"Bottom of the 33rd" – a tale of baseball, hope and redemption

Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry. 255 pages, $26.99, Harper Collins Publishers, New York, NY

by John Hanchette

This is a masterful non-fiction book about the game of baseball and its permeation of American society.

In particular, it describes a 33-inning marathon game in mid-April of 1981 (the longest professional or semi-professional contest in the history of our national sport) between the Pawtucket Red Sox, a Boston farm team, and the Rochester Red Wings, a Baltimore Orioles minor league club, both in the Triple-A International League.

The play-by-play description is interesting enough, but New York Times national columnist Dan Barry – one of the most skillful and talented writers currently on the national literary landscape – has made sure the recounting is much, much deeper than that. Barry has forged a hallmark of Americana. Sure, the subtitle describes the sports subject at hand right smack on the front cover: “Baseball’s Longest Game.” But the marketers were smart enough to throw two more words on the front that are indicative of our country’s strongest themes. “Hope” and “Redemption.” Those two graces are what this book is really about.

And as you read, entranced, you will learn about hard scrabble life in small, scrappy American mill towns, and about promising young athletes who come oh-so-close to snatching the archetypal American dream — only to fail in heartbreak because of some fluke of weather or injury or falling prey to unexpected personal circumstance or inattention to detail.

You will learn about persistence and patience paying off, or perhaps deserting you instead in your mid-thirties, leaving you bereft of promise or fruition, a borderline alcoholic, and essentially old and beaten before your time. You will learn how our “national pastime” is actually a way of life for many families – each day, all their lives. You will learn why diligent reporting and dogged attention to details connect the bones of pure literature. Barry is a world-class expert at digging out details, the secrets and sinews of his glorious prose.

Right off the bat (no pun intended) on the very first page of copy, Barry lets you know this will not be typical sportswriting.

Writing in description of Pawtucket: “It was here, then, that the muscular Blackstone River began turning the gears of the American Industrial Revolution, shifting life from farm to factory, from country to city, changing everything. Young children followed their parents into the time-hungry mills and came out old, searching for the decades that were theirs just a moment ago.”

Just so. This reviewer grew up in such a mill town (paper) along Northern New York’s rushing Black River. My boyhood friends and I spent long hours last summer at a high school reunion, trying to locate or even demarcate those lost decades that disappeared in the snap of a finger. We failed.

You will learn from this baseball book about the amazing optimism and drive of this country’s middle class, as expressed through sporting enterprise, and about the ways that pure, gifted storytelling can explain how watching a seemingly endless, unimportant minor league ballgame to its conclusion at 4 a.m. on an Easter Sunday morning three decades ago can actually become a religious exercise.

Famous author Gay Talese – never a man to pass up a clever pun – calls this book on the liner notes a “pitch-perfect and seamless meditation on baseball and the human condition.” Talese is right.

You will meet two promising young men on their way up – future Hall of Famers – who play on opposite sides in this historic game: Wade Boggs for Pawtucket and Cal Ripken Jr. for Rochester. Both will figure in the outcome of this game, Boggs in particular.

Ripken is thought in 1981 to be can’t-miss for the majors, but he is short-tempered and only 20 years old. Barry digs out that some of his whispering Rochester teammates suspect him of “dogging it” – of fabricating injury “to express his displeasure at having been cut from the big league camp” in spring training. They predict a lack of durability – another of the innocent rumors of youth that keep the gods of baseball laughing until breathless.

Cal Ripken Jr. did make the Baltimore Orioles club after his Rochester season, and starting about one year after the “longest game” contest, began playing daily for the Baltimore club – so consistently and durably that he only retired from the major leagues 18 years and 2,632 straight games later in the fall of 1998. He broke the immortal Lou Gehrig’s supposedly “unbreakable” consecutive games record by a mind-boggling 502 contests. Lack of durability, indeed. Slacker, indeed. The opening sentence, engraved in bronze on Ripken’s plaque in Cooperstown, states that he “Arrived at the ballpark every day with a burning desire to perform at his highest level.”

In Pawtucket, that Easter Sunday eve, visiting Rochester actually took the lead by one run in the top of the 21st inning, 2-1. In the bottom of that stanza, the dwindling crowd actually thought it might get to go home by two o’clock in the morning.

But Boggs – one of the quirkiest, most superstitious athletes ever to play the game — came up to bat in the bottom of the 21st with a man on second. In his major league life, Boggs became infamous for many things, including weird dugout rituals – in one of which he insisted on keeping his personal baseball bats from touching those of teammates, which he contended had become “infected” by the bad hitting habits of their owners and lack of production, and were obviously contagious. Who is to say? Well, teammates, that’s who. Many of them – in both minor and major leagues – thought Wade Boggs was truly nuts. But Boggs, too, had the last laugh.

Later, notes Barry, in his pro career the rather slow third baseman becomes a machine at the plate and collects more than 3,000 major-league hits, many of them clutch. He also starts in two World Series, becomes a hard-drinking TV celebrity, predates Tiger Woods for public philandering by a major sports figure – but along the way becomes known “as perhaps the purest hitter of his generation.”

Boggs, in his classic fashion, slices a 2-and-1 count to left for a double and the game-tying RBI. As he stands on second base, looking into a dugout that would normally be cheering wildly and throwing caps in the air, Boggs is “not quite sure what he sees.”

Do his teammates, asks Barry, “want to hug him for tying up the game? Or do they want to slug him for tying up the game – maybe pummel him with those bad-habit-infected bats of theirs?” They suspect that his clutch hit is likely to send this game far, far longer into the night. They are right.

As the game crawls on into the wee hours of Easter morning, worried wives and mothers of Pawtucket players and spectators and team officials inundate the Rhode Island State Police with phone calls of inquiry as to the whereabouts of their loved ones. Did something happen? They should have been home by now. Was there an accident? Did some statewide disaster occur? A few of the thoughtful husbands on the hometown Pawtucket team actually called their wives or girlfriends to explain. They were generally disbelieved. No one, was the common rejoinder, is crazy enough to play baseball until four o’clock in the morning.

And now this endless contest takes on an even weirder aspect, or perhaps one of common sense. As the Pawtucket Red Sox go meekly in the bottom of the 32nd inning, and a faint hint of sunrise “limns the eastern horizon,” as the author puts it, it is as if all involved finally come to their senses. To heck with the rule book and tradition. They surrender to the coming dawn. The game is suspended. The exhausted players and spectators go home. It is agreed the game will be resumed when the Rochester Red Wings return to Pawtucket in two months – on June 23, 1981. By then, the tied ballgame has become famous, the stuff of lore.

Many things have happened around the globe. The federal government allows cellphone makers part of the national radio spectrum. Scoffers consider them a fad. Pope John Paul II is wounded by a crazed Turkish gunman in St. Peter’s Square. Bob Marley dies. And more specific to this story, Major League Baseball goes on strike. This leaves many, many sportswriters in mid-season of 1981 with nothing to do but travel to Pawtucket, to write of this deadlocked game’s resumption. Carpenters expand the press box, and ancient McCoy Stadium itself.

Again, more of Barry’s incredible attention to detail: The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle’s baseball reporter Bob Minzesheimer (a close friend of this reviewer who is now with USA Today) begins his setup story this way: “Not since the time they had to shoot the drunken camel at the city zoo has there been this much excitement in Pawtucket.”

The story is true. The camel was named Kibubi, Barry reports, and though it is more likely the dromedary was in heat when it trampled the caretaker, the mayor of Pawtucket insisted for the inquiring press that it had ingested fermented apples. See what happens when it’s a slow news day?

Perhaps the most moving of Barry’s descriptions are of a Wyoming native who will now play the key role of game-ender. Dave Koza, respected by teammates, had a gorgeous, devoted wife, was big and hit with power, and half of New England and all of Wyoming thought he would soon be playing for the Boston Red Sox in Fenway Park. He never did. He was one of those numberless, fate-stricken minor league stand-bys — actually good enough to make the big leagues — who is always just next in line whey they call up September rookies to the expanded major league rosters. This resumed contest will be his high-water mark of memory in the annals of baseball.

He has dreamed for more than two months of ending this game with a hit. In the bottom of the 33rd inning, after a hit batsman, a seeing-eye single past an outstretched glove, the Rochester pitcher walks the bases full. Koza comes up, and remembers the advice he once received from the most talented hitter of all time – Red Sox immortal Ted Williams. He told the youngster in spring training “Drive the ball into the outfield. Drive the ball.”

Koza works the count to two balls and two strikes. Barry recounts that up in the radio booth, improbably, the broadcaster, of all things, seems fixated on the drunken camel: “It is true. They got a lot of national attention because the camel trampled the watchman and had to be shot….Animal lovers from all over the country sent nasty letters to the mayor of Pawtucket.”

Koza, trying to concentrate like never before and unaware a dead inebriated camel is hogging his limelight, fouls off two pitches in a row. The fateful, deciding pitch is delivered. Here’s how Barry writes it:

“A knee-buckler, spinning with the promise of evasion, heading directly for Koza. At this moment he is forced to confront his demon, the curveball, which, more than anything else, has kept him from playing in the major leagues. Undermining his years of hard work, making him look foolish, derailing his plants. He cannot escape it, the curve…He’s chasing a pitch just as he has chased a major-league career, hoping to make contact with the elusive.”

But, miraculously, “Koza’s waist snaps, his upper body follows, his powerful arms extend….He reaches out and, almost apologetically, connects.”

The ball “floats over the head of the helpless third baseman, Cal Ripken Jr., whose storied major-league career has yet to begin.” Pawtucket wins, 3-2. After 33 innings, notes the author, “this game is blessedly, mercifully, over.”

Koza gets many headlines, but no invite to Fenway Park, even though he finished the year with 18 home runs, and the next season the same. He does get on Good Morning America, where TV actor John Forsythe botches the interview. “But Dave Koza fell just short,” writes Barry. “He did not dominate. He lacked consistency.” This is a judgment rendered over and over again in professional baseball: Great minor league player, just missed the majors.

Koza married his dazzler girlfriend. He had a child. He turned 28. He began to warm the bench. The next season, the Red Sox organization declined to renew his contract. Koza, watching his teammates make the majors and prosper, one by one, stayed in Pawtucket. And, he began to drink.

“After all, he was Pawtucket’s own tragic hero,” writes Barry, “winner of the longest game in baseball history, and a guy who came within a bottle cap’s width of making it to the major leagues. He became the manager of the Mill River Tavern, “taking a drink or two toward the end of his day to unwind and think.” He found a loading dock job with the Yellow Freight System. He joined the Teamsters. He got promoted to driver. “He could guide a forty-five-foot truck through impossibly tight spaces, but he could not navigate everyday life without that liquid courage: vodka and beer, mostly,” writes Barry.

Koza’s father, who was in Alcoholics Anonymous, came east and tried to get his son to attend a meeting with him. Koza refused. He sat outside in his truck, in the winter cold, drinking vodka-laced coffee. His father died of a heart attack two months later. Koza’s beautiful wife left him. In the first month of 1995, Koza’s brother Rick told him he was a drunk. Hearing it from his own brother, he attended an A.A. meeting. Two old fans who had seen him play – a coffeemaker and a firefighter – took him under their wings and drove him to meetings in Providence. Koza fingered his father’s sobriety coin in his pocket on the drive. He hasn’t had a drink since.

In 2001, he took his three kids, by now teens, to Cooperstown. Welcoming officials gave them complimentary tickets. They had a new display on the second floor of the Baseball Hall of Fame – The Longest Game in Professional Baseball History.

The display included the Louisville Slugger that was used to drive in the game-winning single. Next to it “…a large portrait of the hero who swung it: Dave Koza, a former ballplayer, truck driver, recovering alcoholic – dad.”

Hope, and Redemption.

John Hanchette is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and an Associate Professor of Journalism and Mass Communication at St. Bonaventure University in upstate New York.

Categories: Arts/Literature, Sports

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4 replies »

  1. Looks like an excellent read – now i know what to hint to my wife for my birthday 🙂

  2. I read the book last summer. It was a brilliant read. I cannot believe that it has not been given greater acknowledgment in the “Best of the Year” book lists.