By GENE McGIVERN -- UST Sports Information Director
Dennis Denning takes pride in the fact that baseball is the only sport that doesn't use a clock.
Denning has coached the Tommie baseball team in March Metrodome doubleheaders that have started as early as 6 a.m. and as late at 11 p.m. His St. Thomas teams regularly play 14 innings of baseball each day for conference doubleheaders.
So it was fitting that Denning went to Yankee Stadium last week for a 2008 All-Star Game that began as a baseball game... but finished as a marathon.
Denning, the 15-year St. Thomas baseball coach, joined John Tschida, the Tommies' softball coach, for a midsummer classic that lived up to its name. The pair went to the park at 4 p.m. to each witness their first all-star game in person. From their upper-deck seats behind third base they watched batting practice and soaked in the atmosphere of Yankee Stadium's farewell season.
When the first pitch was thrown at 8:47 p.m. Eastern time, Denning didn't realize he would witness a record-setting game that would play out until 1:37 a.m. when Justin Morneau slid under a tag at home plate. Denning and Tschida stayed through all 15 innings to witness the American League's 4-3 victory.
What's amazing is that in Denning's colorful career as a player, coach and fan, Tuesday barely qualifies as a "long" game.
Denning recalls a 1965 evening in his rookie season in the Baltimore Orioles' organization when his Fox Cities Foxes played a 20-plus inning game.
Then in 1966 when he was with the Miami Marlins, Denning played every inning of a 29-inning affair won by the Marlins, 4-3, at St. Petersburg. That still ranks as the longest uninterrupted game in the history of professional baseball.
(Fifteen years after that record night in Florida, Pawtucket and Rochester began a minor-league game that was still tied after 32 innings and suspended. Two months later the game resumed and was quickly concluded after 33 total innings, setting records for time elapsed (8:25) and innings played.)
Denning went to Yankee Stadium for the All-Star Game as guest of umpire Mark Wegner, one of his former players at Cretin-Derham Hall. Wegner, 36, and in his 10th season umpiring in the majors, was working his first all-star game, at third base. Wegner saved two tickets from his family allotment for his old high school coach.
Wegner first caught Denning's attention 20 years ago at Cretin. Wegner injured his right arm as a freshman, then spent the winter in his garage learning how to throw lefthanded. Denning admired his spunk and rewarded then sophomore with a roster spot on the Raiders' B squad. Wegner continued to work on his game and as a senior was Cretin's starting right fielder on the 1990 state championship team. That was one of Denning's six state titles captured in his 17 seasons coaching the Raiders from 1978-1994.
Tschida, another former Cretin-Derham Hall player, made the trip with Denning. The two would not only see Cretin favorite son Joe Mauer in action but also get a glimpse of Raiders' legend Paul Molitor. The Tommie coaches watched Monday's home-run contest from a good perch in center field. On Tuesday afternoon, they saw the parade that ran through the streets of New York.
"We had just eaten lunch and we saw all this commotion and lines of people and all this red carpet," Denning said. "We find out it's a parade with all these baseball Hall of Famers. We watched for awhile, and there's Paul Molitor coming past, and he recognizes me and waves."
Denning called the two days "unforgettable."
"That was probably the most fun major-league game I've ever been to," Denning said. "Both teams had so many chances. Just seeing Yankee Stadium was special, too. It's 80 years old but it still looks pretty good. It was funny to hear all the Red Sox players in the game get booed by the Yankee fans even though they were on the American League team. We got to ride the subways, which is an adventure. We got back to our hotel about 3 a.m., got to sleep at 3:30 a.m., then woke up at 7:30 in the morning to get to the airport."
Denning has several memories from the remarkable 29-inning game, which played out 42 years ago at St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field on June 14-15. The St. Petersburg Cardinals squad, managed by future Hall of Famer Sparky Anderson, had earlier in the season built a 22-game winning streak. The game lasted just under seven hours and ended at 2:29 a.m. Charlie Sands caught all 29 innings for the Marlins and reportedly lost 15 pounds from the start to the finish. The teams combined for 41 strikeouts and each team left 21 on base. Free coffee was served after the 18th inning.
Denning, who had a two hits and two walks in his 13 plate appearances while batting leadoff, played all 29 innings at third base. He recalls hitting a ball to deep left field in the 22nd inning that was caught by a leaping St. Petersburg fielder.
"Denning hits a big blast to left," Marlins manager Billy DeMars told the Miami Herald. "I knew it was in for a home run. Then this kid out there (Bob Taylor) leaps in the air, sticks his glove over the fence and grabs the ball."
"This was the finest defensive game I've ever seen -- in the majors or the minors," Anderson told the St. Petersburg Times.
Later in the 29th inning, pitcher Mike Hebert doubled and Denning drew an intentional walk. The next batter bunted and reached safely. The next batter's line drive hit the baserunner moving toward second for an out. With Hebert still on third and Denning at second, Fred Rico broke a 3-3 tie with an RBI sacrifice fly. Denning tried to score all the way from second base on the play but was called out to end the inning and deny Miami an insurance run. His Marlins team retired the Cardinals in the bottom of the inning to preserve the win.
"We had a home doubleheader back in Miami the next afternoon," Denning recalled. "By the time we showered and got on the bus and stopped to eat, it was about 4 a.m., and it was about 8:30 a.m. when we got back to Miami. We had to be back at the park at 11 a.m. We got killed in that doubleheader."
"There was one fan who watched the first 11 innings," DeMars recalled. "Then he went out and went bowling. Then later, he's on his way home and saw the lights on. So he figured what the heck. Came back in and saw the rest of the game."
By Florida State League rules, no inning was supposed to start after 12:50 a.m., but the umpires weren't aware of that provision. At 2 a.m., after 27 innings, the umpires and coaches agreed that if the game wasn't resolved after 30 innings, it would be halted and resumed at a later date.
"That was quite a game," Denning said. "People ask me if I was tired or annoyed the game kept going, and at the time you just kept playing and were just trying to find a way to win. Now it's one of my greatest memories in baseball. They have some stuff from that game in the Baseball Hall of Fame. They sent us the box score and a clipping from the newspaper that I have in a frame."
Paul Gilliford threw 11 innings of scoreless relief for Miami and got a bases-loaded double-play grounder to end the 21st inning and keep the game going.
Hebert, the winning pitcher who also scored the winning run, was demoted the next day back to the Orioles' Aberdeen (S.D.) team.
The 29-inning game wasn't the only crazy event for the 1966 Miami Marlins. Late in the season as they were chasing a playoff spot, the Marlins signed legendary pitcher Satchel Paige, then age 60, to a contract.
"We were making about $400 a month and they signed him for $500 to pitch one game, so most of us were skeptical," Denning said. "He was about 6-foot-4 and had these real long arms. He was very agile. He only threw about 78 miles an hour by then, but his control of his pitches was unbelievable. He could put it anywhere he wanted to."
Paige pitched well and helped the Marlins post a 4-3 victory that was secured on a walk-off double in the ninth inning -- off the bat of Dennis Denning.
Click here to read more on Dennis Denning:
Click here to view 2002 St. Thomas magazine story on Denning: http://www.stthomas.edu/magazinearchive/showarticle.cfm?ArticleID=1423018271
Click here to view ESPN.com feature story on St. Petersburg's Al Lang Field: http://sports.espn.go.com/espn/print?id=3317204&type=story