ST. PETERSBURG - James Shields couldn't believe what he had just heard.
"You've got to be kidding,'' said the former Ray, now pitching for the Royals. "I'm shocked.''
The veteran right-hander was reacting to details of a historic pitching duel between future Hall of Famers Warren Spahn and Juan Marichal in the wind tunnel known as Candlestick Park. Fifty years ago today, Marichal's San Francisco Giants beat Spahn's Milwaukee Braves 1-0 in 16 innings, with both starters going the distance.
Willie Mays, whose first career home run came against Spahn in 1951, ended the July 2, 1963, marathon with a one-out home run on the 428th pitch of the evening.
"You'll never see anything like that again - never,'' Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "In that era, there were some guys like Spahn, Marichal, Sandy Koufax and Bob Gibson who would throw 300 innings on an annual basis. But I also think we tend to look back in glorification of this magnificent few.''
Marichal, 25 at the time, went on to win 243 games and hurl 52 shutouts in a Hall of Fame career spent primarily in San Francisco.
His counterpart that night was 42, and Marichal made it a point to inform manager Alvin Dark that he had no intention of departing the mound until Spahn was done.
After Marichal retired the Braves in the top of the 16th, he had a brief conversation with Mays, who was running in from center field. Marichal told Mays he probably wouldn't be back out for the next inning.
Mays told his teammate not to worry - vowing the game was about to end.
One out later, Mays made good on his promise, depositing an errant screwball over the left-field fence for one of his 660 career homers, sending the home crowd home happy after 4 hours and 10 minutes of riveting baseball theater.
Marichal threw 227 pitches that night while Spahn threw 201. Spahn went on to lead the majors with 22 complete games in 1963, four more than Marichal.
"No one's going to throw 16 innings anymore,'' said Royals hitting coach George Brett, a Hall of Fame third baseman who began his 21-year career in 1973. "And no one's going to throw 180 pitches anymore, either. At that time, the starters were the finishers. They were the closers, they were the middle men . they were everything. The guys in the bullpen were the guys who weren't good enough to start.''
A half-century later, Shields ranks as one of baseball's premier modern-day workhorses.
Shields' 11 complete games in 2011 are the most by any pitcher since the 2000 season and no one has posted more than 15 complete games in the past 25 years.
"Just to be able to go 16 innings and throw 200-plus pitches is amazing in itself,'' Shields said. "And Spahn doing it at the age of 42 is even more impressive. Those guys were just gamers, true baseball players. These days, you've got lefty specialists, closers, setup men. There's no way a game like that could happen today.''
No pitcher has logged 300 innings since Steve Carlton in 1980, when Jack Nicholson was busting down doors in "The Shining.''
According to Brett, today's cautious approach with pitchers stems from the fear factor. After laying out big bucks, organizations are determined to go the low-risk route.
"It was a different time in 1963 and pitching wasn't viewed as such a hot commodity,'' Brett said. "If you've got a good pitcher now, you don't want him breaking down, so you overprotect him. I remember playing in a game when (Royals pitcher) Steve Busby threw 160 pitches over 13 innings against the Angels.
"I don't remember whether we won or lost the game, but I do remember he had rotator-cuff surgery the next season and his career was basically over. When you're paying these guys $100 million, you don't want them to be hurt, so you err on the side of caution.''
That wasn't the case 50 years ago, when Marichal outlasted Spahn in a duel for the ages.