “30 for 30 Podcast” titled “The Longest Game,” which was about said game that began at McCoy Stadium on April 18, 1981—a windy, frigid night on the Saturday before Easter. The game was suspended in the top of the 33rd inning at 4 a.m. then resumed on June 23.

While listening to the podcast, I thought about those PawSox cups from my youth[1].

But during the 45-minute documentary that includes interviews with future Hall-of-Famers Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr.—both competed in the game—I became absolutely intrigued with someone else, the hero of the story.

The hero’s name is Dave Koza.

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

If you’ve never heard of him, there’s a reason. A first baseman, Koza was the consummate minor leaguer—a real-life Crash Davis—playing nine seasons from 1974 to 1983 in the Boston Red Sox organization without breaking into the big leagues. “To be part of AAA, you’re one step and 40 miles from Fenway Park,” Koza says in the podcast.

But even after grinding it out in minor leagues for nearly a decade, it proved a step too far.

Still, for one day in June of 1981, Dave Koza became Babe Ruth.

When the game was suspended on that frigid Easter morning in April, there were fewer than a dozen fans left at the ballpark, but when it resumed, the atmosphere had completely transformed.

At that time in 1981, the Major League teams were striking, so the AAA-affiliates effectively became the best tickets in town for baseball fans. Aside from the strike, the game was already living-history.

A sold-out crowd and reporters from around the world packed McCoy Stadium that day for the conclusion of the game. And in the bottom of the 33rd inning, Koza stepped to the plate with the bases loaded and no outs, knocking a single to left and etching his name into baseball lore.

But it’s not the fact that Koza’s picture and bat now reside in Cooperstown that resonates with me, rather it’s the fact that he never made it to the major leagues. It was the fact that Dave Koza never experienced the consummation of his dream.

As Thoreau famously wrote, “The masses of men live lives of quiet desperation,” fighting and clawing and grinding toward goals that we well know may never be actualized, yet we forge ahead anyway.

I’ve always been more intrigued by mankind’s resolve in the face of disappointment than how they bask in vast successes. But, along the way, we all have our moments of glory, our 15-minutes of fame, and in many ways, Dave Koza and his base hit in the bottom of the 33rd inning are emblematic of this.

They’re a reminder that sometimes we get what we need. And if this sounds personal, it’s because it is.

I remember those plastic PawSox cups in my parents’ cupboards, but now—as often happens when we carve our personal mythologies—there’s a new component to those memories.

I have a new hero now, a guy whose name you’ve likely never heard.

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[1] This was the second time in six months I’ve stumbled upon the topic of Rhode Island’s former AAA team. I wrote a magazine feature titled “Polar Park Heats up Worcester” for BostonMan Magazine on the Worcester Red Sox this summer, and I thought about the cups as well.


 

About this Author

nathan-graziano

Nathan Graziano

Nathan Graziano lives in Manchester with his wife and kids. He's the author of nine collections of fiction and poetry. His most recent book, Fly Like The Seagull was published by Luchador Press in 2020. He's a high school teacher and freelance writer, and in his free time, he writes bios about himself in the third person. For more information, visit his website: http://www.nathangraziano.com