Baseball is unique among professional sports simply because infinity is built into the rules - not only teasing us with the remote possibility of endlessness but suspending time for those who play, and watch. At 30, some players evolve into veterans but never really get old and simply fade with their skills, perhaps losing a step to everything but our memory.
This is both the genius of the sport and the genius of Dan Barry's Bottom of the 33rd who places that timeless ideal against the reality of the game, narrating a morality play that unfolds in the hard-scrabble heart of post industrial New England, pitting the soul of American Exceptionalism against the inevitability of failure as seen through the eyes of minor league strivers who never defy the million to one odds of reaching the majors.
33rd is a story of Easter and dead-end economics told not in the cathedrals of the Bronx or Lansdowne Street, but in the dilapidated, depression-era confines of Rhode Island's McCoy Stadium where on April 18th 1981, professional baseball's longest game would be played in relative obscurity between the Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings.
Contrary to the myth-building of most sports journalism, 33rd is not Fisk willing his ball fair in 1975 or Steve Bartman's near-death at the hands of Wrigley's snake-bitten rabble in 2003 - this beautifully written book is really about the "never and almost weres" of the grand-old game, always working on the wrong side of talent and obscurity - Rochester's immensely strong (but ungifted) Drungo Hazewood exhausted and freezing alongside Pawtucket's underachieving high-school phenom Dave Koza. Rochester's cup-of-coffee major leaguer Steve Grilli fighting off the realization that he's done and perhaps the most poignant of Barry's profiles, the self-immolation of PawSox slugger Sam Bowen who innocently voids his own trade to the Tigers (and a guaranteed trip to the the majors) through some very ill-timed truth telling.
Yes, Cal Ripken Jr. and Wade Boggs were participants however, their Hall of Fame futures are not a central theme, except perhaps as a punctuation to the disappointment of men who know they will never have the faintest glimpse of a major league career. By the time Boggs took his triumphant gallop across Yankee Stadium on the back of a police horse in 1996, all of his Pawtucket teammates were either galloping around the country driving delivery trucks or selling insurance.
Barry's book is ultimately about the blue-collar underbelly of baseball - prospects that use prayer and force of will to motivate 25 y/o vehicles to get them to every minor-league outpost between Elmira and Tidewater. It is the small stories that make 33rd so compelling - there's Bob Drew, Rochester's current, soon to be fired General Manager working the purgatory of play-by-play radio as punishment from disgruntled ownership - similar stories abound and unfold with the brilliance of a film noir masterpiece.
And of course there's Pawtucket. In 1981 groaning through the early stages of Reaganomics but still holding on to a fierce provincial pride that is found nowhere but New England.
Pawtucket is a city built on the waning fortunes of the textile industry and through the years has been subjected to every form of Tammany Hall exploitation. In fact, the very existence of McCoy Stadium is colorfully reviewed as Depression-era Mayor McCoy believes that a field built in the middle of an unstable swamp, replete with quicksand is a brilliant jobs program until material and trucks essential to the job start disappearing in the muck.
Maybe I liked the book so much because it reminded me of the public spiritedness of former New Jersey Governor Brendan Byrne who in the mid 1970s built the Meadowlands Sports Complex in a swamp, forced through a state income tax to pay for it and then, in a touching grace note, named it after himself. The state may have been broke but who cares about solvency when you can take in The New Jersey Generals, Disney On Ice and KISS in a single weekend.
Even if you are not a sports fan, Barry's elegant prose are engrossing, telling a story that reverberates far beyond a Rhode Island baseball diamond. An absolute must read!
On a chilly Saturday evening in April 1981 1740 hearty souls gathered for a Triple-A baseball game in a run-down 1940's-era ballpark in the city of Pawtucket, RI. This night the game pitted the Rochester Red Wings, AAA affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles against the hometown Pawtucket Red Sox. Earlier in the week I had promised a couple of young teenagers in my neighborhood that I would take them to the game that night. I was hoping that the cold and wind would discourage them but … more