Dan Barry is not a sportswriter. He is a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist for the New York Times who has tackled subjects like Hurricane Katrina and the World Trade Center attacks.
But for the last two and a half years, he’s been working on a book about baseball. More specifically, a book about the longest game in baseball history played in Pawtucket 30 years ago. His soon-to-be-released book is titled, “Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game.”
“First of all, it’s a great story and I’m drawn to great stories,” Barry told me. “Secondly, I worked at the Providence Journal for several years and for four of those years, I lived in Pawtucket where I could hear the cheers of the fans at McCoy Stadium. So it’s a part of my DNA.
“A few years ago, I was at a friend’s house in Providence and he had a copy of Steve Krasner’s children’s book about the longest game that came out about 20 years ago. It’s a basic and charming book about the game, but it didn’t really get into the players and who they were and where they were going. It just dawned on me that this was an amazing story, and what drives the story is all of these men who took the field on that cold April night with almost nobody watching. They came from all over the country and all of them want to make it to the major leagues. Some will, but many won’t.”
25 of the 41 participants earned at least a brief stint in the big leagues and two players made it to the Hall of Fame: Wade Boggs for Pawtucket (4-for-12) and Cal Ripken Jr. for Rochester (2-for-13).
“We know those names so well now, but back in 1981, Boggs wasn’t really thought highly of by the Boston organization,” Barry said. “He was considered a punch-and-judy hitter when people thought that third base should be a power position. There were people that didn’t think he would go very far which seems funny now. Ripken was 20 years old and considered an up-and-comer in the Baltimore organization, but you never know in Triple-A. Ripken had a temper that he had to deal with and it flared that night, but as we all know, he certainly got his act together and became a legend. But I was more drawn to the others – the guys that were trying to get there and how there is honor in that too.”
One such player was Pawtucket’s Dave Koza who singled in Marty Barrett with the game-winning run in the bottom of the 33rd inning.
“Dave Koza still lives in Pawtucket and couldn’t have been more generous in remembering what it was like,” Barry said. “He was a power hitter and a very gifted first baseman, but when he was playing in the Red Sox organization, Boston had four first baseman so he faced a very tough challenge to get to the major leagues. Unfortunately, he never made it and he was very giving in telling me what that was like – how hard it is to become a major league baseball player. You have to be extremely gifted just to play at the Triple-A level and sometimes you’re just not good enough.
“I’ve thought about what does it mean to be a hero? Are you a hero because you drove in the winning run in the longest game in baseball history, or are you a hero because you work hard, you deal with some of your own demons, and you become the best father that you can be? I think that’s as heroic as any feat on the baseball field.”
In my first year as a PawSox broadcaster, the team celebrated the 25th anniversary of the longest game and I had the opportunity to interview many of the participants at the reunion. But in researching his book, Barry went beyond the players and coaches and even talked to many of the fans who stayed until the game was postponed after 32 innings at 4:07 in the morning.
“There were about 20 fans and I was lucky because the Pawtucket Red Sox back in 1981 recognized instantly that this was historic and collected the names of all of the people that were in the stands and I was able to track them down,” Barry said. “One of them was a 9-year-old boy named Danny Card who stayed until the bitter end that night freezing next to his father. It became a transformative moment in his childhood that he remembers to this day. His father has passed away but he has that moment that lasts forever, and he’s imparted his father’s love of the gave to his own son now.”
Nobody would have been more excited about the publication of Barry’s new book than legendary PawSox’ owner Ben Mondor who passed away last October.
“He was ecstatic about the book and it was as though he knew all along that this was a story worth sharing nationally,” Barry said. “Before he passed away, he was able to read much of the book in manuscript form, and I take great comfort in knowing that he knew what the story would be.
“The people of Pawtucket rallied around the team and McCoy once Ben Mondor took over the franchise in 1977 and showed that we could really turn this into something. Ben came in and said, ‘We can provide baseball games at a decent price for families.’ It sounds like such a simple marketing idea, but that’s what he did and it’s become a gem in the crown of Rhode Island.”
I get quite a bit of reading done during the summer on the PawSox’ late night bus trips. I don’t know about Oprah, but Dan Barry’s book is at the top of my must-read list.
“It comes out on April 12th,” Barry said. “You can order it on Amazon and it comes out in all sorts of stores. I have a reading in Concord, Massachusetts on Wednesday, April 13th, and there’s another reading at Books on the Square in Providence on the 14th. Then on April 17th, I’ll be at McCoy Stadium where it all took place to sign books if anyone wants a signed copy.”
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