Bottom of the 33rd
By Dan Barry
HarperCollins ($26.99, 256 pp.)
My baseball book of the year is not just a baseball book; but then, no baseball book is just about baseball. Baseball contains all there is of our lives – our hopes, our dreams, our disappointments, our errors, our ennui, our strike outs (both swinging and looking) and our occasional hits…all played out under an eternal clock where “theoretically, just one at bat could last forever, with foul ball after foul ball spinning into infinity, like a never-ending decimal measure of pi.”
The absence of a game ending clock is at the heart of New York Times columnist Dan Barry’s new book Bottom of the 33rd. On the Saturday before Easter in 1981, the Pawtucket Red Sox take on the Rochester Red Wings in a chilly early season Triple A game in worn out McCoy stadium in worn out Pawtucket, RI.
Eight hours and 32 innings later the tie game is suspended as the Easter sunrise reveals the last 19 fans huddled against the cold, hungry and ready to go home. Two months later, the same players, umpires, and coaches take to the field again to resume play in the 33rd. This time, it takes only one inning to end the game, setting a record for the longest professional game ever played. And to think when we occasionally head to the ballpark, my wife gets bored and is ready to leave early after only the 3rd inning. What a piker.
A Pastiche of Talent
With his focus on the highest rung of the minor league ladder, Barry finds a cast worthy of Shakespeare. The teams are filled with kids from across the country and Latin America (Tulsa, Brooklyn, Mobile, Huntsville, Omaha, San Cristobal, Tucumcari) all putting up with the bad hotels, cheap apartments, and low pay for their shot at the bigs – even if it is just to take their swings against a big league pitcher before they are sent back home to sell cars or work the farm.
Barry chronicles the doomed lives of each of them – doomed since “less than 3 percent of those who sign professional baseball contracts ever reach the major leagues.” But every team, every game has the few who will finally be somebody. This longest of all games tested the mettle of future stars Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr.
Players Who Are Coming and Going
A minor league game has not only young players fighting for their chance, but also older players who are fighting to get back. They once enjoyed the perks of the majors – the fresh uniforms each day washed by someone else, the big lockers and showers with hot water, the chartered planes, the clean and orderly bats and gloves – they got a taste but couldn’t hold on to it.
Their last chance to return will be played in small town rickety stadiums before crowds that number in the hundreds. Most are just hanging on to the dream even though they know it is over; few get back, they just get older and slower and run out of gas.
Barry spends paragraphs, pages, even whole chapters describing the lives of these players and their families. He takes time and more pages to follow the umpires, owners, concessionaires who are out of hot dogs, radio announcers who no longer have an audience, even the scorekeeper (imagine the detail in the well-kept set of three scorekeeping books necessary for such a long game).
Nobody is having fun, everyone is cold and hungry – but the game doesn’t stop because of a little discomfort. There are always more pitches, more at bats, until both teams have had their chances. With the game straddling Holy Saturday and Easter, Barry has the perfect metaphor in his hands. The subtitle says it all “Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game.” The game begins like a holy rite:
“The twilight’s last gleam has vanished…An umpire who would rather be home adds two more words to the opening anthem, two commanding words of release that tell a pitcher, who will never know the big leagues, to ready himself on the mound; that sends a catcher, who will play in the big leagues for thirteen years, into a coiled squat; and prompts a hitter in his last baseball spring to dig a fleeting foothold in the batter’s box dirt. ‘Play Ball.'”
The game ends, as many ball games do, with a walk-off hit by Pawtucket’s Dave Koza in the bottom of the 33rd. The loudspeakers play Peggy Lee singing “Is that all there is?” The scorekeeper records the last run and closes his books as Koza’s teammates slap his batting helmet and carry him off the field. The victory and loss make no difference to the final standings of either team. Dave Koza, 5 for 14 in the game, never makes it to the majors. But he suits up again the next day.