Where do our great sports books come from and what are they about? Vivid recreations of great contests? Lives of great figures? Dissections of famous acts, singular feats, or dramatic blunders? That might be the formula for our great military books, political biographies, and works of social science, but the most enduring sports books tap into another level where sport is connected to something else—about human spirit, national character, and belief.
Such classics have centered on high school football in a small town; a sharp, small-market baseball general manager trying to compete by wiles and unorthodox statistical analysis; the complicated intertwining of residents in a New York borough with its favorite team; the clubhouse shenanigans and human foibles documented diaristically by a wise-guy washed-up pitcher; or horseracing in an era when playing the ponies was in truth "the sport of kings." To these classic sports books—Friday Night Lights, Moneyball, The Boys of Summer, Ball Four, and Seabiscuit, among a handful of others, of course—may be added a new book this spring. Like those others, Dan Barry's Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption and Baseball's Longest Game, due in April from HarperCollins, is not about greatness in the conventional sense; it is not about failure or success. It is about a minor league baseball game that wouldn't end—the longest professional ballgame ever played—and from it, Barry, a New York Times columnist, weaves a tale that novelist Colum McCann calls "an exquisite exercise in storytelling, democracy, and mythmaking that has, at its center, a great respect for the human symphony of voices that makes up America."
From a baseball book? You bet.
Barry's book has already garnered plenty of pre-publication praise. In addition to the fulsome McCann quote, Jane Leavy, herself the author of a couple of the rare great baseball biographies (Koufax; Mantle), called it "a loving and lyrical tribute to a time and a place when you stayed until the final out, until the job was done, until 4 a.m., on Easter morning, sleep be damned, in a downtrodden ballpark in a downtrodden town because that's what we did in America." And Gay Talese: "a pitch-perfect and seamless meditation on baseball and the human condition."
Indeed, Barry's book seems destined for the Hall of Fame of baseball books, telling the story of a game played, or rather, begun, on April 19, 1981, in Pawtucket, R.I., a minor league contest between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings (the AAA farm teams of the Red Sox and the Baltimore Orioles, respectively). An ordinary night game in front of a small crowd in a dilapidated ball park with dim lights that was once just a spot for the town highway department to dump its dirt, the game took on mythic proportion simply because no team could muster an advantage after nine innings of play—or 20, or 30. The game extended, improbably, crazily, by dint of a league commissioner who wouldn't answer his phone and an accidental deletion in that year's league rule book governing curfews, till Easter morning, well past 4 a.m., when the game was finally suspended, tied 2-2, after 32 innings. The game was resumed two months later, in front of a larger crowd drawn to the absolutely bizarre, and it took place in a Beckettian landscape of sorts, barren of major league baseball from coast to coast: major league players were on strike.
While working at the Providence Journal early in his career—after graduating with a degree in journalism from St. Bonaventure—Barry lived in Pawtucket, a small, economically troubled town just north of Providence, and "the longest game" was fresh legend, at least to the locals. In fact, Barry says, when he went to the ball park that still hosted minor league games, McCoy Stadium (nearly a character in the book), the beer was served in souvenir cups commemorating the great game, "ringed with zeros and five ones" (the game ended 3-2, Pawtucket).
"Then about two and a half years ago," says Barry, who moved to the Times in 1995, "I was in New England at a friend's house, and there was a kids' book about the game, a simple, illustrated book, on the table. I am sitting there looking at it, and it brought back those games I'd played in an over-30 league. We'd start at 7 at night and the game would last so long and we all had to work the next day, and I remember the dew beginning to rise and my feet getting cold and I'd look up at the sky with no one in the stands, just the darkness and you and baseball, and I began to wonder about those guys who played that endless game in Pawtucket back in '81. What happened to them? What happened to the guy who won the game?" Barry says, "I got curious. I saw no one had really written much about it—and I thought I'd write it, and I thought I'd slow it down."
Talk about slowing down. Barry points out that baseball is often praised by connoisseurs for being "off the clock," where a game, theoretically, can be played to infinity. No ties, no sudden death. "Isn't that charming, people think," he says. "But what about the players?" A kind of They Shoot Horses Don't They marathon unfolded in Pawtucket, with the entire rationale for the game being questioned. Barry writes, apropos of about inning 23:
"Here's another question: Is this even baseball anymore? Maybe it has morphed into some kind of extravagant performance art, in which the failure to reach climax is the point; in which the repetition of scoreless innings signals the meaninglessness of existence."
The fate of a few of the players in that minor league game have come to be known—Cal Ripken played third for the Red Wings, Wade Boggs was at third for the PawSox, both now Hall of Famers. Bobby Ojeda, Marty Barrett, and Rich Gedman went on to distinguished careers at the major league level. But Barry tells the many other stories as well, with relish and poetry. Luis Aponte, the pitcher, who was sent home by manager Joe Morgan, well past midnight, to sleep in case he was needed the next day, being locked out by his wife, who suspected not a ball game past the 20th inning but a husband prowling the Pawtucket bars; or Bobby Bonner, who had a career-killing error during a brief stint at the major league level that turned Orioles manager Earl Weaver against him and ruined his chances but helped turn him to Christian missionary work in Africa; or Dave Koza, the superman, four-sport star from Torrington, Wyo., who actually won the game with a blessed single in the bottom of the 33rd inning, but who never made the majors, lost his long-suffering wife to divorce, developed a serious drinking problem, and then found sobriety.
Toward the end of the book, and the end of the game—the two become one in the freaky metaphysics of Barry's masterpiece—it becomes apparent that the hero of this story is Koza, and it was a wonderful surprise to Barry. "I knew he'd won the game, and I knew from every fifth-year anniversary piece I read in the local press that Koza never ever made the bigs and now drove a Yellow Freight truck." But then the journalist in Barry began to dig, and he found a deeper personal story—how exactly Koza's marriage had broken up, how his penchant for booze began. "He was very candid, humble, not proud of his marital problems or alcoholism. Rather, he was at peace with his journey and reaching recovery. It helped me find what heroism is. To me, it is Dave Koza—not because he hit a soft single in the bottom of the 33rd to win the longest game ever played, but because he struggled with an addiction and has been 15 years sober." Koza's redemptive story seems particularly fitting for a game that went on into small hours of Easter morning.
The pure statistics of the game are stunning—no, numbing—enough: 33 innings, 8:25 game time, 219 at-bats, 60 strikeouts. But it is the human stories that spring from the box score and the little community of witnesses, spouses, batboys, and team executives, all lovingly detailed by Barry, that burnishes this book with a classic glow, 30 years later.components/article_pagination.html not found (No such file or directory)