Thirty years ago the Dodgers ran through a gauntlet of baseball games seemingly without end, a stretch that saw a position player pitch, and 80 percent of the starting rotation either pitch in relief or play another position. In the middle of a road trip, the Dodgers played 53 innings in two cities over a three-day stretch.
This ironman challenge started with a marathon game on a Saturday night against the Astros, and ended with a doubleheader on Monday in Atlanta against the Braves. The Dodgers had to play so much baseball that the only time we’ve seen anything similar since was the result of civil unrest. Here are the stories of four characters who lived through it all.
Orel Hershiser was on top of the world in 1989. He won the National League Cy Young Award the year before, when he ended the season pitching a record 59 consecutive scoreless innings, then carried the Dodgers to a World Series win with a 1.05 ERA in 42⅔ October innings.
Hershiser entered the 1989 series against the Astros with a 2.58 ERA, and would finish with a 2.31 ERA on the season, numbers nearly identical to his award-winning 1988 campaign. But his final record was just 15-15 thanks to a brutal late-season stretch of four total runs of support in seven starts.
“The joke back then was, my team was trying to break my scoreless streak,” Hershiser recalls. “I thought ‘89 was a better year than ‘88 personally, because my ERA was only [five-hundredths] of a point higher, and I didn’t have the 59 scoreless. As far as consistency, it was a better year.”
Hershiser wasn’t even scheduled to pitch in the four-game series in Houston, but baseball sometimes has a funny way of messing with schedules.
The Dodgers dropped the first two games of the series, then their marathon began. Saturday night at the Astrodome lasted 22 innings, the longest National League game in 15 years. At seven hours, 14 minutes, it’s still the longest night game by time in NL history.
Nobody has played more than 22 innings since Dodgers-Astros three decades ago. Only three games since have matched that length, and one was by those very same Dodgers later that season, a game in Montreal that is most famous for manager Tommy Lasorda having Expos mascot Youppi ejected.
Hershiser pitched seven scoreless innings in both 22-inning games for the Dodgers in 1989. He started the Aug. 23 game in Montreal, but on June 3 in Houston he pitched in relief.
Twenty-two innings is difficult to endure in any era, but consider a few things about the state of baseball in 1989:
- The Dodgers carried five relief pitchers on their active roster as part of a 10-man staff, which would be unthinkable today in this age of bullpen churn. Pitching staffs of 12 or 13 men are the current norm.
- Collusion was rampant among major league owners, so much that teams would only carry 24 active players — the minimum allowed by the collective bargaining agreement — instead of the usual 25.
Covering 22 innings’ worth of pitching was a different beast 30 years ago. Starting pitchers were much more likely to be used in relief. The Dodgers turned to their rotation in the 12th inning, using Mike Morgan just two days after a start. Houston used starter Jim Clancy to pitch the final five innings.
Hershiser, who threw seven innings the Wednesday before at home against Montreal, was called on to start the 14th inning in Houston on just two days rest.
“I knew when I saw Hershiser come in, it was going to last a while,” Astros slugging first baseman Glenn Davis told the Houston Chronicle.
Davis stood out on that Houston team, leading it with 34 home runs when no other Astro topped 13 that year.
“I just remember knowing that the game could end with one swing, guys like Glenn Davis on their team,” Hershiser remembers.
Saturday would have been Hershiser’s day to throw a bullpen session in preparation for his scheduled Monday start. But per common practice at the time, he waited to see how the game played out first.
“It was a side-work day. Our staffs in those days didn’t have all these bodies, there were a lot thinner staffs,” Hershiser explains. “There were days when [pitching coach] Ron Perranoski or Tommy would say to me, ‘Hey could you hold your side work in case we need you today?’”
The Dodgers needed Hershiser and then some. But after exhausting all five relievers and two starters out of the bullpen, the Dodgers only had two choices to start the 21st inning on the mound: Fernando Valenzuela, who started and pitched seven innings the night before, or a position player. Lasorda rode Valenzuela like a rented mule for most of the 1980s, but pitching him one night after throwing 114 pitches was a line he would not cross.
So LA went with third baseman Jeff Hamilton, making Valenzuela play first base and first baseman Eddie Murray move to third. Hamilton pitched a scoreless 21st inning, but ultimately lost in the next frame, when a line drive by Rafael Ramirez went just over the head of the 5’11 Valenzuela (three inches shorter than Murray) and fell for a game-winning RBI single.
The next day didn’t do either pitching staff any favors, with a 13-inning game that lasted more than four hours on a getaway day.
In the series finale, the Dodgers rode starter Tim Belcher, the only player not to appear for them Saturday, for eight innings, and the Astros used starter Mike Scott to close out the game in relief. Four starting pitchers were used in relief in the final two games of the series, and they threw a combined 15 scoreless innings.
That may sound outrageous these days, but in the ‘80s, contingencies like that 22-inning game were the reason why Hershiser modified his between-starts routine to throw less and save his bullets.
“Rest is more important than having fun, and throwing more good pitches,” Hershiser says. “It’s a tough lesson to learn as a pitcher, because it’s so much fun to throw a baseball and throw it well.”
Though not a player, Dodgers announcer Vin Scully gave a herculean effort of his own over the 53-inning weekend. At the time, Scully was the primary national announcer for NBC’s Game of the Week, a Saturday showcase that for many was the only chance to see teams outside of their local market. In 1989, MLB.tv didn’t exist, and ESPN didn’t debut their national baseball coverage until 1990.
Scully’s normal weekend routine was to leave the Dodgers on Friday to prepare for Saturday’s national broadcast, but this weekend was different. Fellow Dodgers TV broadcaster Don Drysdale had laryngitis in Houston, so Scully stayed to call Friday’s Dodgers-Astros game. A plane chartered by Dodgers owner Peter O’Malley took Scully to St. Louis on Saturday morning for his call of the Cubs-Cardinals day game, with the expectation that he would return to Houston to call Dodgers-Astros at night.
Naturally, the game in St. Louis took 10 innings to complete, and lasted three hours, 19 minutes before ending at 5:54 p.m. central time. There was a traffic jam on the way to the airport, but Scully managed to arrive at the Astrodome just before the 7:35 p.m. scheduled start.
“The national anthem was just finishing when I stepped into the booth and said, ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen,’ as though I’d been there waiting for an hour,” Scully told Larry Stewart of the Los Angeles Times about his frantic travels.
Counting the 22 innings Saturday night and the 13 innings Sunday, Scully called three extra-inning games in a row in two cities. In all, he worked 45 innings in just over 29 hours. Including the doubleheader Monday in Atlanta, Scully called 63 innings in 59 hours in three cities.
“A marathon man,” says Hershiser, who now works as an analyst calling Dodgers games from the very same booth Scully used for decades. “Just like the players, you’re running on adrenaline. You just hope you don’t get a scratchy throat. That would be a lot of work. But to stay engaged, the hardest games to do as a broadcaster are the games that aren’t interesting, so I’m sure the fact that it was extra innings, and you’re hanging on every pitch, I’m sure helped Vinny a lot.”
The unsuspecting rookie
After using three starting pitchers in relief in two days in Houston, the Dodgers were in scramble mode heading to face the Braves. Especially since Hershiser was supposed to be one of the Monday starters, but instead threw seven innings Saturday on just two days rest.
Needing a starting pitcher, the Dodgers called up 21-year-old Ramon Martinez from Triple-A Albuquerque to start Game 1 of the doubleheader. They summoned fellow rookie John Wetteland from the bullpen to start Game 2. Tim Leary, who started the 22-inning game on Saturday, also pitched three scoreless innings in relief in the second game.
Martinez pitched a six-hit shutout to beat Atlanta, striking out nine.
After making nine appearances, including six starts, in his debut season in 1988, Martinez was making his first appearance in the majors in 1989. He was the club’s best pitching prospect, and he figured that he had done his time. He famously showed up to Atlanta with six suitcases in tow, assuming he was in the majors to stay.
But the Dodgers only needed an able body to fill in for a game, and didn’t adequately relay that information to Martinez. He was optioned back to Triple-A after his shutout, a demotion he did not take well.
“I go back to my hotel that night, and I wonder, ‘Why me?’” Martinez told Bill Plaschke of the LA Times. “I was so upset, I cried. I wondered what it would take for me to make it here.”
What it took was the trade of starter Tim Leary six weeks later. This time, Martinez was up for good, posting a 3.19 ERA in his half-season. He won 20 games in 1990, finished second in NL Cy Young Award voting, and pitched a dozen more years in the majors. But on that day in Atlanta, Martinez was just a fresh arm who filled a temporary need.
The Dodgers needed all the help they could get.
Since the Dodgers and Astros played those consecutive marathons, teams have played games of at least 13 innings on consecutive days just nine times. None of them had a doubleheader the next day, like the Dodgers did.
The 2003 Pirates have arguably come the closest to matching the Dodgers’ accomplishment, playing a doubleheader on June 18, a single game the next day, then back-to-back 15-inning games against the Indians on June 20 and 21. But all of those games were in Pittsburgh.
In 1992, the Dodgers played 54 innings in three days because of riots in Los Angeles, plowing through three straight days of double headers with the Expos to make up for the postponement of four games at Dodger Stadium. But those 54 innings were scheduled a few months in advance, allowing the Dodgers to do some roster planning.
The 53 innings in three days in 1989 for the Dodgers, in two different cities, were like a sucker punch to an entire team from out of the blue. And we may never see anything like it again.