The book: “Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption, and Baseball’s Longest Game”
The author: Dan Barry
The vital stats: HarperCollins, 272 pages, $26.99
The pitch: It started on this Holy Saturday 30 years ago — April 18, 1981, It continued until 3:30 a.m. on April 19, just hours before Easter sunrise. It didn’t finish until June 23, in the middle of major league baseball’s strike, when fans of the game wondered if anyone played this anymore just for the love of it.
It made history in many ways for the Pawtucket Red Sox and the Rochester Red Wings. And we’re more than pleased to go back there, reconstruct it, and relive it. We wish we could have done so sooner.
What New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Barry does here is create a book “of informed imagination,” as he calls it — try to figure out what those involved were thinking and feeling at the time, and establish the fact that, after a certain point, a whole baseball nation was dedicated to finishing it.
Barry’s writing, whether it’s from his imagination or not, holds it all together beautifully, doesn’t hold back at all on the language, and makes you feel as if you’re going through this mental roller coast just as everyone from the clubhouse boy to the official scorekeeper, the two newspaper guys covering it and the team’s GM-turned-broadcaster, to the two future Hall of Famers (Cal Ripken Jr. and Wade Boggs) would be part of it.
So was this a record, Barry asks, that is “less about achievement than it is about frustration?”
“Most of them are too tired, too cold and too hungry to contemplate the historic import of the night,” Barry writes. …
In many cases, it’s a game for non-major-league, Triple-A players who aren’t sure if they’re coming or going, getting another day to be paid or on their way to finding another career.
Rochester Red Wings players, including Jim Umbarger, third from left, line up before a game in 1981.
Jim Umbarger, in particular, had a lot riding on this one.
The Rochester left-hander out of Grant High in Van Nuys already had some big-league experience. A 25-33 record in four seasons with Texas and Oakland. Three years after his last major-league game, he’s in the Red Wings’ bullpen.
In the 23rd inning, six hours after the first pitch (delayed already from a 7:30 start to 8 p.m. because of a lighting problem), he comes in.
He pitches 10 scoreless innings, striking out nine, scattering four hits. He went head-to-head with Pawtucket’s future big-leaguer Bruce Hurst for the last five innings before the game was called at 4:09 a.m.
“At one point,” Barry writes on page 174, “Umbarger tells his third baseman, Cal Ripken, to watch for the bunt. Ripken, who does not take kindly to being told how to do his job by a pitcher, wearily replies he’s been watching for the bunt for 23 innings.”
Umbarger never gets back to the show, retiring at age 30, becoming a pro golf instructor now living in Phoenix.
Rochester catcher Dave Huppert, born in South Gate, a Buena Park High grad, caught 31 of the 33 innings — most of the ones Umbarger tossed. He would only get 15 games in the big leagues, during stints two and four years after this. He’d get only one hit (off Hall of Famer Phil Niekro). An .048 career average. Then 20-plus seasons as a minor-league manager. His last job: With the Lehigh Valley IronPigs.
John Hale, a former Dodgers’ potential phenom, now 27 and on the way down after what Barry calls a “peripatetic career,” starts in left field for Rochester, and goes 1-for-7. This will be his last year of pro ball.
It could have ended in the bottom of the ninth. Mike Ongarato struck out with the bases loaded. So it went 1-1 into the 10th. Umpire Dennis Cregg could have suspended it around 1 a.m., but his rule book didn’t have anything in it about doing so.
Rochester went ahead, 2-1 in the 21st inning. Boggs drove in the tying run in the bottom of the 21st. “I didn’t know if the guys on the team wanted to hug me or slug me,” he would say.
Rochester outfielder Dallas Williams went 0 for 13, with two walks.
There was no TV tape to watch this one over again. Only a crew from a local Pawtucket station were there to get some B-roll for the nightly newscast and report a final score that wasn’t going to cooperate.
Pawtucket’s Dave Koza, who got the game-winning hit two months later, is a player Barry gets attached to and wants to track his life the closest. Ten years after the game ended, Koza was working to stay sober, employed by a delivery company. He loaded boxes of cups into a truck that were taken to McCoy Stadium, to celebrate the 10th anniversary of that game. That’s not irony. That’s cruel irony.
Barry writes more:
“Someone not here tonight could pose quite legitimage questions … Why? Why did you keep playing? Why did you stay? … But the truer answer might be as unsatisfying to the outsider as it is surprising to these inhabitants of this in-between place, where time’s boundaries have blurred. Why did you keep playing? Why did you stay? Because we are bound by duty. We aspire to greater things. Because we are loyal. Because in our own secular way, we are celebrating communion, and resurrection and possibilty.”
How it goes down in the scorebook: There were 1,740 in attendance when it started, about 19 when it was suspended, and millions interested when it resumed.
The players kept asking the local kids if they could gather some more wood so they could throw it into the trash can and keep the fire burning. We appreciate relighting the fire again with this one.
The only real criticism: A copy of the official scorebook is on page 195 (and reproduced above), but far too small to even read. Then, the official box score of the game is on page 256. But there’s no score by innings anywhere. Kind of important, considering the name of the book?
Coming Tuesday in the Daily News: Umbarger recalls his participating in the game, and how it affected his career in the aftermath (linked here).