My favorite Derek Jeter story comes from a time that, I fear, no one will understand in a few years. Maybe no one understands now. It comes from a time of newspapers and early columns and running columns and crushing deadlines. I have tried to explain the newspaper deadline concept to my daughters but, like the concept of only three television networks and rotary phones, it simply drifts past their dulled eyes the way my father’s stories about having no television set drifted by mine.
“Why did you have such early deadlines?”
“Because they had to take the newspapers far away.”
“Why didn’t they just email the newspapers?”
“We didn’t have email.”
“So why didn’t they text the newspapers?”
On Oct. 31, 2001, I sat in the left field stands at Yankee Stadium as the helpless Yankees were being mowed down by Arizona’s right-handed force of nature Curt Schiling (their left-handed force of nature, Randy Johnson, had mowed the Yankees down three nights before). The left field stands was where the Yankees put their “auxiliary press” and one of the advantages of being banished out there was being so close to those hard-core Bleacher Creature Yankee fans who came up with the whole idea of chanting a players name until he acknowledges them. Watching them told the story. Schilling gave up three hits in seven innings, struck out nine, held Jeter to three infield outs — and the fans were deathly silent. There was no hope. This game was Arizona’s.
In those days (gather round children) you had to be keen to the early rhythms of games because of that horror enchantingly known as “early columns.” In order to deliver Kansas City Star newspapers to the driveways in the far-reaches of Kansas and Missouri, columnists were given a series of deadlines to hit. The first column needed to be delivered before the game even began — apparently so that people in Salina and Springfield did not have giant white spaces where a sports column was supposed to be. I often wondered what people out there must have thought of my writing. I can only assume they thought, “Did this guy even go to the game? He never writes anything about the game. There isn’t a single detail in here. Where’s the score?”*
*As long as we’re reminiscing, I will quickly tell a story from the 1997 World Series when, like all the other columnists, I was trolling the field before the game looking for anything at all to write early when all of a sudden I heard a voice call me.
“Joe!” the voice said.
I turned around. It was Bip Roberts. He had played for the Royals the year before. I had no idea how Bip Roberts knew my name.
“Come here for a second.”
So I went over to talk with Bip Roberts, who at the time was playing a smaller role for Cleveland. and unsolicited he proceeded to RIP the Royals organization. I don’t know if Bip Roberts simply understood the whole early column politics and knew I’d write about him or if he just wanted to vent but let me tell you something … that day Bip Roberts became one of my favorite people. I strutted around the auxiliary press box with a smile that said, “Ha ha, suckers, I have my early.” You give a columnist an early column, you are a friend for life.
In any case, with the Star, there was the early column (which I had already done). Then there was what we called a “running column.” That was the column that, more or less, had to be delivered just as the game ended. These newspapers, I guess, went to areas not quite as far out as the early region, but still out there somewhere. After that you would write your “late column” or as columnists liked to call it, your “real column.”
In theory, the “running column” could just be the early column updated with a few game details. But most columnists I knew rebelled against that idea. We almost always despised our early columns (except when Bip Roberts showed up). To dress it up as the running column first meant reading it again, which was more than we could bear.
So how did we write these running columns? Easy. We would guess. Early in the game, we would start writing a column based on the flow of the game. Sometimes, a flurry of points or runs or goals came early and we had a fairly easy time of it. Other times, no. If things changed in the middle, we would change in the middle. If things were unclear, we would sometimes write two different columns, updating each as the game progressed.
That night in New York, with Schilling dealing, with the Bleacher Creatures mourning, with Arizona leading the game 3-1 and about to lead the seven-game series by the same total … I was confidently pounding away on my running column. The theme to the column was simple: The Yankees are dead. That’s all. The Yankees had won three straight World Series up to that point, four in five years, they had dominated baseball like no team of my lifetime. They made more, spent more, won more, and were cheered more than any team. They were inescapable.
But not anymore.
The Yankees are dead, I wrote. I don’t remember the other words in the story, but I’m sure that — like Groot in “Guardians of the Galaxy” — I simply used those four words again and again in that same order.
Well, of course, you remember that ninth inning. The lamentable Byung-Hyun Kim had entered the game an inning before, and he had no idea at that moment that he would ever be called “lamentable Byung-Hyun Kim.” In fact, in that eighth inning he struck out the side. The ninth began with Jeter bunting into an out, Paul O’Neill singling and Bernie Williams whiffing.
My running column was done (The Yankees are dead) when Tino Martinez stepped to the plate. He homered. The game was tied. The stadium electrified.
I looked at my utterly worthless column. Worthless. It was … yeah, worthless. I kept looking at it, trying to find any way to salvage it.
And — I promise this is true — my first thought was: Maybe I can insert NOT into the sentences. You know, like, “The Yankees are NOT dead.”
And — I promise this is true — my second thought was: “Maybe I can lead off the column by saying, “Well, this was going to be my column before Byung-Hyun Kim gave up that homer to Tino Martinez.”
And — you know this is true — my third thought was: I am so screwed.
So, what do you do when you are totally screwed? The game went into extra innings, and the office called to say that they would push my deadline back a few minutes but they needed a column the SECOND the game ended. I was too frantic to even argue. I just started typing words — unrelated words, foreign words, gibberish words. Here I was trying to write a column from scratch from a tie game.*
Another quick story: Once, a few years ago, the Kansas City Chiefs were playing a Monday Night Game similar to this one, where the game was in doubt and running deadline had passed. A writer stood up in the pressbox and shouted, “I don’t know who is going to win! I don’t know who is going to win!” We’ve all snapped at one time or another.
So, I was barely watching the game in the 10th, with two outs, nobody on, and Derek Jeter came to the plate. Lamentable Byun-Hyung Kim was still on the mound for some reason. The crowd was still buzzing from the Tino miracle, still high from that crazy moment. And, of course, there was something else in the air, something beyond sports. Ground Zero was still burning. It was less than two months after 9/11 and New York was in pain, America was in pain, I don’t think sports had anything to do with that but here were 55,863 people together, almost all of them New Yorkers, and there was Derek Jeter, the player they loved most, and everything sort of stopped like in the movies. I looked up from the screen. Midnight had just struck. And I saw it.
I don’t know if the roar at Yankee Stadium when Jeter hit the home run was the loudest I ever heard. Probably not. The crowd in Beijing when Usain Bolt broke the 100-meter record was loud. The crowd at Allen Fieldhouse the last time Kansas played Missouri was loud. The crowd at Alabama, the Vikings crowd at the Metrodome, the crowd at Chicago’s United Center for the Stanley Cup, they’re all really loud.
But I’ve never heard a sound like that one at Yankee Stadium. It wasn’t a cheer. It was like … a prayer. A joyous prayer. A joyous prayer sung by a gospel choir. Jeter ran around the bases, and the noise was tangible, you could actually feel it, like it was misting outside. I blinked and tried to take it all in, and the phone rang, and I ignored it and wrote feverishly, something, anything, babbling about the Yankees and Jeter and gospel prayers and promising myself that I would never read that column again. Then, I finished, and I sent, and my heart was beating a million miles a minute, and I took a deep breath.
And that’s when I realized no one was leaving. The fans were staying there, all of them, and they were singing “New York, New York” along with the crackling recording of Frank Sinatra. When the song ended, the fans waited, and the voice would begin again, and they would sing again. Three times it played. Four times it played. Five times. Sinatra. Fans. These little town blues.
This is the luckiest job I know. The job has taken me all over the world. It has introduced me to the most amazing people. It has given me a seat to watch some of the most vivid art and most thrilling drama of the last 25 years. And all I’ve had to do is write it down. There isn’t a single day that I’m not grateful for this life.
That said, I remember sitting there, thinking about the passion of Derek Jeter, visualizing the home run again, listening to that crowd sing, looking at the blank screen I had to fill, and I could feel my eyes watering a little bit. Hell, I know sports isn’t life, and there’s a lot of bad out there in the games people play, and this Jeter Appreciation Tour seems to have lasted for twenty-five years and all that. But I still hear that crowd singing.