Monday, January 2, 2012

'Bottom of the 33rd' captures spirit of minor leagues

In the 30 years since Rochester's Red Wings and Pawtucket's Red Sox battled into the wee hours of a frigid Easter morning, the fascination with baseball's longest game hasn't waned. If anything, the marathon contest, which featured future Hall of Famers Cal Ripken and Wade Boggs, has ascended to legendary status, staking its claim among the sport's classic duels. What began as a routine Saturday night affair April 18, 1981, spilled into Sunday before eventually wrapping up two months later as a 3-2 Paw Sox win.

Pawtucket's McCoy Stadium was packed on June 23 for the game's almost anti-climactic conclusion, when the Red Sox needed only one inning to decide matters. The true witnesses to history, however, barely numbered in double digits. When the two weary clubs were mercifully shooed off the field at 4:09 Easter morning, just 19 fans remained in the grandstand.

Dan Barry wasn't among them. In fact, he was nowhere near Pawtucket for either the anonymous start or the spectacle of a conclusion, which drew media from as far away as England and Japan for a feel-good story in the early days of a strike that would shut down Major League Baseball for nearly two months. Which makes his gripping and lyrical retelling, Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game, all the more amazing, as he seems to have been everywhere all at once for the entire length of the game.

He's there in the visitor's bullpen, where Red Wings reliever Steve Luebber trades scuffed baseballs to youngsters in the early innings for wood to fuel the bonfire that warms a squadron of relievers. He's in the parking lot watching the stepson of the scoreboard operator drain the battery of a Ford Pinto as he falls blissfully asleep in the back seat long before the game is half over. He's under the stands, peering through a hole with Red Sox manager Joe Morgan for the last 10 innings after having been ejected for arguing a call in the top of the 22nd. And, of course, he's on the field, where he accounts for every plate appearance in the bedeviling affair.

The balls and strikes, base hits and fly balls are not what this story's about, however. Barry has gone both deeper and broader, rescuing the game's participants from a novelty of a box score, in which 219 at-bats were recorded. There's more to Rochester center fielder Dallas Williams than the 0-for-13 that followed him for the rest of his career. And as much as Jim Umbarger's 10 shutout innings of relief leap off the stat page, they reveal little about the man himself. Barry dug into every participant-on the field, in the front office, up in the press box, and down in the stands-to cull the true meaning of the sport.

He captures the spirit of minor league baseball in the days before the corporate ownership groups dotted the landscape with miniature versions of big league cathedrals. These were shoestring operations, run largely by fresh-faced kids just out of school. Or younger. The clubhouses in Pawtucket were managed by a pack of neighborhood youths, who pushed the team's uniforms to a coin-operated Laundromat each morning in stolen shopping carts in the late 1970s, before new owner Ben Mondor took over and installed on-premises washers and dryers.

While times have changed and minor league franchises are no longer run by the Little Rascals, today's generation of players can certainly relate to the mental grind their predecessors endured. Today's Triple-A rosters are populated with men just like Leubber, who in 1981 was fighting to return to the majors where he came within an out of a no-hitter for the Twins in 1976, and Dave Koza, the slugging first baseman who spent so long in Pawtucket he made it his long-time home after his career ended without a big league callup. For every Ripken there are a hundred more whose career will more closely resemble Bobby Bonner's brief big league stay.

Barry caught up with everyone he could find, crafting their recollections of that fateful night into a romance illustrating the game's often heart-breaking allure. It's not an entirely original concept. Within the past couple years alone works like Perfect, Lew Paper's retelling of Don Larson's World Series masterpiece, and Jim Kaplan's The Greatest Game Ever Pitched, about the legendary 16-inning Warren Spahn-Juan Marichal bout in 1963, have tried to apply a bigger-picture perspective to a single game. But where those books felt contrived at times, Bottom of the 33rd weaves the game seamlessly into the stories of the men who were there in 1981.

This International League classic is unlikely to ever be duplicated. The perfect storm that spawned it required a printing mishap, leaving the league's 12:50 a.m. curfew off the books; a hard-nosed, literalist interpretation of the rulebook by the head umpire; a league president who was so frequently hounded by inane phone calls that he didn't answer Pawtucket general manager Mike Tamburro's desperate plea for an end to the insanity; and a confounding wind knocking down a certain home-run blast off the bat of Sox outfielder Sam Bowen, which would have ended the game in the bottom of the 26th.

In today's world of cell phones and internet, even a rule book glitch wouldn't spin this far out of control. But a generation ago, it happened. Dan Barry has captured it-and so much more-in this essential book for minor league baseball lovers.

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