What’s your favorite thing about baseball? It could be the 7th inning stretch, the grand slams, the no-hitters, the perfect games, the triple crowns, the golden sombreros, the suicide squeezes. Or it could be the bounty of statistics to pour over, debate, and revel in. It’s America’s favorite pastime after all, and with such a title comes endless possibilities for joy.
In Dan Barry’s Bottom of the 33rd, the indefinite quality of a baseball game, and of baseball careers, is framed by the longest baseball game ever played in professional American baseball history. A game played in a cold Northeastern April, tucked into the corner of the lower 48 in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, home and still home of the Boston Red Sox’s closest sibling, the Pawtucket Red Sox. A game between the Paw Sox and the Red Wings of Rochester, New York, the Triple-A farm team for the Baltimore Orioles.
Divided into six sections– prologue; innings 1-9; innings 10-21; innings 22-32; inning 33; and thirty years later– the narrative non-fiction story stokes the fire of baseball passion or ignites it for the very first time. The game was played the Saturday night before Easter in 1981, delayed initially by dormant flood lights; the PA announcers wished the small crowd a “Happy Easter from the Pawtucket Red Sox” before the game was in the 13th inning.
Barry, a national columnist and well-documented writer for the New York Times, weaves the histories and backstories of countless players, staff, front office guys, Pawtucket youth and any other person whose name is inseparable from the telling of this fascinating story. Though his sentences can be long, obtuse, and chalked full of awkward metaphors, he tells a powerful and captivating story.
He weaves, as the snippet on the back cover of the book explains, the stories of “the shivering fans; their wives at home; the umpires; the bat boys approaching manhood; the ejected manager, peering through a hole in the backstop; the sportswriters and broadcasters; and the players themselves.”
What’s most fascinating in Barry’s telling, is his ability to turn a Tuesday night bar trivia question into the frame for a story about people. Sure, the narrative is about baseball, but it’s driven by the people playing and surrounding the game. Fan of the game or otherwise, the story entertains with tall tales of childhood, sad endings to promising careers, and the angst that fills so many young men dreaming and battling to play in the Major Leagues.
Barry turns stats into stories, like a certain player who goes 0-for-11 on the game with seven strikeouts, but provides the sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 9th inning to tie the game, and send it into 24 extra innings. Barry reveals the tics of Hall of Famers like Cal Ripken, Jr. and Wade Boggs, both of whom played 3rd base in the longest baseball game ever. Barry gives the history of Mayor Thomas P. McCoy, the Mayor of Pawtucket who willed the construction of the ballpark.
Baseball is the only professional sport in the United States that isn’t hindered by a game clock (if you ignore the recent addition of the pitch clock between innings in the MLB). There are no ties. Teams will never end in a draw, not even in the double-overtime way NFL games can end in draws. One team is always a winner, one team is always a loser. But in the Bottom of the 33rd, both teams somehow manage to be a little bit of both.
If you can stomach expressions such as “with the echoes of childhoods that were and never will be,” Bottom of the 33rd is worth reading. Not only is it a story worth telling about the longest game in American baseball history, but it’s also a microcosm of baseball, of dedicated fans, and the hopes and dreams of so many young children who want to play professional sports or be a part of a winning team.
Who wins the game? That’s something I can’t spoil, even if the answer is a few key strokes away on Google. But when you finish the book, you’ll realize you don’t really care who wins. It’s not about the final score of the game. It’s about the odd, eclectic, and historical people who played a part in its making.
The Bottom of the 33rd. Wait, are you sure that isn’t a typo?