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Books | Sports

April 2, 2012

And the Game Played On

A 33-inning minor-league baseball game from three decades ago captivated New York Times columnist Dan Barry's imagination.

Justin Adler

What baseball has forever lacked is what so many of its fans never miss: a ticking clock. Without it, every game contains the possibility of playing on infinitely.

Dan Barry. Photo by by Fred R. Conrad.
"I wanted to write a book that re-created the experience of the game—what it's like to play baseball in the middle of the night when nobody is watching."

Dan Barry. Photo by by Fred R. Conrad.

No other game has used—and perhaps abused—this element more so than the 33-inning minor-league meeting of the Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox in 1981.

In Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game, New York Times columnist Dan Barry recounts the historic game that stretched over eight hours from Holy Saturday to Easter Sunday morning, when game play was suspended at 4 a.m. (Two months later, the game was completed in an 18-minute-long anticlimatic coda that ended when Pawtucket's Dave Koza drove in the game-winning run.)

Barry dives deep into the lives of the game's has-beens, hopefuls, and two future Hall of Famers by the names of Ripken and Boggs. Barry also profiles other witnesses: courageous fans, stadium crew, and sports reporters. Many never will understand what compelled these people to brave April's bitter cold for a meaningless game. To those questions, Barry responds: "Because we are bound by duty. Because we aspire to greater things. Because we are loyal. Because, in our own secular way, we are celebrating communion, and resurrection, and possibility."

Gelf Magazine spoke with Barry by phone about how he turned a 30-year-old game into a captivating book, about his love for minor-league ball, and about whether he's ever committed the cardinal sin of leaving a game early. The following interview has been edited for clarity.

Gelf Magazine: What inspired you to write a book about "an early-season professional baseball game of no particular importance" that took place 30 years ago?

Dan Barry: Because no else would write it and I'm drawn to events that everyone else has commonly passed by. Also, I lived in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, from 1989 to 1993, and I loved it. I would go to McCoy Stadium—where the game occurred—and I'd get a beer that would have a ring of zeros around the lip of the cup to commemorate the longest game ever. That game was the biggest thing to ever happen to the team. I never thought much about it until a few years ago when I was at a friend's house in Rhode Island. He had a children's book about the longest game. I was looking at it when I had the epiphany of what it must have been like to have been an outfielder in that game. I myself played in an over-30 league where many of the games would last for hours, often past midnight, because the quality of play was so poor—my own play included. I had a flashback to those days as I read the children's book. I wanted to write a book that re-created the experience of the game—what it's like to play baseball in the middle of the night when nobody is watching. I also wanted to showcase the skills of minor-league ball players.

Gelf Magazine: Were you aware of the game when it first took place?

Dan Barry: I tried to remember where I was in April 1981 when the game took place. I believe I was digging ditches for a landscaping firm in Long Island. I had graduated from college and had been working jobs with no relation to my degree. I know that in April 1981 I was digging ditches for a landscaping firm in Long Island. I was a smartass who wanted to be the next Hunter S. Thompson, but there were no job listings for that position. So I dug ditches, worked in delicatessens and stock shows.

Gelf Magazine: You write "a never-ending Pawtucket Red Sox game might as well be sports writing hell." What for you was the most hellacious part of writing the book?

Dan Barry: Meeting the deadlines. I'm not sure if it would have mattered if the book came out on the 30th or 31st anniversary of the game, but I decided it would come out on the 30th anniversary. I hoped that would give it an incremental boost in marketing.
Another tough element was trying to gain some kind of suspense for a inconsequential game that was played 30 years ago.

Gelf Magazine: The book is as much, if not more, a human-interest piece as it is a story about baseball. Of the many characters involved, which ballplayer's personal tale was your favorite?

Dan Barry: Ultimately it's Dave Koza, the guy who never makes it to the major leagues after playing many years in Pawtucket and dedicating his life to the sport since he was 10 years old. There's all sorts of cruelties that are at play. If Koza had been with the Detroit Tigers farm league instead of the Red Sox, he might've been called up, but he just happened to be with the Red Sox, who were fully loaded at his position of first base. And then he struggled with alcohol, which ruined his marriage, all before finally finding redemption. To me, that transcends baseball.
There are other guys I love, such as the eccentric Win Remmerswaal, who is now in a nursing home in his native land of Holland. But Koza was the protagonist around which the story is told.

Gelf Magazine: While researching the players involved in the game and the individuals who were involved in the lives of those players, which subject led you on the wildest goose chase?

Dan Barry: Finding Drungo Hazewood was an interesting experience. He was once the No. 1 pick for the Orioles, and he was expected by everyone to be a massive star. He was a superlative athlete—fast as hell and he could hit a ball a mile. But he just couldn't hit a curveball.
He's often made fun of today due to the uniqueness of his name and because he never panned out. He slipped into anonymity and nobody really knew where he was. Somehow I found him while I was covering a story for the New York Times in Sacramento. I went up to his house, which appeared deserted. The door was answered by a large, burly man, in a shadow, where all I could see was the blue LED light from his Bluetooth earpiece. I didn't even know it was him at first. Yet he couldn't have been nicer. He was so incredibly nice.

Gelf Magazine: Was there anyone you couldn't track down that you wish you could've interviewed for the book?

Dan Barry: The two Hall of Famers were tough to get, but both ended up talking to me. Cal Ripken Jr. and Wade Boggs remember that game so vividly. It's interesting that despite their many monumental achievements, this was part of their baseball adolescence. They remember the game as if it happened yesterday.
There were a couple of guys I couldn't get a hold of, such as the starting pitcher for Pawtucket, Danny Parks. He was a very, very good ballplayer. He never played in the majors and he was bitter about it. I think he just put it all behind him.

Gelf Magazine: Culture-wise, how different is minor-league baseball today than it was 30 years ago?

Dan Barry: More and more, the ballplayers these days are like highly tuned pieces of machinery. They're taken care of very carefully. Much, much more attention is paid to trainers. Back then the trainer would give them beer, candy, and chewing tobacco. I don't think that happens much any more.
At the end of the day, the system is the same. You'll have a team with one or two Cal Ripkens and a lot of guys who are basically just filling up a position. The position-fillers might think they have a chance to make it, but odds are they never, ever will. Minor leagues have the added layers of tension, poignancy, and hurt, all of which makes it makes it more captivating.

Gelf Magazine: You talk about the moral duty that bound the players and fans to the field. What's your personal policy about leaving games early?

Dan Barry: You know what? I will never leave a baseball game until the last pitch. I really don't do it—unless I'm there with my child and she's having heat stroke or something to that effect.
Having said that, I'm not sure if I would have been able to stay 32 innings. That's one of the interesting aspects of the game. We always think it's wonderful that a baseball game could last forever, it's such a delightful prospect—except when we have to play it or watch it.

Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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Article by Justin Adler

Justin Adler is a graduate of the University of Arizona. He blogs here.

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