Should anyone flatter us by asking us what we are searching for, we think immediately, almost instinctively, in vast terms—God, fulfillment, love—but our lives are actually made up of tiny searches for things … Add them together, and these things make up an epic quest. —Geoff Dyer
The playoffs begin in Durham tonight. It’s tempting to dismiss minor-league championships as dubious, if not entirely factitious, especially in Triple-A: major-league rosters expanded on September 1, so the Bulls and their competitors have been raided for some of their best players. The post-Labor Day games draw tiny crowds anyway. So who cares?
I do. The most exciting game I’ve ever seen was a Durham Bulls playoff game.
September 4, 1984. Twenty-nine years ago today, the Durham Bulls beat the Lynchburg Mets, 8-7 in seventeen innings, in game two of the Carolina League Championship series. I was at the game in a nominally official capacity. That year I was the “statistician” for Steve Pratt, the Bulls’ radio broadcaster. My job was also factitious: Steve kept his own stats; he was just carrying out a favor for the team owner, who was collegially friendly with my stepfather and humored him by taking me on. My pay was a free sandwich after the fifth inning. I had a calculator and crunched some numbers, but mostly I sat there all summer and watched baseball.
The Bulls trailed in the bottom of the seventh inning, 5-2, but by the end of the eighth they had tied the game, thanks largely to some surprisingly poor fielding by the Mets, the league’s most dominant team. (The Bulls, by contrast, had barely squeaked into the playoffs.) The game went into extra innings. In the twelfth, Bulls center fielder Johnny Hatcher made a game-saving catch, crashing into the wall to rob Lynchburg’s Stan Jefferson of a home run. Hatcher was knocked out cold, and the base umpire had to trot out to the warning track, where Hatcher lay in a heap, in order to see if he had caught the ball. Hatcher came to, glove upraised, ball inside, and the crowd—even thinned-out as it was by then—went nuts.
The Bulls allowed a run in the top of the fourteenth, but they tied the game in the bottom of the inning when a wild pitch scored Todd Lamb, a pitcher who had to pinch-run because Bulls manager Brian Snitker ran out of position players. In the top of the sixteenth, the Bulls fell behind again, but in the bottom of the inning tied it yet again—and on another wild pitch. An inning later, the bottom of the seventeenth, a little-used catcher named Tony Neuendorff, the last guy on the bench, came to bat. He had played fewer than fifty games in two seasons as a Bull. Neuendorff was an emergency catcher, as much mascot as player. He lined a single to right-center field to score Chip Childress from second base and win the game. It was well after midnight, September 5.
It was more than the most exciting game I ever saw. It sealed a pact with me, made me a baseball believer. It’s a significant part of how I got where I am now. I carry the memory of the game around with me like a talisman—no, like something more necessary: a set of keys to my life.
So the question is: Did it really happen? For more than a quarter century, I didn’t dare ask. It had become myth, even faith: don’t interrogate it, don’t look at its face. But in this Bull City Summer, avoidance no longer seemed tenable. If we were making a documentary, I had to seek the truth, including the founding history that got me here.
Coincidentally, last month I got an e-mail from broadcaster Steve Pratt, who now lives in Maine, where he had relocated after three seasons with the Bulls to take a job as the broadcaster for the Triple-A Maine Guides. Pratt had seen some of my writing about the Bulls, decided to drop a line. I hadn’t spoken to him in almost thirty years; I took it as a sign. I threw the name Tony Neuendorff at him:
Oh, Tony! One of my favorite calls was a playoff game against Lynchburg. Extra-inning game. Neuendorff hadn’t had an RBI all season long. He hit a bullet up the middle with the winning run in scoring position. I called it a base hit but all of a sudden the second baseman dives out of nowhere and snags it and throws him out. There was so much in it: the base hit, the robbery at second base, the throw-out at first—inflating and deflating in the same five-second period.
Pratt had made a beeline for the very moment itself! But wait—hadn’t Neuendorff’s hit gone through the infield for a game-winning single? I was so rattled that I abandoned my line of questioning and didn’t return to it for more than an hour.
I was determined to uncover the truth. I managed to get a telephone interview with Brian Snitker. In 1984, Snitker was the twenty-eight-year-old Bulls manager (one of his players was older than he was); he is now the third-base coach for the Atlanta Braves. “I don’t remember hardly anything about it,” Snitker told me. “I couldn’t even remember who the hell was on that team.” I invoked Neuendorff’s name. “Good kid,” Snitker said vaguely. He remembered nothing else. I told him Neuendorff had driven in Chip Childress with the winning run.
Snitker surprised me: “I just saw Chip Childress the other day in Washington,” he said. The Braves were playing the Nationals in D.C., and during batting practice a voice called out from the stands. It was Childress. “He lives outside Richmond,” Snitker said. After we got off the phone, I searched online and found a Chip Childress in Fredericksburg. I called him and asked him about the game. He remembered it, sort of.
“We lost, didn’t we?” No, you won, I told him, although I was less sure by now. “Did we?” You scored the winning run, I said. Childress said, “I played in so many games it’s hard to remember them all, but that’s great.” Childress may not remember the details, but he does carry around his own Durham Bulls talisman. The Bulls had a super-fan back then named “Pops” Baucom, an old-timer who came to every game and sat in the right-field bleachers. “Everybody that hit a home run, he gave you a two-dollar bill,” Childress said. Childress still keeps his tattered two-dollar Baucom bill in his wallet. “I wrap my squirrel money in it.”
I tracked down Danny Knobler, the official scorer from the game that night. Knobler is now a baseball writer for CBS Sports. “Sorry to say I have no memories at all of that game,” he replied. I found David Bulla, who was a Bulls beat writer for the Durham Herald-Sun in 1984, in Abu Dhabi, where he’s a professor of journalism. He had lots of memories of that season, but the only one about the actual game was that “I botched the box score, although I don’t remember how.”
It was time to face hard facts. The Durham Public Library is just a few blocks from my house. There, on microfilm, I found Bulla’s game story—and his botched box score (two bizarre, glaring typographical mistakes). My memory is mostly correct, but it’s so much barer than the truth. It turns out the game was full of excitement. I had rightly remembered Johnny Hatcher’s great catch (although his long collapse at the warning track is probably an embellishment) but hadn’t remembered that, in the bottom of that same inning, the twelfth, the guy Hatcher had robbed of a home run, Mets center fielder Stan Jefferson, made an incredible catch of his own to prolong the game. I hadn’t remembered that Chip Childress, long before scoring the winning run, had made a great play in the eleventh to save a run, atonement for a run-scoring error he had made way back in the second inning. I hadn’t remembered that the Bulls were able to force extra innings in the first place only because of a headlong, diving catch in right field by Mike Yastrzemski, son of the Boston Red Sox great Carl Yastrzemski.
Tony Neuendorff did indeed drive in the winning run with a seventeenth-inning single. It was not his first RBI of the season, as Steve Pratt remembered it, but his sixth. Neuendorff had entered the game in the previous inning as a pinch runner and scored the tying run on that second wild pitch. His line in Bulla’s box score, where Neuendorff’s name is squeezed in as “Nendrf,” has a kind of perfect unity:
AB R H RBI
1 1 1 1
“It was the highlight of my career,” Neuendorff told Bulla afterward. Bulla’s article called him the team’s “most likeable player.”
Tony Neuendorff never played another professional baseball game. He lives about fifty miles west of Houston, where he still plays (at age fifty-one) for a South Central Texas Amateur League team called the Bernardo Bears. His brother and son also play for the Bears, and his father founded the team. I tried a couple of ways of reaching him, but he didn’t respond. I did learn, though, that I had been pronouncing his name incorrectly all these years: it’s “Nine-dorf.” Knowing this filled me with a deep, inexplicable gratitude. “Nine-dorff”—the syllables ring in my head, like a mantra. Somehow, they’re really all I need to know.
Adam Sobsey has been covering the Durham Bulls since 2009. He is a columnist for Baseball Prospectus and a contributor to its recently published guide, Baseball Prospectus 2013. Follow him on Twitter.