I had picked up Dan Barry’s 2011 book Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game while on a recent trip to Politics and Prose bookstore (home, by the way, of one of the best baseball sections of any bookstore in the Washington area). I thought it looked like a fun read – a story about the longest game in baseball history. But what I found was much more – a little gem.
The game began at 8 p.m. after a 30 minute delay due to faulty lighting on April 18, 1981 – Holy Saturday – and was extended until 4 a.m. on Easter morning, April 19th, when the game was suspended after 32 innings and 8 hours with a 2-2 tie. Two months later, on June 23rd, the Rochester Red Wings and Pawtucket Red Sox resumed the game at the top of the 33rd. In 18 minutes it was all over, a 3-2 Pawtucket win.
One of my favorite titles is Tom Boswell’s How Life Imitates the World Series, and Dan Barry’s book is full of the intersections of baseball and life, told against the backdrop of the holiest day of the Christian calendar. There are two future Hall-of-Famers in the lineups – Pawtucket’s Wade Boggs and Rochester’s Cal Ripken, Jr. (known in those days as J.R.). But since this is Triple A minor league baseball, the intriguing stories are about the men who have devoted their lives to baseball and yet – except for the occasional “cup of coffee” stint in the big leagues – won’t make it to the next level.
The game would have never achieved notoriety if the rule book that umpire Daniel Cregg was using wasn’t missing the section on an automatic curfew after 12:50 a.m. – a slip up in the International League offices that year. This book is full of such “you won’t believe this” stories. Pawtucket pitcher Luis Aponte is permitted to head home after pitching three innings in relief, yet when he arrives his wife won’t let him in the door because she doesn’t believe his story as to why he was out until 3 a.m. Rochester outfielder Dallas Williams went 0 for 13 in the game – a “bad month.” Pawtucket’s Sam Bowen hit a ball so hard that it left the field…but the nasty wind blowing straight in blew it back into play and into the glove of the outfielder.
And because baseball is life, there is the bittersweet and sad to go along with the merely funny. The most touching story focuses on Red Sox first baseman Dave Koza and his new wife Ann, one of only 19 fans to stay to the end of the 8 hour marathon. Koza was a strong but inconsistent power hitter who happened to be in the Boston farm system when the team had an abundance of slugging first basemen. Koza got the winning hit in the longest game, a loopy single over Cal Ripken’s head, but he never made it to “the show.” After leaving baseball he struggled into alcoholism, and his devoted wife finally left with their three children. But in the touching final chapter, entitled “Thirty Years Later,” Koza and his former wife let Barry tell their story of hitting bottom, and then being rescued through the help of AA. Koza now visits with his wife and her husband and takes his children to Cooperstown, where he mentions to the officials that he played in the longest game and is immediately escorted to the exhibit of the game. Hope and redemption permeate the story from start to finish.
I try to stay to the end of baseball games, but don’t always succeed. After Bottom of the 33rd I might think again as I rise up to leave before that final out.
More to come…