The Most Exciting Baseball Game I Ever Saw lasted 17 innings and five hours, around Labor Day of 1984. It happened at Durham Athletic Park, the DAP—not the DBAP, the retro-chic Durham Bulls Athletic Park where the AAA Bulls now play, but the hunkered old thing at Corporation and Morris. It was Game Two of the 1984 Carolina League Championship Series. I remember it well. I had the best seat in the house.
How did I have the best seat in the house? If you listened to broadcasts of Durham Bulls baseball games in 1984, you might have heard the play-by-play man introduce himself each night thus: "Alongside statistician Adam Sobsey, I'm Steve Pratt." When he did this, unexpectedly, on opening night, my whole body flushed.
Our listeners might have flushed too, had they known that "statistician Adam Sobsey" was a chubby 13-year-old whose wages amounted to free food and drink around the sixth inning of each game. In return, I updated statistics. I could calculate earned run averages in three or four seconds and I could whisper to Pratt the last time Chip Childress doubled.
In my second year as statistician, we were dumped by WDNC-620 and moved to the lower-rent WTIK-1310. The station was so dinky that there was no one manning their booth while our games were on; and I, a 13-year-old fat kid craving chili dogs and crunching numbers, commandeered a Walkman patched into the sound board. In the Walkman was a cassette tape that contained all of the between-inning advertisements in sequence. I had to listen on headphones for the exact moment when the second spot ended, then quickly pause the tape. The only ad I remember now was for Pat's Grill—it was on Hillsborough Street, and now it's called Wimpy's—in which an avuncular good ol' boy, presumably Pat, invited you down for baked spaghetti and peach cobbler. If there is an auditory equivalent of drooling, that was what I did through those headphones, my thumb twitching over the pause button, listening to Pat and hungering for baked spaghetti, which I finally ate for the first time when I was 32 years old.
My presence in the booth, which had the DAP's best view of the field, was completely superfluous, but Steve was a kind man and my stepfather had a vague connection to Miles Wolff, the entrepreneur who brought the Bulls back to the DAP in 1980 after a decade of dormancy. It was my very first job, and still the dreamiest one I've ever had.
Nostalgia is a cancerous condition. I remind myself that the Bulls and the DAP were old long before I got there. The Bulls of my youth weren't the Old Bulls at all, but a retread of previous franchises that date back almost a hundred years. The old DAP was built in 1939—on the site of another park that burned to the ground. Joe Morgan, the only player to have his jersey number retired by the Bulls, played there in the 1960s. The gleaming new bull that looms over left field at the DBAP ("Hit Bull Win Steak, Hit Grass Win Salad") replaced the old bull from the old DAP—but that wasn't an old bull. The filmmakers of Bull Durham built and installed it in 1987 when they shot the movie. It was trucked over to the DBAP in 1995.
So let us not wax nostalgic. Durham was a poor city then—more like the city it was made out to be by the flame-fanning media during the Duke lacrosse scandal of 2006. The old DAP was frowsy and unkempt, a termite-infested refuge for drunks, vermin, malcontents and bad baseball. The DAP wasn't really for families back then, as the current ballpark is now: There were no between-innings distractions—no sumo wrestling, Dad-diaper-changing or Wool E. Bull. Unlike today's DBAP, it was not an entirely safe place to be, and the moms and dads usually had their kids out of there by the seventh inning. There were beer-soaked fights, and foul balls that knocked kids unconscious, and profane chants (the accelerating "Bulls-hit! Bulls-hit!" was the most popular). I would bike there from home while it was still light, but my stepfather retrieved me and my bike after the game and drove us home in his van. The nights were humid and limp, killdeers flew under the lights catching moths (where have those birds gone?), and the smell of sweet curing tobacco wafted over from the Liggett & Myers plant, the only perceptible life coming from downtown, which was otherwise a void.
And the Bulls were slovenly then. They had three straight losing seasons from 1983-85, part of a five-year stretch when their cumulative record was a forgettable 330-367. It seemed that it was always the eighth inning and we were losing 6-2, or it was late July and we were nine games back of Winston-Salem. We grounded into double plays with the tying run on third and one out, or we wild-pitched the winning run in. Although I can easily recall the names of probably a hundred players I saw back in those days, few of them ever reached the majors or even AA-ball.
Their mediocrity was set off against the dominant Lynchburg Mets, our opponent in the Most Exciting Game I Ever Saw. The New York Mets, their parent club, had the best farm system in baseball in the 1980s—maybe one of the best of all time. Daryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden were just two of the many stardom-bound ballplayers to come through Durham as Lynchburgers back then (Gooden struck out 300 batters in his A-ball season), and the championship series was a David-and-Goliath contest. The Most Exciting Game I Ever Saw was the second of that five-game set, the last game of the season at the DAP: The last three, if necessary, were scheduled for Lynchburg.
The Bulls were only 68-72 in 1984, but in those days the Carolina League schedule had two halves, and Durham won one of the halves (the second, I think) in the Southern Division. We took a one-game playoff against the Peninsula Pilots, who had won the other half, and then the Mets beat us in Game One of the championship series at the DAP with swift, ruthless pitching and a few murderous hits. Their players performed with mercenary efficiency, like corporate ax-men dispatched to lop off a few has-beens and then return to HQ. I held no hope of the Bulls winning even one game in the series. I was just happy to have gotten there.
And so, probably, was Tony Neuendorff. He had a dust mop of lightbulb-blond hair and was a backup catcher for the Bulls in 1984. He never made it to the major leagues or even past Durham, and he surely wasn't expected to; the Atlanta Braves, the Bulls' parent club then, selected him 479th in the 1982 draft, the stage when teams close their eyes and point and hope for a miracle—and as proof that miracles exist, Kansas City used the 480th pick on a shortstop named Bret Saberhagen, who switched positions and soon became one of the dominating pitchers of his time. Neuendorff was out of professional baseball after that 1984 season. The Internet has him playing for a Texas amateur team called the Bernardo Bears in 2003, and he also appears in a team photo of the 2000 Nevada Astros, who were World Series champions of the Roy Hobbs Amateur League AAAA Open Division that year. According to the caption, Tony Neuendorff squats in the front row. Although his cap obscures his blond hair—if it hasn't gone gray—I do not doubt that this is the same Tony Neuendorff (how many can there be?) who won the Most Exciting Baseball Game I Ever Saw for the Durham Bulls in 1984.
I vaguely remember a newsletter that circulated around the ballpark that year called "The Tony Neus." It was a cheap broadside obviously published by some bored, witty fan, perhaps a Duke graduate student, and it mystified me. Why would you waste time on Tony Neuendorff, a backup catcher? Even I could have told you he would never make it to the majors. I was too young to appreciate the irony, of course; nor did I ever read "The Tony Neus" to see what was in it. It may have had nothing to do with Tony Neuendorff. I wonder if its author disseminated his own account of the Most Exciting Baseball Game I Ever Saw, and how he integrated the new layer of irony that mocked his own implicit, smirking ridicule of Tony Neuendorff by making Tony the unlikely but undisputed hero of that game.
Tony began Game Two where he began most games: on the bench. The game was close throughout, and the situations grew more and more tactical. So many pinch hitters and defensive replacements were used that finally Tony had to enter the game as our catcher.
In the 12th inning, Steve Pratt waved me out of the booth: Go enjoy yourself, kid. I sat with my stepfather until the midnight finale along with a few hundred other diehards. During the extra innings, maybe the 14th, Lynchburg had two men on and two out. The Mets batter slammed one deep to right center field, and the Bulls centerfielder, Johnny Hatcher (his brother Billy spent several productive years in the major leagues), sprinted back in pursuit. He leaped at the wall, crashed into it, and crumpled on the warning track. The Lynchburg runners coolly circled the bases: a faith-crushing, go-ahead, three-run homer. We had been at the DAP for nearly five hours; the beer stands were shuttered and mopped; and the adults in the crowd might have admitted relief at finally getting to go home on a weeknight.
What happened next could not really have happened, but it did. The other Bulls outfielders converged on Hatcher, who had yet to move. They bent down over him and then gestured toward the infield—for the trainer, I assumed, to attend to Hatcher's injury. Instead it was the second-base umpire who trotted out to the wall. He and the two outfielders spent another long few minutes craned over Hatcher. You could not see him, enshrouded by teammates and ump. Finally Johnny sat up, awake but dazed. Minutes passed.
Then the umpire emerged from the huddle with both hands upraised. The right one was making a thumb. As he drew closer, we saw that his left hand was holding the ball. Johnny Hatcher had caught it and the batter was belatedly called out. The crowd went crazy with joy, the game went on, and the stage was set for Tony Neuendorff to save the day.
Twice during extra innings, Lynchburg went ahead by a run in the top half. Twice Tony Neuendorff came up with a man on third in the bottom half. Twice the pitcher threw a wild pitch past Tony that allowed the runner on third to sprint home with the tying run and prolong the game. Tony got us two runs without even swinging the bat. After the second game-tying wild pitch, Tony then drove home the winning run with a single to right field.
Or did he? Did any of this happen? "You could look it up," goes the famous baseball phrase, but you can't look this one up. I know we won and I know we tied the game in extra innings twice; I remember Johnny Hatcher's miracle catch, but the bizarre circumstances surrounding it are dubious if not utterly fantastic; I recall two wild pitches and I think I remember Tony Neuendorff standing blondly, blithely at the plate watching them bounce to the backstop. I know that he hit a crucial run-scoring single to right field. I'm fairly certain his single won the game, but I have no proof. I wish I'd had the foresight to write it down, or to keep scoring the game all the way to the end and then save my scorecard. Baseball is too precise a game to let me slide by on a suggestion.
But for the sake of collective memory, let's agree that Tony Neuendorff watches two wild pitches skitter to the backstop and ties Game Two twice without swinging the bat once: His hydrogen-blond presence, like a shaman's, like Obi-wan without a light saber, has intimidated two different pitchers into catastrophic mistakes. Then Tony, who batted an execrable .181 that season, drives in the winning run with a sharp single to right field in the bottom of the 17th inning, and it is The Most Exciting Game I Ever Saw.
This marathon evened the series, 1-1. The next night, I listened on the radio to the game in Lynchburg. Tied 0-0, our pitcher Todd Lamb took a no-hitter (?!) into the ninth inning, and then lost it and the game, 1-0. The night after that, the Bulls surged ahead 6-4 in the top of the ninth with three runs, only to watch the Mets march out in the bottom half and score three of their own—flash, bang—before you even had time to get worried about the coming doom. Game over, series over. Lynchburg Mets, champions of the Carolina League, 1984. They were better, and they were always going to be better, and Durham had better not forget it; and if there's something I learned from the awful, terrible, underachieving Durham Bulls of the 1980s, it was that no matter how hard you practiced and played, no matter how much you cared, if the other guys were better players, you were going to lose.