Baseball Books Reviewed: Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game

Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game by Dan Barry. (Harper, 255 pg., $26.99). HB, 2011.

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We are SPITBALL: The Literary Baseball Magazine, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that we are passionate about fine writing, especially about baseball. And while literature can be defined as broadly as one might wish, there is nothing that gets us as pumped up as finding an exquisitely written baseball book, regardless of the subject. Bottom of the 33rd is one of those special books, and Dan Barry is one of those special authors.

Not many fans know very much about professional baseball’s longest game, and only a tiny percentage will know the particulars, and nearly all would need extensive prompting before recognizing 1981’s Holy Saturday epic between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the visiting Rochester Red Wings. And despite the fact that future Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken, Jr. played all 33 innings, and several other former and future major leaguers also appeared, this was, quite frankly, a nothing game, a statistical anomaly, a barely discernable trivia question blip on the radar screen of baseball history.

So what elevates Bottom of the 33rd to instant classic status?

It’s all about the writing, the words on the page, and just as importantly, those that aren’t. Author Barry, a celebrated New York Times journalist, deftly avoids all but the barest minimum of play-by-play narrative that would’ve absolutely killed the pacing and message of the story. After all, there was nothing important about the score or the performances from a historical sense, and so it’s entirely appropriate that entire innings sometimes go by in quick italicized bursts of monotony: Strikeout. Strikeout. Walk, ground out. Fly out. Fly out. Strikeout. However, he expertly introduces and simultaneously captures the mindset of individual players at various moments throughout the 8:25 marathon. Because for them, AAA minor leaguers, EVERY pitch holds a vital, mystical, almost spiritual significance: ‘This could be the game that gets me noticed, gets me to The Show, or the one that finally exposes my great, nagging fear of inadequacy’.

And rather than succumbing to the lure of celebrity, Barry wisely spends very little time on the opposing third basemen, both of whom would amass over 3000 hits in the majors, and focuses instead on the lesser lights, most with far less known and far more poignant stories to tell.

The heroes are many and varied. The young batboy, refusing to leave his post; the father and son in the stands, honoring a long-ago pact to never leave a ballgame early again; the players’ wives; the owners and broadcasters and reporters and umpires and prospects and suspects and the decrepit old stadium, even the depressed Rhode Island city of Pawtucket itself. All get their due, recounted in lyrical, dulcet narrative.

Here’s an example, a musing before the top of the twenty-fourth:

“Here is another question: Is this even a baseball game anymore?

Maybe it has morphed into some kind of extravagant form of performance art, in which failure to reach climax is the point; in which the repetition of scoreless innings signals the meaninglessness of existence. Then again, maybe the performance is intended to convey the opposite message: That this is all a celebration of mystery, a divine reminder that the human condition is too complex and unpredictable, so enjoy this party while you can.”

There are dozens of passages of similar beauty slathered liberally throughout each chapter. This book was simply a joy, from first page to last, and Barry plays each note with clarity and purity of tone, a true master of his craft.

Of course, the never-ending game did eventually end, and the anti-climax of its suspended conclusion serves as the backdrop to the book’s affecting conclusion, to a story of dedication and hope, failure and redemption.

In the end, Bottom of the 33rd is a story about a ballgame, and yet it’s not. And that’s what continuously draws us to baseball literature, that thrill that comes from experiencing a unique glimpse into humanity through the summery prism of the sport of America’s innocence. When it’s done right, it’s magical.

Prepare to be enchanted.

Reviewed by: Mark W. Schraf (June 17, 2011)