U.L.’s Toothpick: The Longest Day

The people began lining up early in the morning. They could not have known how long the day would be. They could not have known that, with enough patience and perseverance, they would see history: the longest game in Royals’ history, an 18-inning epic that lasted nearly six and a half hours.

Every baseball game begins with the promise of something special in it. The freshly chalked foul lines, the smooth dirt, the bright white of the home team uniforms, they all presage something beautiful, something unseen before. Yet most games end up in the routine category; some hits, some runs, maybe a home run, maybe a sparkling defensive play. This game, however, would be anything but routine.

The date was June 6, 1991. The Royals were hosting the Texas Rangers in an afternoon game at Kauffman Stadium. Kansas City, having won the first two games of the series, entered at 23-27 and in last place in the American League West. Texas was chugging along at 26-20, but only in third place in the division. So why would people be lining up for tickets hours before the start of this particular game between two fairly average teams?

There were a few factors. First, the pitching matchup, a delicious pairing of old and young, with Texas sending ageless wonder Nolan Ryan to the hill to oppose the Royals’ Bret Saberhagen, still just 27 as he prepared for this start. Ryan had thrown the seventh no-hitter of his career just over a month earlier; while Saberhagen would throw his only career no-hitter about three months after this game. So everyone knew that a historic outing was possible. Second, the afternoon day game was still somewhat of a novelty to Royals fans. The team had responded to fan requests with a midweek day game in June 1990; it outdrew the other two games of that series. So the team decided to try another one. Thanks to the marquee pitching matchup, it also outdrew the first two games of this series. And third, the forecast called for one of those beautiful early-summer days, with highs in the upper 70s and abundant sunshine, plus a pleasant breeze.

“There was so much hype about the pitching match-up, about Sabes against Nolan. (Trainer) Nick Swartz was joking this morning that there would be 35,000 people here and both pitchers probably would get knocked out in the fourth inning. Little did we know.”—Royals third baseman Kevin Seitzer, quoted by Steve Cameron, Kansas City Star, June 7, 1991

Despite a pregame traffic jam, most fans were in their seats for the start of the game, just in time to see Saberhagen work a perfect first inning. Ryan returned the favor in the bottom of the inning. Saberhagen worked around a walk and single to start the second, helping himself by picking off Julio Franco at second base.

Ryan had worked three perfect innings with four strikeouts before Brian McRae led off the fourth with a single. One out later, George Brett singled. After Danny Tartabull struck out, Warren Cromartie doubled to left for a 1-0 lead. But Kevin Seitzer grounded out and the Royals couldn’t add to their lead.

The Royals tacked on another run in the fifth, with Brent Mayne and David Howard singling and McRae hitting a sacrifice fly. With Saberhagen rolling along, that 2-0 lead looked like it might be enough.

It was not. Texas broke through in the seventh. Kevin Reimer led off the inning with a single, only the Rangers’ fourth hit of the day. Saberhagen retired the next two hitters. But then he walked Mike Stanley. Pinch-hitter Denny Walling singled to drive in one run, and pinch-hitter Brian Downing hit a grounder to Brett that could have ended the inning. Instead, the throw was bad, and Stanley scooted home with the tying run. Saberhagen got the last out of the inning, and manager Hal McRae decided it was time to turn to the Royals’ bullpen. Saberhagen worked seven innings, allowing five hits and three walks while striking out four.

Ryan worked one more inning, picking up two strikeouts to bring his total to nine on the day. He had allowed six hits and one walk.

A good portion of the crowd, having seen the main attractions on the day leave the game, took that as their cue to head home. The crowd of 38,523 had seen a pretty good baseball game for seven innings; well-played, crisp, and quick, as the first seven innings had taken about two hours to play. The ones who stayed behind were about to see baseball veer into the absurd.

“It was like two games out there today. One ended when Nolan and Sabes went out. Then it switched to eternity.”—Rangers first baseman Rafael Palmeiro, quoted by Steve Cameron, Kansas City Star, June 7, 1991

The Rangers loaded the bases with two outs in the eighth but couldn’t score. However, they managed a run in the top of the ninth off Royals reliever Luis Aquino. With one out, Mario Diaz singled and took second on a groundout. After an intentional walk to Ruben Sierra, Franco singled to put the Rangers in front, 3-2.

Texas turned to closer Jeff Russell to nail down the win. McRae pinch-hit for Cromartie to start the ninth, sending Carmelo Martinez up to bat. The longtime National Leaguer had not thrived in the month since he’d been traded to the Royals, hitting just .167/.323/.244 with Kansas City before this game. But he belted a Russell pitch over the fence in left field, and the game was tied. It was his second pinch-hit home run as a Royal and the 100th round-tripper of his career.

After an uneventful 10th inning, the Royals loaded the bases in the 11th. Actually, the Rangers did it for them. Gary Thurman led off with a walk. He stole second and took third when the throw sailed into center field. Texas responded with two intentional walks. That paid off when Kurt Stillwell hit a smash to third baseman Steve Buechele. The ball bounced off his glove but right to the shortstop Diaz, who fired home for a forceout on the speedy Thurman. With two outs, Brian McRae tried a bunt, but hit it too hard and Buechele’s throw to first got him by a step.

That would hardly be the only chance either team had to win the game. Texas loaded the bases with two outs in the 12th, but Walling grounded out to end the inning. Not before some controversy, though. With two on and nobody out, Juan Gonzalez hit a hard grounder to third. Seitzer fired to second for a force out, then accepted the throw back from second baseman Terry Shumpert and tried to tag Franco before he got to third. Umpire Dale Scott ruled he was safe. Seitzer argued the call briefly before Hal McRae arrived. The manager and umpire discussed the call briefly and McRae returned to the dugout. He had barely settled back in when Buechele attempted a squeeze bunt. But he popped it up and catcher Brent Mayne caught it, then rifled a throw to third. Scott ruled Franco had made it back safely, and McRae tore out of the dugout, earning his first ejection as a manager in just his third week on the job.

“I just explained my point of view and he explained his. It was a pleasant conversation.”—McRae, quoted by Steve Cameron, Kansas City Star, June 7, 1991

As the two argued, the crowd booed loudly and hundreds of paper cups were thrown onto the field. But the inning ended without further incident.

The Royals had another chance to win it in the 13th, loading the bases with two outs. But Kirk Gibson grounded out, and it was on to the 14th, when each team would strand a runner at second.

Then each team topped that frustration in the 15th, with both loading the bases and failing to score. Jeff Montgomery struck out Franco to end the top half, while Shumpert (who, by entering the game in place of pinch-hitter Jim Eisenreich, who then moved to right field, was batting in the cleanup spot) flied out to end the bottom half after Bill Pecota doubled and Gibson and Brett were intentionally walked.

The blown chances continued in the 16th. The Rangers got two singles to open the inning, then bunted the runners over. Stanley tried a squeeze bunt, only to pop it up. Mayne alertly snatched the ball out of the air and threw to third, this time completing the double play to end the inning. In the bottom of the inning, Thurman led off with a single. After a Seitzer sacrifice bunt, Mayne hit a fly ball into short center. Thurman hesitated a bit, thinking it might be caught. When it dropped in safely, he took off and tried to score, but the hesitation cost him. Sierra made a great throw home and Thurman was out, despite crashing into Stanley in a desperate attempt to dislodge the ball.

“We’re taught when the ball is up there like that, you don’t want to get doubled up. The ball hung up; Sierra’s got good speed and I thought he might catch up with it. It was tough to read.” —Thurman, quoted by Dick Kaegel, Kansas City Star, June 7, 1991

Montgomery, pitching his fourth inning, worked a perfect inning in the 17th. The Royals wasted two walks in their half of the inning. The game continued, although at this point the Royals were out of relievers; all five pitchers in the bullpen had been used. Kansas City turned to Mike Boddicker, who had started the first game of the series two days before.

“Sometimes you’ve got to suck it up. You can’t expect all the relievers to go four or five innings”—Boddicker, quoted by Dick Kaegel, Kansas City Star, June 7, 1991

Despite the unusual circumstances, Boddicker got three quick outs. The Rangers had one reliever left: Kenny Rogers. He would go on to become a Royals killer, especially as a member of the Tigers, but in 1991 he was still a young reliever. Seitzer led off the 18th with a single. Mayne worked a walk. Once again, it was time to bunt, this time with Stillwell at the plate.

“It was about my 10th at-bat. I didn’t think I could swing the bat anyway.”—Stillwell, quoted by Dick Kaegel, Kansas City Star, June 7, 1991

It was actually Stillwell’s ninth plate appearance. And he pushed the bunt towards the mound. Rogers was on it quickly, and whirled to throw to third for the force out.

“It looked like he had the guy easy, but he didn’t get a good grip on it. He threw a palmball.”—Rangers manager Bobby Valentine, quoted by Dick Kaegel, Kansas City Star, June 7, 1991

Rogers’ throw sailed past Buechele, nearly hitting third base coach Adrian Garrett. But it headed up the left field line as Seitzer scrambled to his feet and charged home with the winning run. Seitzer ended the game with an emphatic stomp on home plate, making the final score 4-3.

“I think that’s a classic. You ought to get it on tape and keep it forever.”—Seitzer, quoted by Craig Horst, Associated Press, June 7, 1991 

“It wasn’t that memorable to me. You push all the buttons and nothing works. It figures an error would decide it.”—Valentine, quoted by Craig Horst, Associated Press, June 7, 1991

The game that had begun at 1:36 pm, in bright sunshine, finally concluded as night fell at 8:04 pm, with less than half the crowd in the stands.

“I can’t even remember when they turned the lights on. In fact, it’s hard to remember exactly when anything particular happened, except that I kept feeling we were going to win.”—Royals general manager Herk Robinson, quoted by Steve Cameron, Kansas City Star, June 7, 1991

The game set several team records, and even some American League and major-league ones. Although it was not the first time the Royals had played 18 innings (the first time they did it, coincidentally, was against Texas in 1972). But it was and still is the longest game by time (6:28) in team history. The Royals stranded 25 runners, a team and AL record. Combined with the 20 runners Texas left on base, the two teams combined for a major-league record. The six intentional walks the Royals received is still a team record. Gibson tied a club record with eight at-bats.

And then there were the simply amazing stats, even if they weren’t necessarily records. Brett had nine plate appearances, reached base seven times, and didn’t score a run. Palmeiro went 0-9 and dropped his batting average 15 points. The Royals had used all their position players by the 12th. Because Mike Macfarlane was used as a pinch-hitter, poor Brent Mayne caught all 18 innings and all 354 pitches Kansas City hurlers threw. For that matter, Stanley also caught all 18 innings for Texas. The Rangers probably thought they were getting a nice break, with a flight to New York following the game. Instead, they only got out of town a couple of hours earlier than they would have after a normal-length night game.

“It was a grind. After a night game, most day games are a grind for the every-day players. My legs are dead, and I’m mentally drained, too. It was a crazy game.”—Stillwell, quoted by Dick Kaegel, Kansas City Star, June 7, 1991

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