Because I was on vacation from August 16 through the 24th, I missed a very important “This Date in Sports History”, so I am going to observe the 17-year anniversary of this great game today.
It was Wednesday, August 16, 2000, when I attended the longest baseball game I have ever attended – a 17-inning classic between the Newark Bears and the Somerset Patriots at Commerce Bank Ballpark in Bridgewater, New Jersey. Baseball historians should put this game in any “Top 4 Baseball Games of All Time” list, right there with Mets/Astros Game 6 in 1986, Braves/Twins Game 7 in 1991, and Yankees/DBacks Game 7 in 2001. You all know the story of this legendary game just off I-287, so I am going to focus more on the backstory involving two of my closest friends and me.
My friends Jen and Dave graduated Midland Park High School with me on June 23, 2000. The summer to follow would be a short one, as we were to start college in late August. Therefore, we were very busy all summer long (Kid Rock) as we tried to cram in as many “Last time we will ever do/see _____________” moments as we could, not realizing that we could actually do all that same stuff during college breaks. That summer; Jen, Dave, and I had different jobs, with Jen’s being a teller at Commerce Bank. (I would later become a seasonal teller at six different branches in a three-year stretch. I got passed around so many times that I was essentially the LaTroy Hawkins of Commerce Bank.) At some point early in the summer, she learned that the Somerset Patriots played in a stadium named “Commerce Bank Ballpark”. Naturally, she really wanted to go to a game there. Naturally, when she asked Dave and me if we would want to go, we said, “Yes”.
The game we chose to attend took place a scant five days before I would leave for college. By this date; like presumably most of my high-school classmates, I had already entered my “I’m scared to leave the only friends I’ve known for 13 years, but I’m going to act like I’m not nervous at all” phase of summer. During the afternoon of this fateful day, I completed my first 13-mile run, the second-biggest accomplishment of that day for me. Many of you know that I don’t carry water when I run. However, on this run, I did stop 8 miles in for water. I cupped several handfuls of water into my mouth from the pond/lake on Pulis Avenue just down the hill from the Wyckoff Avenue intersection. You would think I have gone smarter as I have aged, but I did a 10-mile run in the Hamptons in February, and I ended up eating two handfuls of ground snow 6 miles in. Both times, the H2O managed to give me the boost I needed for the remainder of the run, without giving me diseases….but I digress.
The night of 8/16/00, I picked up Jen and Dave in my Mercury Cougar with my Britney Spears “Oops I Did It Again” CD ready to go. During the hour-long drive to the Patriots game, Britney played quietly in the background, while Dave and I talked about how loathe we were to leave any sporting events early. We never wanted to have to live with knowing we had missed a great moment because we had left early. This conversation would prove to be quite foreboding.
When we got to the stadium, we sat down, ate some food, and took in the beautiful weather. It was a picture-perfect night, and we were 10 rows behind the dugout at a Somerset Patriots game. The only thing that made these great conditions even better was that future-Hall-of-Famer Tim Raines was on the Patriots at the time. Every time Tim came up, we were pumped. I’m not a Yankees fan, but it was very cool to be sitting so close to a two-time World Series Champion.
The stadium seats 6100 people, but it was not a full house. My guess is that there were 4000 people on hand. While I figured that the fans would all be people like us – taking in a cheap, minor-league game but not actually Patriots fans – I was wrong. There were at least 100 people in the crowd who were hard-core Somerset Patriots fans. When the Patriots’ mascot, a patriot with a drum, would get on the Jumbotron and bang the drum to the chant of “Let’s Go, Lipso”, these fans went nuts. This chant, as you all obviously know, was for Patriots great Lipso Nava. What a great name. All these years later, the names “Lipso Nava” and “Cirillo Cruz” are the two that stand out to me from that night. That Tim Raines did not acknowledge these two individuals in Cooperstown last month is inexcusable.
Anyway, this game took place in a simpler time. People had cell phones, but they were to be used more or less for emergencies. It was expensive to dial out with those things. Forget about using your phone for texting, Facebook, listening to music, or anything like that. At a sporting event, you were there to eat, talk to your friends, and watch the game. That was it. Through the first nine innings of the game; Jen, Dave, and I ate enough. We covered all the important conversation pieces – our thoughts on going to college, any gossip on friends, and Mets/Yankees discussion (they were both good and would ultimately meet that year in a forgettable World Series). When the game reached the 10th inning, we were excited. “Free baseball!”, as resident Braves fan Jen Lubonski (then known as “Jen Ferrara”) would say, quoting Pete Van Wieren of TBS Superstation. Moreover, if you go to a baseball game and are not a huge fan of either team, you want to see a no-hitter or a walk-off win, with the latter being much more likely. Hopefully we would see a Patriots walk-off win in the 10th, and maybe Raines even would get the winning hit.
In the 11th inning, we maintained this same hope, but to no avail. In the 12th inning, we had the same hope while also starting to regret our conversation about never leaving a game early. After all, this was Independent-League Baseball. There was no way this game was making it onto Sportscenter…and this was when Sportscenter was Sportscenter! The show still showed Brewers/Pirates highlights, with both teams mired deep in the bottom of the NL Central. However, Bears/Patriots was not making it to the Worldwide Leader. If we were to leave the game and miss the end, our lives would go on just fine…but nobody wanted to call the shot to leave. Thus, we remained in Bridgewater.
In the 12th inning, we really wanted either team to score. In the 13th inning, we really really wanted either team to score. By the 14th inning, Dave – the only one who had to work the next day – was beside himself. We were all desperate for a run, and the crowd had thinned to maybe 400 people. No luck….but then, in the 15th inning, it happened. The Bears plated a run in the top of the frame, and we were three outs away from leaving! However, improbably, the Patriots scored exactly one run in the Bottom of the 15th. Dave had reached a whole new level of being “beside himself”. On the bright side, we had at least moved that inning to sit 7 rows behind the screen, right behind home plate. When else are you going to get a view like that?
The game then moved to the 16th inning. In that inning, it finally happened! No, the game didn’t end, but I did catch the first and only foul ball of my life at a pro sports game. It was a foul bunt that popped over the screen, and I snagged it out of the air with my right hand. That made all the waiting worthwhile…for me, at least! However, there were still no runs scored that inning. By the 17th inning, the three of us had mentally decided – in a way, like Aaron Williams and Charles Poole at Wimbledon 2001 – that we were going to spend the rest of our lives in that stadium, and “we were perfectly OK with it”. Alas, that proved not to be the case. In the Bottom of the 17th, with one of the other 400 remaining fans shouting, “Cirillo, I need my pillow!”, the Patriots mercifully scored the winning run. The 6-hour-14-minute affair was finally over.
Jen, Dave, and I were exhaustedly euphorious as we left the stadium and headed to the car. Upon entering the Cougar, we did the only logical thing we could on the way home. We blasted Britney’s “Lucky” over and over and sang every word of it. Don’t act like you don’t love that song. In the words of Jen’s college roommate Rachel (who she wouldn’t actually meet for a week), “I still don’t get it. Why does she ‘cry, cry, cry’?” We weren’t exactly sure; I’m still not exactly sure; but it didn’t matter. It’s a great song; we belted it out; and we love it to this day.
By the time we made it back to Midland Park, it was approximately 2AM. It would have been nice to have a calm day the next day, but this was not the case. Actually, I went the next day to the Mets game at 1 and the Yankees game at 7. I recommend this “Mets/Yankees doubleheader” for the bucket list of any New York-area sports fan; it is an underrated gem when the schedule allows. That day, I got to see an exciting Mets win over the Rockies followed by a disappointing Yankees win over the Angels. I even got John Franco to sign my Somerset Patriots ball before the Mets game. Technically, I went to three pro sports games in one day – not a bad feat.
Often in life, good moments turn great with age, and many miserable moments turn into great memories. That was certainly the case here. Jen, Dave, and I reminisce often and fondly about this great night, but I should add that Dave and I have now left our share of games early. I am glad though that we didn’t leave the Patriots game early.