An conversation with New York Times columnist Dan Barry about his new book, which explores a 1981 33-inning minor league match-up
In Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game, New York Times columnist Dan Barry chronicles a pivotal moment in baseball history: McCoy Stadium, Pawtucket, Rhode Island, April 18th, 1981, when the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings played the longest game in professional baseball history. Told with reverence, wit, and grace, the story is a moving meditation on baseball, community, and the importance of dedication and dreams. Focusing on both the players who "made it" (including Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. who both played that night) and those who did not, Barry transforms a sports story into something that captures a singular moment in time and place. Pivoting from the history of Pawtucket's mills, to the dynamics of the game, to the 20 or so freezing fans who stayed in the stands until 4 am that Easter Sunday, he evokes baseball's essence. This is a story of people who see things through to the end because, "...we are bound by duty. Because we aspire to greater things. Because we are loyal. Because, in our own secular way, we are celebrating communion, and resurrection, and possibility."
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As a born and bred Rhode Islander, familiar with Longest Game lore, I can tell you that if you put two transplants from the state in a room together, there is a game we like to play. Where did you go to high school? Where is your grandmother from? By the time we get to the fourth or fifth question we've likely discovered that we went to the same confirmation party in 1993 and are possibly second cousins by marriage. While not a native Rhode Islander, Barry is certainly one in spirit, having spent many years living there and writing for the Providence Journal. When we met on a rainy Wednesday at the New York Times Building to discuss Bottom of the 33rd, we swapped stories of team loyalties, the history of the state, and of course, what drew Barry to write about the Pawtucket Red Sox in the first place.
What made you decide now, after 30 years, to write about this game?
I think it begged to be written in many ways. When I was living in Rhode Island I played baseball in an over-30 league on Tuesday nights at Cranston stadium. The quality of baseball in this league was decidedly bad. No one could field, no one could pitch, and the games would go on and on. I played center field and the grass would be getting wet with dew, and it's after midnight and we're only in the seventh inning, and we all had day jobs. I would be thinking, "This is crazy!" And you do have the sensation in baseball that it could last forever, even in this silly over-thirty league.
So I had an epiphany one night while I was waiting to meet a friend for a beer. I was looking through this children's book by Steven Krasner about the 33 inning game which is very charming, but very simple. I'm looking at this and waiting for my friend and my head exploded. I thought what would it have been like to be the centerfielder that night in the 30th inning that night? Does a baseball game even happen if no one is watching?
When you are watching a major league game, everyone there has "made it" in the sense that they have reached the highest level they can in their chosen endeavor. They are now officially in the Baseball Encyclopedia—no matter if they are up for one at bat, or pitching for a third of an inning. But at a minor league game, particularly in the triple A (the level right below the major leagues) there is an added layer of poignancy and certain tragedy because not everybody will get up there and everyone watching knows it. These guys are playing in Pawtucket, this struggling mill city, for four or five years, and some will never get the 40 miles north to Fenway to play in the major leagues.
So I looked to see if a book had been written and what I found was that usually every five years there is an anniversary story where the familiar war stories and familiar anecdotes are told. But I was interested in more than anecdotes. I was interested in the fact that it was Holy Saturday night and the game would go into Easter, the holiest day, and that it was freezing out. I wanted to know who the bat boy was, who was keeping score. I wanted to know, again, what it was like to be that centerfielder. I wanted to create a community out of this eight-hour moment. For me, it was an opportunity to give pause and think about the wonders and tragedies of not only a baseball game, but of all our endeavors. We all pursue redemption and validation of some kind. And here it is. In a crappy ball field in a Depression-era stadium.
You weave every aspect of the game, from the players on the field, to the wives at home, to the history of the mills in Rhode Island, to how Pawtucket came to be Pawtucket. That widens the scope of the book. What made you choose to do that?
My counter-intuitive thought was to take the longest game in baseball history and make it even longer. So I wondered, what if I bent time and freeze-famed, fast-forwarded, and rewound? The ball field is a kind of stage and when a player gets up to bat he has a whole story to tell. For instance, here's Sam Bowen. He comes from Coastal Georgia, and he was 15 when his mother killed herself in a bar, and his father died from drink not long after, and baseball was his salvation. And he really hit the ball, and he's had some trouble, and he's probably done in major league baseball. And then you can say—forward: what happened to Sam Bowen? And then you can go back and Sam Bowen is going to hit a fly ball and everyone thinks it's out and is going to end the game and suddenly there is another player on the field: nature, the elements, wind. And the wind stops the ball and the game goes on.