One thing baseball fans love about the game is that it runs by its own rhythms, with no time clock. In “Bottom of the 33rd,” Dan Barry has written a lovely book about the longest professional game ever -- a forgotten event in an obscure place that he has rendered unforgettable.
The game took place in 1981 between the Rochester Red Wings and the Pawtucket Red Sox. Minor-league ball is no pastoral idyll. Barry portrays its limits and frustrations, as well as its pleasures, with more verve and vividness than a score of writers who have preceded him.
“For all the childhood charms of baseball, for all the grassy frolics and the sandlot puffs of dust and the relief that comes from swinging a bat instead of a pick or sledge,” Barry writes, “bitter reality intrudes upon the baseball fields of the Triple-A.” That reality was even starker in a contest that lasted 8 hours and 25 minutes in a concrete shell in Rhode Island.
The evening was so cold that a Rochester pitcher offered balls to local kids who contributed wood for a bullpen bonfire. By the time dawn broke, there were 19 fans in the crowd.
You have almost certainly heard of two of the principals in this game, Wade Boggs (4 for 12 that night) and Cal Ripken (2 for 13), who went on to the Hall of Fame. But many of the other players who contributed to the 219 at-bats have gone to Cooperstown only if they included it on a family vacation.
They stuck with this game, and with the game of baseball itself, because of its mystical, spiritual pull, never clearer than on a night that was different from all other nights, beginning on the day between Good Friday and Easter in 1981.
Why stick with it? As Barry summarizes: “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.”
The spine of this book is a game hardly anyone watched and hardly anyone cared about. And yet Barry, a New York Times reporter, makes it matter, capturing the mix of hope and despair that animates minor-league ball, “an American opera whose cast included sons from the east and the west, the north and the far, far south; children of farmers and mill workers, bus drivers and truck drivers, firefighters and aerospace engineers, soldiers and toy-store owners and gospel singers, all trying to get someplace else.”
No one who reads this book will forget what happened that night. (Harper, $26.99.)
Now to books about two of baseball’s longest careers. “Knuckler” is the memoir of Tim Wakefield, who at age 44 is in his 17th season with the Red Sox. He has pitched more innings and started more games than anyone in franchise history.
Wakefield’s signature pitch is the knuckleball. Together with his co-author, Tony Massarotti, he gives the clearest explanation I’ve ever seen of why that pitch is so befuddling:
“When the knuckleball is thrown properly, air deflects off the laces and slides around the ball to the top, bottom, and sides.” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26.)
And then there’s “In the Time of Bobby Cox,” in which an ardent fan, Lang Whitaker, seeks to understand the great success of the former Atlanta Braves manager.
The answer: Cox had a combination of intelligence and patience, two characteristics rarely joined on the diamond.
“He always gives his players every chance to be successful,” Whitaker says. Good lesson off the field, too. (Scribner, $24.)
(David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the writer of this column: David M. Shribman at firstname.lastname@example.org.