Rock Hill, South Carolina, somewhere around 1990. I’m a reporter in the York County bureau of the Charlotte Observer, working alongside a sportswriter named Joe Posnanski. I’m 25 or 26, he’s 22 or 23. I’m covering fatal wrecks and school board meetings, he’s writing up high-school football games and a weekly volleyball notebook. We get to be friends, and we find out we have the same impossible dream. We want to be newspaper columnists.
Some nights, after deadline, we throw a baseball in the parking lot of his apartment complex and talk about making it to that sacred place, down the left rail of the front page of the section — him in Sports, me in Local. Our mug shots at the top. We’re full of ideas about how we would do the job if we ever got there. I’ve been sneaking little scenes into my straight news stories, seeing how they look on the page. He’s been practicing nearly every day, picking something out of the sports world and writing columns that nobody sees.
We scan the wires and out-of-town papers, and when one of us finds something great, we clip it out or print it — this was before the Internet, children — and share it with the other. Before long we both have thick file folders, our homemade textbooks, full of lessons from Dave Barry and Leonard Pitts and Jim Murray and the other columnists we loved.
We spend long nights just sitting around and talking — our romantic lives were not exactly thriving at that point — and one of the things we talk about is this: What was the greatest newspaper column of all time?
After much debate, we decide on two. We call them The Bat and The Bear.
The Bat was written by a young sports columnist out of Detroit named Mitch Albom. You might know Mitch Albom as the author of “Tuesdays With Morrie,” followed by several best-selling Hallmark-ready novels that have sold untold million copies. Mitch has made himself mockable — I’ve mocked him some myself — but in his prime, as a columnist and feature writer, you couldn’t beat him.
The Bat was a piece about a school superintendent, a former member of a Little League World Series champion, who had been shot to death by a disgruntled teacher. Throughout the story, Mitch talked to surviving members of that Little League team, one after another. He asked to see their trophies. He noticed something. The figure at the top of the trophy is a batter waiting for a pitch. But every time one of the players got out his trophy, the bat was missing.
It had been a long time, the trophies were fragile, things fall apart. Mitch saw something bigger:
The snow falls, summer is a distant memory, and even golden boys of Little League have the bats taken out of their hands.
The Bear was a column by Jimmy Breslin.
Breslin had many more famous columns. The one he wrote on the gravedigger at John F. Kennedy’s funeral is still taught in journalism schools. The one he wrote about the cops at the scene when John Lennon was shot still pops up on the anniversary of Lennon’s death. But the one Joe and I loved was about an 11-year-old boy named Juan Perez.
Juan and two friends broke into the Prospect Park Zoo one night and slipped into the polar bear cage. When the bears saw them, the friends ran, but Juan Perez did not. And so he became a child in the middle of Brooklyn who was eaten alive by polar bears.
You can imagine the TV crews and the front-page headlines. But Breslin saw something bigger:
I guess it was a momentous story because of the manner in which the boy died. But at the same time, perhaps somebody should stop just for a paragraph and mention the fact that there are many children being eaten alive by this bear of a city, New York in the 1980s. To say many is to make an understatement most bland, for there are hundreds of thousands of young in New York who each day have the hope, and thus the life, chewed out of them in a city that feels the bestowing of fame and fortunes on landlords is a glorious act, and that all energies and as much money and attention as possible be given to some corporation that threatens to move 40 people to Maryland.
The column is 30 years old and isn’t on the Internet — at least I couldn’t find it — and so I dug a version out of a database. It’s from a Toronto newspaper, reprinting the original from the New York Daily News, and somehow Toronto cut the best line. Breslin hammers the developers and the politicians who chew up and discard kids every day in New York — he even gets in a shot at Donald Trump — and then, after a couple paragraphs of this, he drops in one perfect sentence:
They shot the bear.
I write all this because Jimmy Breslin died on Sunday at 88, and he was the best columnist there ever was, and I stole from him freely — his language and his spirit — until I found my own voice. He got out there and talked to people and found the story and wrote it up. It sounds easy, like falling into a pool. But there’s falling and there’s diving.
Joe and I kept working and got lucky and found editors who believed in us. We both got the jobs we dreamed about, and then others beyond our dreams. Our romantic lives got better — we’re both married now — but we still spend long lunches and phone calls and text threads continuing that conversation we started more than 25 years ago.
I’ve read many a story in all those years. I’ve got a lot of favorites. But none will ever matter as much to me as The Bat and The Bear. They gave two young guys something to reach for.