April 2011

Colleen Mondor

nonfiction

Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game by Dan Barry

My first professional sale was to the literary baseball quarterly Elysian Fields. In 2007, I wrote about a foul ball my father caught a few inches from my face during a Double-A Cocoa Astros game. It was the sort of essay I could never have written when my father was alive, not because it was negative, but because it showed him to be frail. Even though he could move at superhero speed to my 10-year-old self, he was also a divorced dad taking his kids to a minor league game in the middle of nowhere, trying to make everything better. That night was just one more reason baseball is more than a game to me. In that regard I have a lot in common with author Dan Barry, who has certainly discovered much more than the national pastime in his new book, Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game.

Barry, a New York Times columnist immersed himself in the life and history of Pawtucket, Rhode Island, while researching this reflection on baseball’s longest game. Because of a one-time fluke in the rule book (the paragraph explaining how a tied game was to be called in extra innings was mysteriously missing that year), a Triple-A game between the Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings continued for hours and hours on the night of April 18, 1981. Eventually suspended at 32 innings, only after the president of the International League returned a middle-of-the-night phone call from his Ohio home, the game did not officially end until June 23, when the two teams met again and Paw Sox first baseman Dave Koza scored an RBI in what was the game's 33rd inning. For both teams, it was one for the history books but as Barry explains, for the PawSox it was especially sweet.

Baseball and small-town America have been linked together forever in a wave of nostalgia. Barry is in familiar territory here, and yet his careful reportage of Pawtucket’s past, of the dreams of a dying mill town where blue collar is not a political affectation, but steeped in generations of hard work, elevates Bottom of the 33rd beyond sentiment to a valuable social and cultural history. This is hardworking New England with all its ethnic mixes, religious dedications, and broken industrial dreams. For Pawtucket, local baseball was never just a sport but something for the community to rally around. From the epic effort to build the stadium over the site of a former sinkhole (then pond), to losing games, losing money, and coming perilously close to losing the team, the PawSox have always been closely linked to Rhode Island’s standing. As much as Barry writes about the two teams and their players (who included Wade Boggs and a very young Cal Ripken, Jr.), he also considers the long path the PawSox took to arrive at a place where they could even field a team. That story includes the teenage clubhouse manager who went on to be a deputy police chief, the bat boy up far past his bedtime who now works as video coordinator for the Boston Red Sox, and most significantly, Ben Mondor, the team’s owner, a “poor boy from Woonsocket” who bought the bankrupt mess in 1977 with no idea if Pawtucket baseball could be saved. Ben Mondor was my great-uncle. That's why this isn't really a book review, but rather the story of how I tried to write a book review.

There is something almost surreal about turning a page and coming across an account of how your family left Canada and moved to New England; about how your great-grandfather struggled to find work, and how your uncle received charity to attend private Catholic high school (the same school my father later attended). None of this is the main point of Barry’s story; it’s just background information on a character, part of the framework he uses. He also writes about the Red Wings outfielder given a unique first name by an older sibling or the umpire’s panicked wife, who phoned hospitals concerned her husband was overdue that night because of an accident. There are dozens of small stories in Bottom of the 33rd about players and wives, the men in the freezing cold press box, the almost two dozen fans who stayed to the bitter end of the game, and even the daughter of Wade Boggs, who went to sleep under my uncle’s desk. Barry weaves them through the narrative, making them the vivid point of why we love this game. As a writer, I can appreciate his skill in making someone like Koza, whose career peeked with the game winning hit, more memorable than Boggs, who went on to the Hall of Fame. But I also can’t ignore the emotional impact of seeing my uncle’s name on so many pages and hearing his voice captured so well.

I wanted to talk to him as I was reading this book. But he passed away last fall, at the age of 85. I wanted to call my grandfather, who stayed in Woonsocket, but we laid him to rest the year before, with the tickets for the final games of that season carefully placed in his breast pocket. More than anyone, though, I wanted to call my father and share my delight that the longest game was finally getting its literary due, but he's been gone more than a decade. He would have loved reading Bottom of the 33rd, because Barry sees past the game to the people within it which was always my father’s favorite part of any sports story.

In A Great and Glorious Game, former Commissioner of Major League Baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti wrote, “It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone.” The longest game is an exciting story, but because it is baseball, it can’t hide from its own share of sorrow. We have to learn to live with what baseball gives us, and what it takes away. In Pawtucket, without Ben Mondor, the new season starts on April 7. As always, I will be along for the ride, looking forward to summer and the days when baseball seems to live forever.

Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game by Dan Barry
Harper
ISBN: 006201448X
272 Pages