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Friday, April 1, 2011

Bottom of the 33rd

Bottom of the 33rd- Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game by Dan Barry
Published by Harper Collins- ISBN 978-0-06-201448-1
Hardcover, $26.99

Major League Baseball just opened up another season, so the perfect book to read this week is Dan Barry's Bottom of the 33rd- Hope, Redemption, and Baseball's Longest Game.

The game took place on April 18, 1981, Holy Saturday, in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The Triple A League Pawtucket Red Sox hosted the Rochester Red Wings. The Sox had future superstar Wade Boggs on their team, the Red Wings had the incomparable Cal Ripken Jr. at third base.

But Barry wisely does not put those superstars at the center of his story. What makes this narrative interesting are the not-so-famous people. The Pawtucket owner, Ben Mondor, a wealthy businessman who grew up poor in Pawtucket and made it big, took the team at its lowest point and restored it to its former glory.

He prized loyalty above all, and when Budweiser refused to sell him beer because the former owners owed them money, he remembered that for a long time. Miller sold him beer, and even though Budweiser was the fan favorite, and Budweiser eventually begged him to buy their beer year after year, Mondor stuck with Miller because they were loyal to him.

Mondor put together a small but hardworking front office team, and they turned the bankrupt team into a success by "keeping prices low, making the stadium safe and family-friendly and emphasizing that the Pawtucket players on the field were the Boston Red Sox of tomorrow."

One of the most unforgettable characters is pitcher Win Remmerswaal. He is from the Netherlands, and "doesn't seem to accept basic social customs, such as adherence to the law or value of currency." His car license plate was a "piece of cardboard with a few meaningless numbers scribbled on it." At the end of one road trip, it was discovered that he was missing. He showed up several days later, explaining that he had never seen the nation's capital, so when they had a layover in Washington, he took a few days to sightsee. He is hilarious!

Triple A baseball is the last step before the major league team, so there is an interesting dynamic on those teams. There are the young players destined for future glory, like Boggs and Ripken. There are 'old guys'- the 25 and 26 year-olds- who have kicked around for awhile, and this is their last shot at making the big team. Some of them get called up to play in September on the parent club, only to be sent back to Triple A next spring to try again.

The agony of working to see your dream come true, knowing that there is a short time limit on it, is palpable in this book. First baseman Dave Koza has dragged his wife Ann from Florida to Pawtucket to Wyoming every year in pursuit of his dream. Ann finds some kind of factory work wherever they land, and she goes to every game. She is one of the 19 people who watched all 32 innings of the game, lasting until 4am on Easter morning when it was finally called. They are the heart of this marvelous book, and the end to their story is so moving.

The longest game, which is finally finished two months later in Pawtucket, is told in detail, alternating with the stories of the people who participated in it. I grew up in Auburn, NY, which has a Single A baseball team, and this book really resonated with me. I know my entire family will want to read it.

Barry gives the reader a close-up look at our national pasttime, and what that means for the cities where it is played. He tells the stories of the participants with honesty, humor, and heart. If you liked the movie, Bull Durham, this book is for you. It is a must-read for every baseball fan.

rating 5 of 5 stars

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