There's something about an extra-inning baseball game -- a sense of limbo, a break from life, a respite, an in-between time that almost doesn't seem to count on the clock. Worries and aging suspended. Everything on hold. And, of course, hope and possibility are always present, with a guarantee of a hero at the end.
Bottom of the 33rd is about the longest game of professional baseball ever played, a thirty-three inning affair between the Triple-A Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings that began on a cold spring Rhode Island night on Saturday April 18, 1981, and continued on into Easter Sunday morning.
Though, once a certain inning is past, maybe you don't want it to end anymore. It becomes an endurance test then, a test of your faith, faith in the loyalty to your team, a test of your commitment. Do you give up now and go home to your warm bed? Maybe the winning run will score just as you reach your car, a roar of the crowd (whatever's left of it) rising from old McCoy Stadium, and you would have missed it, missed out on the chance to say you were there.
So you stay. You're invested in the game as much as the players by that point. In fact, you, the fan, have become one of the participants, along with the vendors and the owner and the announcers and the official scorer and the bat boy and the clubhouse attendant. Everyone is in it together.
Barry does this to the reader, he makes you part of the game. Thanks to the author's skill, you know the history of the stadium, the city of Pawtucket, the players who came before and made it to the Major Leagues, the players on the team now, those who were called up for a cup of coffee and those who are still waiting for the call. Maybe if they are the hero of this game, that will get them the recognition they'd been lacking.
So you stay. You see this thing to the end. Or, as Barry puts it: "There, in middle-aged and tired McCoy Stadium, powerful lights shine down on small clutches of people, two dozen, three dozen at most, huddled like straggling immigrants in the steerage of a ship, watching that white dot dance through the night."
Bottom of the 33rd is about much more than this one game, though. It shows how we got to this game, how Pawtucket Mayor McCoy pushed to get the stadium built back in the 40s, what brought the key players to their teams in this season, on this night. Barry populates his book with the interesting characters that were part of the historic night.
Wade Boggs, the young Pawtucket third baseman, whose wife and two year-old daughter were at the game; Cal Ripken, Jr. the young Rochester third baseman (yes, third baseman) who was on a fast track to the majors, the Pawtucket manager Joe Morgan, a minor league lifer, who still harbored dreams of that big league manager's job in Boston. And then there's Pawtucket's power-hitting first baseman Dave Koza, also waiting for that call up to the Boston Red Sox. He's not getting any younger. What are they waiting for? Maybe if he ends this game with a home run, it'll open some eyes up in Boston.
Bottom of the 33rd brings you into the minor league life of AAA ball. So close to the major leagues, just one level below, yet still so far away. The author wraps all the individual histories around this one game, gives the reader the bigger picture, the context and subplots that are bubbling under the surface of just the box score. And in a neat epilogue, Barry follows up the key players to the present day, thirty years after the game finally concluded (I won't spoil it for you here).
If you're a baseball fan, do yourself a favor and get this book, and be a part of the longest game in professional baseball history.
AHP Rating: 4 Balls
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Four Balls: An exceptional book that truly earns a walk straight to the local book store to get a copy.
Three Balls: This book stands out from its peers and is highly recommended.
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One Ball: This book has something to say but is nothing special.
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