What would happen if a baseball game went 50 innings?

Since baseball has no clock, a game could last forever ... or could it? We test September's 19-inning Boston-Toronto epic to see how much players -- and fans -- could endure. AP Photo/Winslow Townson

On Sept. 5, Hanley Ramirez flared an 0-2 fastball into shallow center field. Toronto Blue Jays center fielder Kevin Pillar charged in but couldn't catch the ball, and Mookie Betts -- who took off almost on contact -- raced home from second to score. With that bloop single, Ramirez and the Boston Red Sox won the longest game of the 2017 season, after 19 innings, 544 pitches and exactly six hours of play.

What this article presupposes is: What if they didn't?

What if Pillar had caught the ball, and what if Betts had been doubled off second base and what if the game had then gone to the 20th inning, and what if nobody could score, and what if, with expanded September rosters, neither team ran out of pitchers for a really, really long time? What if the game had continued for not one more inning or five more, but 31 more? What would a 50-inning baseball game look like?

Barring rules changes that force tie games to speedy conclusions, or an end to baseball and/or the world, it will happen some day. It's preposterous, and it probably won't happen in your lifetime, but on a long enough timeline, everything does. And one of two things will happen:

  1. One team will quit.

  2. The nature of the sport will change, midgame, into something we rarely see in baseball but that has existed for a century on the fringest of American competition: endurance torture.

I don't believe either team would have quit on Sept. 5. The Blue Jays had somehow used only seven pitchers by the 19th inning. And the Red Sox, who had used 12, were in a pennant race against the charging New York Yankees, and they entered the day having shed three games in the standings in the previous three days. They needed to win. And so, we would get option No. 2.

Stage 1: You are part of something important (Innings ~24-32)

There were, according to reports, 700 fans left at Fenway Park in the 19th. I'm skeptical -- that number looks low to my eyes -- but let's say the crowd of 33,009 really had shrunk to 1,000. A bunch, I bet, left when the Red Sox were trailing in the ninth inning, and missed Boston's two-run comeback. And a bunch left in each successive inning, as the weeknight game pushed toward midnight. It's hard to blame them.

But there is a point when a game switches from long and tedious into Something Important. We can see this in the 25-inning contest between Texas and Boston College in 2009, the longest game in college baseball history. Spectators and participants have recalled a switch occurring, as it gradually became clear the game would be historically significant -- not a long baseball game, but the long baseball game.

In an interview with the Austin American Statesman five years later, radio broadcaster Keith Moreland, who called the game, said, "Once it got to the 17th inning, you just wanted to see it go the distance."

"The distance, Red?" he was asked. "In a baseball game?"

"Yeah, that means forever."

In the 12th inning, you just want to see the game end. But after the Something Important phase begins, you're not sure you ever do, because progressively more incredible things are happening or becoming possible. Around the 15th or 16th inning, Austin Wood, Texas' senior closer, was approaching 100 pitches of no-hit relief. He approached head coach Augie Garrido: "Don't you even think about taking me out of this game." He would end up throwing 13 scoreless innings in relief, 169 pitches, a performance that can only happen if the limits of the game get so badly extended that unthinkable possibilities can fit within them.

"When a player breaks through to that level, it changes his life," Garrido said at the time. "... Now he knows something not many people know: You really can be anything you choose to be. ... And if he gets a sore arm in the next 10 years, it'll be my fault."

Wood did. His professional career ended three years later, after shoulder injuries, and plenty of people think Garrido's decision was unforgivable. Wood has defended Garrido, first by saying there was no connection between that game and his injuries, but ultimately concluding that it doesn't matter if there was a connection: "If you offered me anything in the world, I don't think I would trade it for the experience of playing in that game," Wood told the Austin American-Statesman later. "It was that meaningful."

Tony Sanchez, a first-round draft pick out of Boston College who played in the majors, says he thinks about catching in that game "four or five times a week."

So in our 20th inning at alt-universe Fenway Park, we're watching Hector Velazquez, an extremely unremarkable 28-year-old rookie who entered the game in the 19th, get through his second inning, and then his third. In the 22nd, he's still on the mound, when he probably sets a major league record with Boston's 27th strikeout of the night. The Triple-A starter, just called up to the majors, keeps getting outs, so his manager leaves him in the game rather than go to his final available reliever, Roenis Elias. In the 26th -- Velazquez's seventh inning -- the game passes the Brewers and White Sox's 1984 game as the longest in modern history. (That game was paused in the 17th by a curfew.) In the 27th, it passes the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves, who ended in a tie after 26 innings in 1920. (That game lasted only 3 hours, 50 minutes, and both starters went the distance.) About 55 percent of innings in baseball are typically "ties," so the chances of an extra-inning game reaching the 27th are roughly one in 30,000. It's almost 4 a.m. Something Important is happening.

Velazquez throws one more frame, his ninth of the night, a "complete game" tucked into a much longer one, and a generation of Boston fans will never forget his name. He is part of something important. He might very well come to spring training with a still-sore arm the next year. A veteran of Mexican League baseball, now a historically significant major leaguer, he might very well tell reporters it was worth it.

Stage 2: The end no longer appears to be approaching but receding (Innings 33 to 37)

In Inning 33, with Boston's last available reliever, Elias, in his sixth inning of work, the game matches the longest professional game in history, between Triple-A Pawtucket and Rochester in 1981. (Odds: Almost 1 in 2 million extra-inning games.) Until this point, you'd been thinking of 33 innings as close to the theoretical maximum, the longest a game had ever gone and therefore the longest a game can probably go. But as innings pass, the lie of a maximum is revealed.

In 2010, you probably remember, John Isner and Nicolas Mahut played the longest professional tennis match ever. This is instructive for the premise of our 50-inning baseball game: Before Isner/Mahut, the longest tennis match ever was 7 hours, 2 minutes. Isner and Mahut played not for 7 hours, 3 minutes, or even 8 hours, but for 11 hours. They obliterated the theoretical maximums. The scoreboards had been designed to max out at 47-47, which was barely two-thirds of the way to the match's ultimate conclusion. So don't assume the longest baseball game ever will be slightly longer than the second-longest, or will even seem possible. "It's never, ever gonna come close to happening again," Andy Roddick said of an 11-hour tennis match, right after it happened.

It was "dream-like," according to the players. Xan Brooks, live-blogging the match for the Guardian, described the players as zombies, described Isner in particular as "expired" many dozens of games before the match was resolved. But, crucially, the crowd wanted the match to continue. At 59-59, the crowd chanted "we want more."

There'd be no official mechanism for stopping our 50-inning game. There used to be league curfews, like the one that interrupted the White Sox and Brewers, but an MLB spokesman confirmed that there aren't any more, and nothing in the rulebook gives an umpire the authority to set a time limit midgame. Neither does Fenway have a curfew, a Red Sox spokesman said.

But a game probably can't keep going past 35 innings without a general desire for it to keep going. The players know that they are quite possibly damaging themselves: A surgeon said at the time that Mahut and Isner risked "dehydration, hyperthermia and kidney damage" by playing for so long. It'd be easy to quit, to let go -- but they would need permission to let go.

In "Bottom Of The 33rd," Dan Barry's book about the Pawtucket/Rochester game, he describes a desperate longing to see the game end -- but that longing was intermingled with an even more earnest desire to see it go longer. After Wade Boggs re-tied the game in the 21st inning, Barry writes, "Sweet Billy Broadbent, the batboy, wants to yell for joy. ... The batboy desires nothing more than to stay." The crowd in Pawtucket had shrunk to dozens of original fans, but it was simultaneously slowly growing, as "strays" wandered in -- "from an insomniac walking his dog to a couple of cops tired of patrolling Pawtucket in its slumber." In the top of the 32nd inning, when a baserunner tries to score from second base, he is thrown out by a right fielder's perfect throw, chest-high to the catcher. There remained energy and desire to continue.

It is 7:15 a.m. when Elias completes the 37th inning, his 10th of the night in relief. The crowd at Fenway is down to perhaps a couple hundred. But the players surely know that the crowd outside the stadium is only growing, that this game and Elias -- and Jackie Bradley Jr., who by this point is 0-for-15 -- are trending topics on Twitter, that there are kids in Boston whose moms woke them up an hour early on a school day so they could watch the Red Sox take shots at winning in the 34th, 35th, 36th, that people still up from yesterday and people just up today are converging into a crowd. The skeleton physical crowd might still lose a fan every couple of innings -- work -- but the press box is filling up with extra media from Boston TV stations and newspapers. Cable news is treating this game like Balloon Boy or a runaway llama. Put it this way: When the Rochester/Pawtucket game was finally suspended after the 32nd inning, 19 of the original 1,700 fans were there. When it resumed two months later, 5,700 showed up. Waking up on Wednesday morning, we are all the 5,700.

Stage 3: They are barely holding on to their sanity (Innings 38-44)

In 1995, a Texas car dealership staged a hand-a-thon. Two dozen participants put one palm on a new pickup truck, and the last person to remove his or her hand won the truck. The contest would last 77 sleepless hours. Later years would stretch past 120 hours. It was captured in "Hands On A Hardbody," an independent documentary that would later be turned into a Broadway musical.

"What happens is you go slowly insane," Benny Perkins, a contestant who had won the contest in 1992, said in the documentary. "It's an awesome thing. It really is. You feel like you get transported from town to town, place to place. You see things that aren't there.

"My son was there, and he and another young man were throwing a baseball. And as the baseball would arc through the air, I could see traces of it. I could see 1,000 baseballs go across the front. And I saw that, and I said, 'Wow.' I didn't see that. It wasn't real, but I saw it."

This challenge of maintaining a sense of reality comes up again and again in extreme endurance contests. Brian Root, a professional hand-a-thon contestant, told the Wall Street Journal these contests become "like a spiritual experience. Your mind goes to places it's never gone before. ... You see a part of yourself you never see otherwise." Perkins said he tried to prey on contestants who entered that mental haze: "I turned around to Dan -- that was the guy that was with me at the end -- told him, I said, 'Look.' I said, 'You're standing next to the devil.' And I said, 'And you're riding the road to hell.' I said, 'I'll stand here 'til you die. You may as well quit now.'"

In the Rochester/Pawtucket game, the players were reportedly "delirious from exhaustion" before the game was suspended at around 4 a.m. At one point Boggs lay down and used third base as a pillow. Wrote Barry, "Rochester's center fielder, Dallas Williams, feels so trapped by the night -- a night in which he has yet to get a hit -- that he's beginning to fear this is it. This is the end of the world and this is where he will die, in a never-ending game from which he cannot escape."

In Fenway, it's around 9:30 in the morning when Doug Fister -- the next day's scheduled starter -- completes his seventh inning, the 44th in our 50-inning game. (Meanwhile, three Red Sox minor leaguers on the 40-man roster -- Williams Jerez, Brian Johnson and Ben Taylor -- have been awakened in the middle of the night and told to get to Boston to pitch that night's game.) The stadium lights have been turned off. Bradley is 0-for-15, and when he bats for the 16th time he walks into the batter's box without a bat. "You're standing next to the devil," he seems to be saying. "I'll stand here 'til you die."

He draws a walk, but is thrown out trying to steal second.

Stage 4: We start to question our cruelty as spectators (Innings 45 to 49)

The modern history of endurance torture starts in earnest in the 1920s, when marathon dancing was briefly a national craze. Approximately 2,500 spectators would show up each night to watch dozens of couples -- many of them professionals -- dwindle down to just a few, each couple shuffling almost nonstop (there were periodic 10- or 15-minute breaks) for days, then weeks, then months. "It was said that if the contestant could make it through the first 300 hours they could last forever," grad student Chelsea Dunlop wrote in a thesis paper on the subject. "Once the marathoners arrived at this point, their bodies grew accustomed to the demands placed upon them and could do what was needed, without thought. They also trained their bodies to withstand the extreme exhaustion or zombie-like state they needed to maintain for most of the 24 hours." The longest of these contests lasted more than nine months, according to Dunlop. It's all the most miserable thing you ever saw.

More miserable is the underlying question of why these dances happened, and why they were so popular. "Our degradation was entertainment; sadism was sexy; masochism was talent," one participant said. Each evening, during the events' most popular hours, the promoters of these marathons would stage even more torturous events to force contestants into sprints: An advertisement for one event, for example, promised Monday night "zombie treadmills," which "involved blindfolded contestant teams, often chained or tied together, racing one another." Advertisements for the events highlighted what was known as "squirrelly behavior," a "manic state" in which "dancers could often be seen plucking imaginary daisies from the linoleum floors or fleeing the building from hallucinated attackers." A journalist at the time referred to them as "the innocent jail."

As noted, they were extremely popular, but only once in each city. The craze died out in part because "unlike baseball, marathons did not draw repeat audiences." The audience seemed to realize in retrospect that there was no point to the pain. Indeed, marathoners reportedly signed photographs with the note, "For No Good Reason."

But the instinct -- to watch such exhaustion, and to participate in it -- lives on in other forms. In 1998, five people in San Diego rode a roller-coaster for 70 days -- 14½ hours per day in motion, interrupted by nights spent sleeping on the roller-coaster. They were competing for $50,000. Ultimately, the event was declared over and the prize split between the five. "It's changed me as a person," a contestant known as Diehard Debbie said in a deposition later. "I'm completely worn out every day. It's like I can't escape the pain. No matter what I do, it's always there. I never get a break." In Spokane, a radio station got three riders to stay on a coaster for 34 days. In Sydney, two made it 40 days.

How will we feel in the 46th inning, the 47th? Marathon dances were banned across the country, protested by churches and women's groups. The Texas Hardbody competition ended in 2005, after a contestant who'd been eliminated killed himself. Two of the roller-coaster riders sued the station. A 12-year-old who stayed through the entire Pawtucket-Rochester game never went to another baseball game. Austin Wood retired at 25. John McEnroe speculated the Isner-Mahut match could take six months off each player's career.

There is always something dark about endurance tests, a feeling that they don't test skill so much as one's ability to suppress basic human safety. As we watch Drew Pomeranz pitch the 45th and 46th -- two days after throwing 105 pitches in a start, and after a history of injuries -- would we feel guilt? Or when Matt Barnes -- just off the disabled list, and presumably unavailable after working extensively the previous two nights -- is asked to pitch the 47th, or when Eduardo Nunez is asked to throw the 48th, or when Betts pitches the 49th? Or would we choose to view the other side of an endless game: As the endlessly generous opportunities for each man to be a hero, to find redemption?

After the Pawtucket/Rochester game was suspended, pitcher Jim Umbarger -- who'd thrown the final 10 innings -- couldn't sleep. According to Barry's book:

Umbarger spends 90 minutes writing down his fast-coming thoughts in a spiral notebook, the thoughts of a man who has just done the very best that he can at his profession. He writes: "Just this past Tuesday night, I was down, lonely and unhappy in Rochester, only because my desire to be in the big leagues again is so strong. I had a chat with the Lord and asked Him to please show me if He still wanted me in baseball or to lead me wherever. Wow! Has He shown me."

Could go either way.

Stage 5: The end, or: looking down and realizing there is no ground beneath you (Inning 50)

Last summer, two independent league teams played into the 14th inning. That's not quite the marathon that nine months of dancing or 183 games of tennis are, but indy teams have smaller rosters, and thus fewer pitchers. By the 14th inning, the Kansas City T-Bones had already used their center fielder on the mound for two innings. They needed a new pitcher. So their manager brought in right-handed starter Matt Sergey to pitch left-handed.

Sergey had been "working on" becoming ambidextrous, but had never done so in a game. He topped out at 76 mph with his left hand and walked the first two batters. Winnipeg then bunted the runners over, and Sergey attempted to intentionally walk the bases loaded. He threw a wild pitch. The game finally ended after 5 hours, 25 minutes, a league record.

"Although he took the loss, it wasn't a total disaster because Sergey recorded an out," Pete Grathoff reported in the Kansas City Star.

"It was something on the bucket list," Sergey told Grathoff.

Here's how I think a 50-inning baseball game ends: Before the top of the inning, both teams come to an agreement. They will each intentionally walk the leadoff man and let him immediately steal second base uncontested. It's the forced-resolution rule that baseball has been experimenting with in the minors, done voluntarily with a handshake.

So with Bradley on the mound, the first Blue Jay is put on base in the top of the 50th and allowed safe passage to second base. A sacrifice bunt pushes him to third. Bradley strikes out the next hitter for the second out, but a two-out hit scores the run. The Blue Jays take the lead.

And then, in the bottom of the 50th, the Blue Jays walk the leadoff hitter. And when he goes to take second base, they tag him out. The nerve! The gumption! The genius! The Red Sox howl, but they have no legal standing, because it's not actually legal to collude with your opponent.

But with one out, the Red Sox stage a rally. And with two, Bradley wins it with a home run. Why do I think this is how it ends? For no good reason.

After his team's 19-inning victory, Red Sox manager John Farrell described how the game's stakes went up the deeper it went: "When you lose, it feels like two losses."

Does that mean a 27-inning game feels like three? Does a 36-inning game feel like four? Is the progression linear, or does it stop going up, or does it build up progressively faster like a Fibonacci sequence? Does losing a 50-inning game feel like two losses, or five and a half, or 20?

Or, on the flip side: "If the Boston Red Sox win the 2017 World Series title," an early-morning game story began on Sept. 6, "they might look back on their 19-inning win over the Toronto Blue Jays at Fenway Park as their season-defining moment. One night can change everything in baseball. And as his teammates chased him around the field, it was clear Ramirez's heroics could be the catalyst for something big on Yawkey Way, if the Red Sox can capitalize."

They weren't. But maybe he just didn't wait long enough.