It's 3:30 a.m. on a numbing Easter morning 30 years ago in the dying mill city of Pawtucket, R.I., and two minor-league baseball teams, the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings, are tied 2-2.
It's the 31st inning of what just became the longest game in baseball history and -- well, here's how New York Times writer Dan Barry describes the scene in his delicious new book, "Bottom of the 33rd":
"Most of them are too tired, too cold, and too hungry to contemplate the historic import of the night. They stamp their feet. They blow into their hands. They fold themselves on the narrow dugout benches and gather around fires that lick from a couple of 55-gallon drums, fires fed by broken Louisville Slugger bats, many of them imprinted with the names of the athletes freezing here tonight, the someday baseball famous and soon-to-be baseball forgotten."
Whether you're a baseball aficionado or a reader who just enjoys a good yarn, you'll love this book. And not just because future Hall of Famers Wade Boggs and Cal Ripken Jr. are playing third base, or former Twins pitcher Mike Smithson takes the mound in the 15th inning. (His brown Monte Carlo with a cream-colored landau roof, the one he bought with half his $12,000 bonus five years earlier, gives you a hint at the delightful details sprinkled through the book.)
You'll meet Rochester's gifted right fielder Drungo Hazewood, who ends up driving a Sara Lee bakery truck because he can't hit a curveball. Barry introduces readers to the batboy, the ornery sportswriter, the kid who prepares the post-game pasta, the wives, the owner, the ghosts of the past, the tireless radio broadcasters, the sleepy fans and the umpire, Denny Cregg, whose first night in his new home will have to wait until sometime after 4 a.m. because someone, somehow, dropped the paragraph from that year's rule book that called for 12:50 a.m. postponements. So on they played.
Barry effortlessly skips back and forth through time. Take the routine popup in the top of the fifth inning. Boggs and Pawtucket first baseman Dave Koza converge near the pitcher's mound.
"Tracking the plummeting white dot in the wind, their eyes are so locked on heaven, that neither sees the other coming. Two minor league unknowns, destined to collide."
Before they crash and the ball pops out of Boggs' glove and into Koza's "lobster claw of a first baseman's mitt," Barry walks us through each player's childhood. By the end of the book, we are reminded of the greatness of Boggs and Ripken. But the book's central character becomes Koza, the pride of Torrington, Wyo.
He wins the game -- two months later. After 32 innings, the game was mercifully delayed, and resumed in front of 6,000 people. But Koza never makes it to the big leagues. His heartbreaking tale of divorce, alcoholism and dashed dreams ends with a sobered-up family trip to Cooperstown, N.Y., where his bat and portrait hang in Baseball Hall of Fame's exhibit on the longest game.
In the bottom of the 21st inning of the marathon, the phone rings at old McCoy Stadium. It's batboy Billy Broadbent's mother.
"They can't still be playing," she asks. Yes, they can. And readers will relish every long, cold inning.
- Staff writer Curt Brown's nonfiction account of a 1905 Lake Superior storm that slammed Duluth, "So Terrible a Storm," will be released in paperback this spring.