Roughly speaking, books about baseball tend to fall into a few broad categories. The analytics crowd tends to go for titles that are heavy on snark and numbers in equal measures, the clear descendants of their online sources. Other books follow in the footsteps of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four and focus on the wild’n’crazy stuff that goes on in baseball. From Mike Shropshire’s epically foul Seasons in Hell to Dirk Hayhurst’s hilariously confessional The Bullpen Gospels (the lost bus sequence alone is worth the price of admission), these focus as much on off-the-field behavior and shenanigans as they do ont he game itself.
And then there’s the Very Serious Baseball Book, usually overflowing with elegiac prose and efforts to link some aspect of the game to some larger element of American society at a stately, unhurried pace. Jane Leavy’s superb biography of Sandy Koufax fits nicely here, with its careful sepia-toned detail about Koufax’s life and career juxtaposed against what Koufax meant to Jews in baseball and, more broadly, Jews in American. Society. When done well, these genuinely moving and enlightening. When done poorly, they come across like self-important Ken Burns pastiche, and more authors than not can’t walk the fine line between recognizing baseball’s nostalgia and measured pace and slipping into self-important navel-gazing as they ride their particular hobby horses slowly into the sunset.
Which brings us to Bottom of the 33rd, as scribed by Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Dan Barry. The book is his ode to the longest baseball game ever played in an organized league, a 33 inning behemoth staged between the AAA Rochester Red Wings and Pawtucket PawSox in 1981. Playing third base for the Red Wings that day was a guy everyone agreed was too big to play shortstop: Cal Ripken Jr. His opposite number for the PawSox was Wade Boggs. Mixed in with these two all-time greats were a few quality players (Bruce Hurst, Bobby Ojeda, Rich Gedman), some journeymen and cup-of-coffee types, and of course the guys who never made it at all. Mix in the game’s setting – McCoy Field, smack dab in the middle of crumbling blue-collar Pawtucket, RI, and you have all the elements of a book that falls squarely into category number 3.
The book is impeccably researched. Barry has a positive knack for breathing life into even the quickest character sketches. Brief descriptions of some of the few fans who stuck it out to the bitter end feel fully fleshed out, from the one guy who roamed the stands picking up ticket stubs on the hunch they’d be important to the scoreboard operator trapped inside the ballpark while his car battery slowly went dead outside.
Where Barry’s work falls down, though, is in his too-measured tone. Everything in the book feels like it’s receiving equal reverence, while the sheer fun of baseball – the reason someone might want to play or, heaven forfend stick around and watch – a 33 inning game is conspicuously absent. It’s all deep and important and meaningful, with every at-bat linked to a moment fraught with consequence until it all feels the same. And when it all feels important and worthy of Barry’s stentorian prose, then the tonal sameness starts to creep in. Literarily speaking, it’s the equivalent of sitting through scoreless extra inning after scoreless extra inning.
Where the book redeems itself is at the end, where it focuses in on one player: Dan Koza, the career AAAA player who finally got the winning hit in the 33rd. Despite his heroics, Koza’s baseball career stalled out – he didn’t get the call to the bigs, and eventually he drifted out of baseball. The book follows his path, from guy trying for one last chance to guy trading in on his former fame to alcoholic to man looking for redemption for the sake of both his family and the game he loved, and the 33 inning game is always a part of that. Here, finally, the impact of that one marathon game is visible in a way it never is for any of the other folks cited in the story. The 33 inning game, in Barry’s narrative, is part of Koza’s path to closure, especially when identifying himself as the guy who got the game winner lets him sneak his kids into the Hall of Fame at Cooperstown ahead of the blocks-long line.
There are certainly pleasures to be had here for the die-hard baseball fan, particularly any one who finds it impossible to change the channel every time the MLB Network shows Ken Burns’ documentary. More casual baseball fans – or ones interested in a less elegiac approach to the game – might find themselves wishing for something that draws less on the reverence the game invokes than the tension it surely inspired.