I’ve heard there are two kinds of sports books:
They either turn their subject into a metaphor for something vast and unrelated to the outcomes of relatively meaningless games (the strongest examples being Friday Night Lights and the more recent Scoreboard, Baby), or they attempt to expose how things “really” are behind dead-bolted locker room doors (Jim Bouton’s Ball Four being the genre’s progenitor and Jeff Pearlman’s Boys Will Be Boys serving as the most entertaining contemporary offering).
Bottom of the 33d fits both.
While describing the longest baseball game ever – a minor league contest starting the night before Easter, pausing in the early hours of the next day, and then finishing over a month later – Barry spends plenty of time behind the locker room, and front office, doors. He provides details on some of the players who would make it to the big leagues, and, in the case of Cal Ripken and Wade Boggs, the Hall of Fame. He also spends a lot of time on the ones who never made it. Not much is breaking news, but it’s all interesting.
It’s also Dan Barry writing. To his credit, the stories about the ones who didn’t make it are more interesting. Both career coaches and players are his real interest. Those stories are where the literary part takes over. Now the theme expands beyond baseball to dreams, and determination, and finding meaning when, in spite of all the determination, dreams die.
Of course, Barry’s writing gets on my nerves from time to time. Too consciously literary, I think. And I lost count of how many times he emphasized some player or coach’s minor league bona-fides by listing, or more like chanting, the many mid-sized but not terrible important cities through which the pilgrim had passed: “From Shreveport to Rochester to Little Rock to Yadda, yadda, yadda, another minor league town.” By mid-book, whenever I saw the name of a town, I just skipped to the next paragraph. Kind of like I do whenever Tom Wolfe mentions an article of clothing.
Even with the at times overdone language and style, I enjoyed the book. If nothing else, my next Captains experience certainly differed from previous visits. That’s a place where dreams die; our local independent minor league team, the Captains are the hospice of professional baseball. Having read Bottom of the 33d, though, I appreciated the hustle, work, and desire these guys all had. None of them are going anywhere, yet they all still play as if they could. At one time I would have called that pathetic, now I’m more sympathetic. They’re chasing a dream, and who am I to fault them, even if the dream is obviously winning.