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Thirty years ago today: The baseball game that wouldn't end

April 18, 2011 |  5:25 pm


Jon Thurber, books editor of the L.A. Times, is an occasional contributor to Jacket Copy.

The weather in Pawtucket, R.I., today was scheduled to be 59 high and 45 low. Not exactly baseball weather, but it sounds a lot better than it was 30 years ago. On that bitter cold, windy April 18, Holy Saturday, the Pawtucket Red Sox were playing host to the Rochester Red Wings in a night game that would become, by the time it ended, the longest contest in baseball history.

In his book, "Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption and Baseball's Longest Game," Dan Barry captures all the magic, misery and folly of that fateful night that seemed to go on forever. In reviewing the book last month, I noted that his smart structuring of the material made it feel like Thornton Wilder's play "Our Town" set on a diamond. I caught up with Barry last week, by phone, as he was in Boston preparing to return to Pawtucket for an event marking the publication of his book and the anniversary of the game itself.

A national correspondent for the New York Times, Barry grew up in Queens and played outfield and first base in high school. He said he grew up rooting for the underdog including the then-woeful local team, the New York Yankees.

Yes, that's right, the Yankees were very bad during the mid- and late 1960s. When they got good again, Barry switched his allegiance to the Mets. He moved on to the Red Sox when the Mets started to win. And he went looking again when the Red Sox developed.

"I root for Rust Belt city teams," he explained. "I root for Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Minnesota." 

After graduating from St. Bonaventure and NYU with journalism degrees, he went to work for a paper in Providence and lived in nearby Pawtucket not far from McCoy Stadium, the site of the 33-inning masterpiece. Far from trying to exorcise the monument to historic futility, the ownership of the Pawtucket team celebrated the game each year.

"They handed out souvenir cups when you went to the stadium with a ring of zeros around the lip," Barry recalled.

But it wasn't until Barry saw a children's book on the game at a friend's house that the idea of writing about it came into focus.

"I had an epiphany about what the book could be," he said.

What that epiphany was ... is after the jump.

That epiphany was aided by some life experience of his own. Living in New England, he joined an over-30 baseball league. The level of play, as one might imagine, wasn't very good.

"The games were interminable," Barry said. "I'd be in center field at midnight as the game went on and on. There was nobody in the stands, and we had to go to work the next day. I'd look up at the sky and had a feeling of being one with the cosmos and very small."

Barry took the elements of time, night and even rickety McCoy Stadium and developed them as characters in his book. He said he thought about the book as a play with the characters having their own opportunity for soliloquies.

Barry said he spent a year hunting down and interviewing players, fans, and officials who were in any way connected to the game. All of this was before he got a book contract. "The actual writing didn't take long," he said.

Why not? Well, the material was very rich. Barry said his best help came from the late Ben Mondor, who was then the owner of the Pawtucket Red Sox.

"I walked into his office, and it was as though he had been waiting nearly 30 years for someone who understood the meaning of the game to come through the door."

-- Jon Thurber

Photo: McCoy Stadium. Credit: HarperCollins