"And what was minor league baseball,really,
but pleasant millwork conducted outdoors?"
Many books have been written about the minor leagues and the overall experience, but 'Bottom of the 33rd' tells a story through the eyes of one wild game.
In 1981, the Pawtuckett Red Sox and Rochester Red Wings (then an Orioles affiliate, now Twins) spent the morning before Easter Sunday, trying to win a ball game that wouldn't budge at 2-2.
The suspension of the game at 4 AM, twenty hours after it began, and the eventual winner, after it resumed a few months later, is not really the point of the story. And it's not what drives it. The lives of the players leading to that moment, and where they will go in the years after is. Some will enjoy legendary careers (Cal Ripken Jr.) others will have their hearts and families shattered by what will never be (Dave Koza).
As the story unfolds, as the game plays on, the grand hopes of all the players involved are described by author Dan Barry in emotional detail. You feel you're inside the minds of the players, a feat an author only as gifted as Barry could accomplish.
Koza, a talented first-baseman, is the soul of the thing. He tries and tries and tries, but all his attempts at success are thwarted. Whether that's fair or not, Barry doesn't dictate. He lets us make our own decision, by presenting a clear picture of the business of baseball.
While each play might have been boring in lesser hands, Barry also presents that information in a fluid way that keeps the play-by-play from seeming flat or repetitive.
The excitement builds beautifully, and the histories of all those involved is weaved in gracefully. Koza's Ann, his devoted wife, remains in the stands through the frigid night. What becomes of them as husband and wife in years to come is sad but, later, bittersweet.
Third baseman Wade Boggs, on a course to a Hall of Fame career along with third baseman/shortstop Ripken Jr., also figures prominently in the tale. While Ripken Jr. seemed destined for the greatness he went on to achieve with the Orioles, Boggs was actually considered, a "non-prospect" according the Major League Scouting Bureau. Boggs would eventually win a World Series with the Yankees.
The World Series that will play out five years later between the Mets and Red Sox is also threaded into the fabric of the narrative. Rich Gedman, who I later covered when he managed the Worcester Tornadoes, is behind the plate for Pawtucket and a kind of symbol of the working class player that the minor leaguer is. He hit a home run in Game 7 for the Red Sox, in which Bruce Hurst was the starting pitcher. Hurst also got the win in Game 1. Boggs of course made his mark in that series, including getting nine hits and three runs knocked in. Bob Ojeda got the win in Game 3.
But many of the players will watch their major league dreams fall further in the distance after that thirty-three inning historical contest. It is a well-known tale, but one we'd rather not think about. Dreams die. This book reminds us that, in baseball, dreams die young.
The book often feels like you're reading about a fictional town, a fictional game. This real-life story is written with Dickensian beauty, deep sensitivity and a respect for the working class both on the field and in the stands.