Bottom of the 33rd

book cover In the song Take Me Out to the Ballgame there is a particular line that comes into play here. Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack. I don’t care if I never get back.

That sentiment was put to the test on April 18, 1981, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, when the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings played the longest game in professional baseball history. Given that the song is generally sung in the middle of the 7th inning, or after six and a half innings of play, the fans, had they been of a mind, could have sung the tune four more times before the game was finally concluded.

Dan Barry, a sports columnist for the New York Times, a guy who had lived in Pawtucket for four years, uses this singular game as a structure around which to build his depiction of minor league baseball, more particularly Triple-A level baseball, using the example here to stand in for the whole.

His approach is one that would give anyone with a generous dose of OCD a thrill. I did not keep track of the number of individuals who are mentioned and for whom Barry offers at least a little biographical info, but I expect it easily squirts past the defenders into triple digit territory. There is no index available for cheating and coming up with a credible number. Leave it that if a cat had wandered into the field during that game, Barry probably interviewed it, and I expect had he been able to identify the gulls that were in attendance, they would undoubtedly be pretty sick of him asking them about the game, and checking their eggs to find out if the unborn heard anything their feathered parental units might have mentioned about it. I do not mean this as a knock, but merely to offer a sense of Barry’s overall approach. It is reminiscent of an actual baseball field, a wide swath, covered in grass, only inches deep, but with particular parts that emerge, and form the more significant elements of his story, the mound, the bases. One or two deserve mention.

In one of the true rarities in baseball, the owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox sounds like he was a pretty decent guy. We learn about him lending a helping hand when the help really was for someone else and not just a roundabout way of helping himself. The best element was Barry’s look at Dave Koza, a career minor-leaguer who was known for his home runs, but whose major league career only had warning track power, a Crash Davis sort. Barry looks at Koza (really, someone must have nicknamed him “Lost”, but we never come across that here.) His story carries all the hope-and-dream elements that drive so many of these young men. Dave was the fellow who would get the game-winning hit in the bottom of the 33rd.

Barry gives us an illuminating look at the history of the stadium in which the game was played, tells us about the umpires, the ball boy, the intern, the security guard, the where-are-they-nows, the whole nine yards innings, or in this case thirty three. In a way it struck me as having something in common with rain delays, when hapless broadcasters (yes, he looks at those guys too) have to work extra hard to come up with material to cover the dead air between pitches. Barry certainly does work hard, and manages not only to fill in the blanks, I think he may have actually created some to give himself more time to fill.

If you are a baseball fan, this is a fun book. It is nice to know that Rich Gedman, Wade Boggs, Bruce Hurst, Cal Ripkin Jr,. Bobby Ojeda, and a few other eventual pros took part in the game, and that a game of such duration was ultimately made possible by a cut-and-paste failure in the updating of the league rule book. It is nice to learn of Bobby O’s role in sparking behavior that had once gotten a batboy ejected from a game. It is fun to hear that Mike Hargrove’s extended at-bat preparations earned him the moniker “The Human Rain Delay.” If you are not a baseball fan, Bottom of the 33rd offers a look at a piece of American culture that is as true today as it was over thirty years ago.

I can tell you from painful personal experience here in New York City that it is generally a bad idea to go to a ballgame in April. Hell, May and maybe even June, can feel like a wind-blown tundra in our stadiums. And farther north and east it must be even worse. It is no shock that only nineteen spectators made it through the entirety of the game. The book will take a lot less time to read than the game took to be played, and you will not be in danger of having bodily parts crystallize and drop off while you are completing it.

Bottom of the 33rd may not be a grand slam, but it is at least a hustle-triple. And it is definitely a good idea to Root, root, root for the home team.

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