Q&A With Author Dan Barry
Dan Barry, a Pulitzer-Prize winning reporter and a columnist for the New York Times, addressed the 9th Annual First Year Academic Convocation on Sept. 13 in Conte Forum, discussing with the Class of 2016 his book Bottom of the 33rd: Hope, Redemption and Baseball’s Longest Game, which was the summer reading selection for incoming freshman. Barry, who writes the Times’ This Land column, visited with faculty and students while on campus and spoke with Chronicle about the stories he searches for across the country and what compelled him to write about the 1981 game between the minor league Pawtucket Red Sox and Rochester Redwings.
Chronicle: Writing the This Land column has taken you across the country to report on a broad range of issues and individuals. Describe the story you are looking for?
Barry: Sometimes I’m working off a big news event – like Hurricane Katrina or the tornadoes – where I look for the people who might not be at the center of the story. I’m looking for a different way to tell the story in human terms. I’m more interested in finding people living the events of the day and seeing it through their eyes. I also like the small moments that can say something different about the human condition: What unites us? What separates us?
What was it that told you there was a book to be written about a minor league baseball game played 31 years ago?
I lived in Pawtucket while I worked for the Providence Journal; I lived about 400 yards away from McCoy stadium, where the game was played. And I used to hear things now and then about the game, about the players who were involved in the game. I’m kind of a packrat when it comes to anecdotes. I collect the bits and pieces. Then there was a children’s book written about the game and when I looked at that I realized the game started on Holy Saturday and lasted well into Easter Sunday. It was played in a nearly empty stadium and the guy whose hit won the game never made it to the major leagues. You didn’t have to be a Jesuit to put two and two together and see that there were themes there that were larger than the game, that were about life.
You write with affection about the gritty mill town of Pawtucket. What is it you find so compelling about the city?
Pawtucket is a place nobody would give a second glance to. Its name is often the punch line to a joke. Struggle is part of the city’s fabric. It’s in the concrete. But it’s not to be treated as a curio or with condescension. I lived there. I played rec league basketball for a team sponsored by the Weiner Genie, a local hot dog restaurant. The logo was a hot dog in a bun, standing straight up, spinning a basketball on its fingertips. So it’s a real place to me, where I got to know people and how they lived their lives. To me, the book offered a chance to celebrate Pawtucket and to celebrate its hardscrabble ethos.
Some of the ballplayers you write about were motivated by a deep-set fear of failure. In your other reporting, on individuals not necessarily in the spotlight, what have you found gets them through the day?
I’m working on story now about a woman who runs a little diner in Ohio. She’s struggling to make it. It’s always two steps forward, three steps back. But if she stops, she’ll fail entirely. Every day, she looks out her window and she sees a woman she has known for a long time and the woman is picking the trash for cans to recycle. She takes them home, crushes each one and cashes them in. That woman scares the lady who runs the diner. She wonders if that isn’t going to be her. But the flip side of that kind of fear is aspiration. There are people getting their butt kicked, but who are going to get through it. We have aspiration in our DNA. Like those ballplayers trying to make it to the majors. They said, “I’m going to do it. I’m going to get through it.”
If there is one message you want this year’s freshman class to take away from the book, what would that be?
A big theme in my writing is about people trying. I like to quote a priest who ministered to Mother Theresa, who said, “God doesn’t expect you to succeed. He expects you to try.” I’d like the students to understand that they are going to fail at some point – and for some maybe it will only be in a small way. What’s important is to persevere, to keep trying. I’d also ask the students to realize the preciousness of this time. In Bottom of the 33rd, during a game that seemingly won’t end, God is saying. “Take a pause. We’re not going anywhere.” Take a moment to see where you are and what you are doing. Take these moments and welcome their preciousness.