Bottom of the 33rd
In the top of the fifth inning, in a game that will last another twenty-eight and finish as the longest ever played, Chris Bourjos, the left fielder for the Rochester Red Wings, stands at the ready in the batter’s box of McCoy Stadium, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He swings at a 1-2 pitch and sends the ball high, higher, and short, maybe 60 feet from home plate. Wade Boggs, the third baseman, and Dave Koza, the first baseman, stutter toward the ball and each other, their heads tilted impossibly back, the two of them similar enough in appearance to be brothers. Both have darkish hair cropping from under their blue Pawtucket caps. Both have full moustaches. Both have powerful builds. Both have Boston hopes.
Tracking that plummeting white dot in the wind, their eyes are so locked on heaven that neither sees the other coming. Two minor league unknowns, one a future hall-of-famer, the other the forgotten hero of this never-ending game, destined to collide.
* * *
Open any volume from the Torrington, Wyoming Telegram of the early 1970s, and on every yellowing page, it seems, is another story trumpeting the athletic exploits of the hometown hero, Dave Koza. Here he is, leading the high school football team to an undefeated season as its quarterback, defensive back, and kicker. Here he is, photographed falling backwards after scoring two of his 21 points in another basketball victory. Here he is, on graduation day, receiving the football award, the basketball award, and the track award. Koza, Koza, Koza, and the only reason he isn’t receiving an award for baseball—his best sport—is that the high schools don’t play baseball. Blame it on the late spring, or maybe the lack of local interest.
This posed a problem for the family. When Dave Koza was 10 years old, his father—an affable, retired Navy veteran, fond of his drink—moved the family from Florida to his home state of Wyoming. Dave struggled to understand a community that did not offer organized baseball to adolescent boys. He did not shy from informing his parents that he wanted to go back to Florida; back to baseball.
His father, Gene, understood. He found a vacant lot beside the Safeway grocery store, planted four poles, unrolled some chicken wire, and laid out a regulation-size Little League field. With that, organized baseball for young boys had come to Torrington.
One night, while taking in the previews before a show down at the Wyoming movie theater, his parents saw an advertisement for the Chandler Baseball Camp and thought: Dave. After learning that a session at the camp would cost $175—$175 that they did not have—the Kozas asked for help from several merchants in town, many of whom were appreciative of Gene Koza’s efforts to start a local Little League program.
Soon, Dave Koza, all of 11, was traveling 800 miles to Chandler, Oklahoma, to a military-style baseball camp; no swimming pool, no tennis courts, no air-conditioning to counter the oppressive Oklahoma heat. For 11 hours a day, these Pee Wees and Midgets, Preps and Minors, ran baseball drills, practiced bunts, slides, and hitting the cut-off, played baseball games—and then drilled some more. Before lights out in the stuffy cabins at 10, they gathered in the mess hall to watch film footage of nothing but baseball; black-and-white clips from a World Series one night, an instructional film on fielding the next.
Koza thrived. Thanks to a godfather’s beneficence, he returned to the camp when he was 12, then accepted Tom Belcher’s offer to work as a camp counselor for a few more summers. When his camp sessions ended, he would return to Torrington to star as a pitcher and outfielder in the Babe Ruth and American Legion games.
By his senior year in high school, Koza had become the official Local Hero, of whom much was expected. He was working in the stockyard directly across from the high school football field, running calves into the chute, clipping their young horns, then powdering the wounds to stem the bleeding. But everyone knew that Dave Koza wasn’t long for Torrington.
“He was our All-Everything,” says Paul “Cactus” Covello Jr., Koza’s classmate and friend. “Groomed from the git-go to play baseball.”
The Dave Koza baseball odyssey that began with all those day-long trips to the Chandler Baseball Camp continued after high school graduation, when he decided to attend Eastern Oklahoma State College—mostly because the baseball coach at the two-year school was also an instructor in Chandler. Then, after the end of spring semester, it was on to Colorado Springs, where Koza played semi-professional ball in exchange for a construction job and a place to live.
In the late spring of 1974, after a night game in Colorado Springs, Koza was invited by a scout to a Denny’s Restaurant, a familiar setting for minor league deals of modest order. The scout, Danny Doyle, had signed the Red Sox pitching star Jim Lonborg, and would one day sign Roger Clemens, but right now he was locked on Dave Koza, age 19. Sign now for $15,000, he said.
After telephoning his parents, the young man reached for the proffered pen and signed his baseball life away to the Boston Red Sox.
Rookie ball in Elmira, New York, along the Empire State’s southern tier, led to Single A ball in Winter Haven, Florida, which led to Double A ball in Bristol, Connecticut, which led to Triple A ball here in Pawtucket, which led to this moment. Seven years of chasing baseballs for a living—a fourth of his lifetime—culminates now in this pop fly at the pitcher’s mound. Dave Koza drifts to his right, looking up, ready to catch a ball he believes is his.
Mine, he thinks. Mine.
* * *
Wade Boggs is 22 years old, with a devoted wife named Debbie and a three-year-old daughter named Meagann. During the season, they live a few blocks from McCoy Stadium. They drive a red 1975 Dodge van, bought used.
Debbie, cute, with round cheeks and blondish hair that curls at her shoulders, grew up poor in Tampa, Florida. She and Wade, three years older, began dating at H.B. Plant High School, where she cheered him on and often tallied his eye-popping statistics. (He batted .522 as a junior!). But the competition adjusted to his talents when he was a senior, and his batting average waned until Wade’s father, an Air Force master sergeant, checked out a classic from the public library—“The Science of Hitting,” by Ted Williams. The boy’s batting average quickly returned to its rarefied level, a level that he thought would justify a first-round selection in baseball’s amateur draft.
Instead, the Major League Scouting Bureau rated Boggs a non-prospect; supposedly, he didn’t run well enough. The Boston Red Sox drafted him in the seventh round. He signed for $7,500.
In 1976, two days after graduating from high school, Boggs traveled 1,200 miles north to Elmira, New York, to play in the New York-Penn League; a professional baseball player with something to prove. An unremarkable season completed, he returned to Florida to marry Debbie in a Baptist church.
After Elmira came Winston-Salem, then Bristol—and now, the beginning of a second season in Pawtucket. If you ask Debbie, they are happy. Wade’s job is to play baseball, and Debbie’s job is everything else: wife, mother, statistician, you name it. Over the years she has operated a switchboard, managed a beauty salon, swept up at a florist’s, tarred and shingled roofs, and worked the overnight shift at a warehouse. Without Debbie, there is no Wade.
And who is Wade? He is a man who swears that he wanted to be a major league baseball player ever since he was 18 months old; whose father tied his ambidextrous son’s left hand behind his back to force him to throw with his right hand; who is so driven by statistics – his own – that his teammates claim he begins calculating his batting average a nanosecond after hitting a ball into play.
Say what you will about Boggs, and some of his teammates clearly do, but he has worked extremely hard to be on the field tonight. Just ask the grounds crew. Or the bat boy. Or some of the hangers-on from the neighborhood. They know.
They know that he arrives at the ballpark several hours before a game—before any of his teammates—to prepare. They know that someone has to hit dozens of ground balls to him at third base, and so they swat him ball after ball in an otherwise empty ballpark, helping him to quiet the rumors that he can barely field his position. They take turns pitching, watching that godlike hand-eye coordination.
What these people behold is a captive to ritual. He wakes up at the same time every day, arrives at the ballpark at the same time every day, and essentially fills out a checklist of tics and habits, each one connected to the other, every day. When to dress. When to take his first pinch of smokeless tobacco. When to warm up his arm. When to field grounders, and for how long. When to touch each of the three bases, in order. Everything has to be just so, down to the placement and use of the pine tar, weighted doughnut, and resin in the on-deck circle. But of all his superstitions, the strangest and most off-putting is this: Whether as a joke or in complete sincerity, he refuses to allow any of his bats to touch those of his teammates.
These daily, time-consuming rituals, 80 or so of them, take hours to complete, down to the moment that he carves with his bat the Hebrew symbol for life in the dirt, before stepping up to the plate. Boggs is not Jewish, but when he was about 11 years old, he read in the back of a comic book that the chai sign signaled luck, and the thought lodged forever in his Little League mind.
For all the emphasis he places on daily order, there are some things over which the Wade Boggs of 1981 has no control. He cannot prevent the Boston Red Sox from acquiring the gifted third baseman Carney Lansford from the California Angels during the off-season any more than he can stop the whispers within the Red Sox organization that he is a powerless hitter; that he is an unremarkable fielder; that he is not a team player. By the end of the 1980 season, Boggs had an impressive career batting average of .313, but there was something about him, it seemed, that the Boston front office did not like. Last winter the Red Sox chose not to protect him from being bought at a nominal price by any of the 25 other major league clubs, but no team considered him worth the cost. And so Boggs returned to Pawtucket, where, it seems, only he realizes how extraordinary he is.
Until that moment when he is rightfully summoned to the major leagues, what else can Boggs do but follow his rituals, and wait just as he is waiting now for this ball falling like an overripe apple from the sky.
* * *
Koza and Boggs do not see each other, their heads tilted so far back that Boggs’s cap tumbles to the ground. Even as they bump into each other at the mound, even as their upraised arms become entwined, their gloved hands and bare hands seeming to form two birds, brown and pink, about to take flight, the two men only have eyes for that falling ball.
It plops into Boggs’s jostled glove, pops out, and plops for good into Koza’s lobster claw of a first baseman’s glove. The batter is out. Koza pirouettes to keep the Rochester runner honest at first, then turns back to face Boggs. The teammates speak for a fleeting moment. What do they say? Maybe “That was mine,” or “One out,” or, simply, “Are you okay?” Neither will remember.
Koza taps Boggs on the chest with the ball. A tender gesture: We’re in this together.