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Dan Barry writes of pro baseball’s longest game

Posted April 10, 2011, at 9:51 p.m.

BOTTOM OF THE 33RD: HOPE, REDEMPTION, AND BASEBALL’S LONGEST GAME by Dan Barry, Harper

As any disciple of baseball knows, the sport is much more than a game, much more than nine men tossing a ball on an emerald diamond. It is a connection to the divine, a celebration of hometown heroes, a ballad of loss and longing and love. Life encapsulated.

For the faithful, baseball is a receptacle of memories, dreams, history. And a trip to a ball game is a visit to the cathedral, a ritual brimming with sounds and sights and stories.

So, it follows that the longest game ever recorded in professional baseball would be rife with untold tales of triumph and tragedy, sorrow and struggle, comedy and competition. Untold, that is, until now.

In “Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game,” Dan Barry, the gifted New York Times national columnist, has crafted a meticulously reported, finely embroidered account of the infamous minor league face-off between the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings.

The game, which began on the cold Saturday evening of April 18, 1981, in the flailing textile town of Pawtucket, R.I., would straggle into the frigid dawn of Easter Sunday before being stopped in the 32nd inning. Two months and one inning later, on June 23, Pawtucket first baseman Dave Koza drove in the winning run to end the marathon match.

But Barry does more than simply recount the inning-by-inning-by-inning box score. He delves beneath the surface, like an archaeologist piecing together the shards and fragments of a forgotten society, to reconstruct a time and a night that have become part of baseball lore.

Every waft of the ball, every thwack of leather against ash, every inning swallowed by the night is somehow linked to every pitch, and swing, and long fly ball that came before, in every ball park in every small town and big city across America.

“How short, now, the longest game seems. How ephemeral. On a night and early morning set aside for prayer, reflection, and everlasting joy, a baseball game insisted on the suspension of ordinary time,” Barry writes. “It forced those watching the game to contemplate cosmic issues that transcend the successive crises of balls and strikes.”

In prose that echoes of Walt Whitman, Barry sings the carols of the jittery batboy in the dugout, the baseball wife tethered to her husband’s dreams of glory, the pitchers milling in the bullpen, the fans lashed by frigid winds in the bleachers, and the future hall-of-famers, never-heard-ofs and whatever-happened-tos on the playing field.

It is a teeming cast of characters as colorful and changeable as a kaleidoscope.

The clubhouse manager named Hood, a fixture in the stadium, who once wheeled the team’s dirty uniforms through the streets in shopping carts. The team owner, a poor kid from Woonsocket who hustled his way to riches and raised McCoy Stadium from the depths of disrepair. A father and son who ride out eight cold and dark hours in the stands, holding fast to a pledge never to leave a game “until the last out is recorded.”

Then, there are the players. Some who went on to become baseball royalty: Wade Boggs, Cal Ripken Jr., Bobby Ojeda. Some who faded into obscurity: Drungo Hazewood, Danny Parks and Koza, who never made it to the majors.

Barry’s storytelling, like America’s national pastime itself, ambles along in a slow, steady cadence that builds and unravels with no thought of a clock. In other words, it is designed to be savored, not sped through.

But, in the end, like that game played on a long-ago Easter Sunday weekend, the time spent on the Pawtucket field will be worth it.

Because, as Barry says, “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.”

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