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.
Sports Books Spring/Summer
Sixteen books from the coming season that by turns instruct, caution, champion, and honor sports figures and the culture of sport.
Blue river press
Dr. Jack on Winning Basketball by Dr. Jack Ramsay and Neal Vahle. $22 ISBN 978-1-935628-01-9; Mar.
Blue River Press, part of the Cardinal Publishing Group in Indianapolis, presents the wisdom of the widely revered Ramsey, who coached successfully at St. Joseph's College in Philadelphia before becoming general manager and then head coach of the NBA Philadelphia 76ers. The Sixers won the NBA title during his first year; later, Ramsey coached the Portland Trail Blazers and they won the championship in his first year, behind Bill Walton and Maurice Lucas. Ramsey can still be heard on ESPN, where he is a color commentator. Phil Jackson calls this book "the contemporary ‘now' masterpiece" on the methods of winning.
Teed Off: My Life as a Player's Wife on the PGA Tour by Sherrie Daly. $25 ISBN 978-1-4516-1012-3; Apr.
Not all fun and games. Sherrie Daly is the fourth ex-wife of PGA-tour super bad boy and public alcoholic John Daly, and she hung in there for nine years. She dishes it all about the booze, cash, ladies, and other highlights of the golf tour when in the Daly entourage. There are entertaining "cat fights" as well as troubling scenes of domestic violence.
Diamond Dishes: Favorite Recipes from Baseball's Biggest Stars by Julie Loria. $24.95 ISBN 978-0-7627-6962-9; Apr.
Loria, who is the wife of Florida Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria, compiles stories of life and favorite foods from 20 top players, including Derek Jeter, Ryan Howard, Albert Pujols, and Roy Halliday. What are those guys eating? Includes more than 100 color photos.
Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton by Jeff Pearlman. $28 ISBN 978-1-592-40653-1; Sept.
Jeff Pearlman, who has written books about the Dallas Cowboys, Roger Clemens, and Barry Bonds, turns his attention to an account of the great Bears running back Payton, known for his gentle manner and beautifully smooth open-field style. The book covers Payton's childhood in Mississippi (where he integrated his high school), his college years at Jackson State, and his 12-year NFL career, which included a Super Bowl championship in 1985. Sadly, Payton died, age 45, after a tragic battle with liver disease.
High Strung: Björn Borg, John McEnroe, and the Untold Story of Tennis's Fiercest Rivalry by Stephen Tignor. $25.99 ISBN 978-0-06-200984-5; May
The golden age of tennis came crashing down suddenly at the 1981 U.S. Open. Björn Borg, the stoical Swede who had become the richest and most famous player in the sport's history, had just lost to his brash young rival, John McEnroe, in the final at Flushing Meadows. After his last shot floated out, Borg walked to the net, shook McEnroe's hand in silence, and disappeared from the game he had dominated for the previous decade. Tennis magazine executive editor Tignor details the decade of tennis, 1971–1981, dominated by the enigmatic Borg and a cast of colorful characters, including Illie Nastase, Jimmy Connors, and Vitas Gerulaitis.
Catching Heat: The Jim Leyritz Story by Jim Leyritz with Douglas Lyons and Jeffrey Lyons. $24.95 ISBN 978-0-7573-1566-4; June
Former Yankees catcher Jim Leyritz's life story—from New York City folk hero status to a vehicular manslaughter charge and beyond. Last November, a remorseful Leyritz was acquitted of the manslaughter charge, one more step in rehabilitating his life. Although with a career highlighted by a famous three-run home run he hit in game four of the 1996 World Series, Leyritz had also admitted to amphetamine use while a player and was accused of battery. Leyritz is assisted in telling his story by the brothers Lyon—Douglas, a New York City attorney, and Jeffrey, a well-known film critic.
Rafa: My Story by Rafael Nadal and John Carlin. $27.99 ISBN 978-1-4013-2451-3; Aug.
The Spaniard Rafael Nadal is arguably the greatest tennis player today. Widely known for his discipline, respect for the game and competitors, and his kindness, Nadal is also an electrifying athlete with an international fan base, including five million Facebook followers. Assisted by Carlin, a bilingual British journalist who lives in Spain, Rafa covers the highs such as winning the Wimbledon 2008 final against the renowned Federer in what John McEnroe called "the greatest game of tennis ever played." His injuries and recoveries are also detailed. 100,000-copy announced first printing.
Those Guys Have All the Fun: Inside the World of ESPN by James Andrew Miller and Tom Shales. $27.99 ISBN 978-0-316-04300-7; May
ESPN began as a gamble with a lineup that included Australian Rules football, rodeo, and a little show called Sports Center. Today the empire stretches far beyond television, and its personalities, Chris Berman, Robin Roberts, Keith Olbermann, Bill and Tony Kornheiser among them—have themselves played at a high level, with exciting confrontations, triumphs, and failures. Here's a highlight reel featuring the guys and gals behind the desk.
Library of America
At the Fights: American Writers on Boxing, edited by George Kimball and John Schulian. $35 ISBN 978-1-59853-092-6; Mar.
Great writing about the fight game, when heavyweight writers weighed in on "the sweet science" with regularity: not only Jack London and A. J. Liebling, but Richard Wright on Joe Louis's victory over Max Schmeling, Jimmy Cannon on Archie Moore; James Baldwin on Floyd Patterson, Norman Mailer on the "Rumble in the Jungle," and Pete Hamill on legendary trainer Cus D'Amato.
Let's Get It On: The Making of MMA and Its Ultimate Referee by John McCarthy and Loretta Hunt; foreword by Bas Rutten. $27.95 ISBN 978-1-60542-141-4; Sept.
Mixed Martial Arts referee "Big" John McCarthy's trademarked call—"let's get it on!"— has signaled the start of some of the greatest battles in the violent and wildly popular sport. Now, along with journalist Loretta Hunt, McCarthy shares his inside-the-cage account of MMA's roller-coaster journey from unruly beginnings to mainstream attraction. McCarthy's own story is interesting: his 22-year career as a Los Angeles police officer, where he trained recruits in arrest and control procedures, followed by 15 years as the MMA's premier official during its rise to prominence.
Complete Guide to Cheerleading: All the Tips, Tricks, and Inspiration by Christine Farina and Courtney A. Clark; photos by Bruce Curtis. $24.99 ISBN978-0-7603-3849-0; July
If you don't think cheerleading is a sport, try it. Complete Guide to Cheerleading provides all the information, tips, and instruction required to become a winning cheerleader, and guides aspiring and experienced cheerleaders alike through the rigors of training and competition. Includes an instructional DVD.
Stan Musial: An American Life by George Vecsey. $26 ISBN 978-0-345-51706-7; May
Although PW, in its review, found New York Times sportswriter Vecsey's biography of the great Musial "dull," it was in a sense owing to the quiet, humble brilliance of the player himself, who is fourth on the all-time hits list, retiring with a lifetime B.A. of .331. Musial's racial tolerance as baseball integrated, his self-effacing manner, his happy marriage, and cordial relations with umpires made him a fan favorite, even on the road. Vecsey's book is an appreciation of unflamboyant brilliance.
St. Martin's/Thomas Dunne Books
Affirmed: The Last Triple Crown Winner by Lou Sahadi. $24.99 ISBN 978-0-312-62808-6; Mar.
It has been 33 years since the last Triple Crown–winning thoroughbred, and every May and June the public waits for another that never comes in. Sahadi recreates, with the help of Affirmed's jockey, Steve Cauthen, the great Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont wins in 1978—which Affirmed won by a total of only two lengths over the great Alydar. Sahadi draws on interviews with Cauthen as well as the family of Affirmed's owner Louis Wolfson, to tell the story of this courageous horse with great speed and heart.
Run Like a Girl: How Strong Women Make Happy Lives by Mina Samuels. $16.95 trade paper ISBN 978-1-58005-345-7; Mar.
Seal Press, a publisher of books by and for women, presents this "part locker-room confidential, part motivational manifesto" that is also a memoir about Samuels's own transformation from attorney to sports advocate. Her message: women who approach life from an athlete's perspective are better equipped to find balance and harmony and are more courageous in the face of challenges than those who do not.
How Fantasy Sports Explains the World: What Pujols and Peyton Can Teach Us About Wookiees and Wall Street by A.J Mass. $24.95 ISBN 978-1-61608-295-6; Aug.
According to the publisher, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World is not a book about how to win your fantasy sports league. Instead, it is a collection of conversation starters and hypothetical scenarios that get right to the core of what makes fantasy games so compelling in the high-speed information age: how to process and make use of the bottomless pile of data presented to us on a daily basis." The author knows fantasy: he's a former "Mr. Met."
The Big Fight: My Life In and Out of the Ring by Sugar Ray Leonard with Michael Arkush. $26.95 ISBN 978-0-670-02272-4; June
Sugar Ray has traveled a long way from an impoverished Washington, D.C., childhood to early and closely managed celebrity and success, both in the ring and out. While consistently proving his mettle against some favored or sometimes more popular fighters, Leonard also struggled with various addictions, depression, and anger. With veteran sportswriter Arkush, who has written on Ali-Frazier and basketball guru Phil Jackson, Leonard tell his own story, and also offers an unflinching look at the corrupt business of prize-fighting.