Sports Can’t Be Scripted

Richard Mackson/Sports Illustrated via G

And so, with fingers crossed, we await the return of baseball and the resumption of basketball and hockey.

All the networks have been reaching into the vault in search of archival material. Classic games. And the recollections of those who were part of them.

Good fortune has placed me at the scene of many of the most unforgettable sports moments of the last four decades. When The PlayersTribune asked me to reflect on a few of them, I made a unilateral decision: I would confine it to just three.

Given the fact that this was to have been the weekend of Derek Jeter’s Hall of Fame induction, and the continuing buzz around The Last Dance, we’ll focus on number 2 and number 23.

Here’s something that’s close to unique to baseball.

Unlike most sports, where in the decisive moments you put your very best on the field or court, baseball history is filled with the names of those, who until a big moment, never saw their names in anything but agate type. Here’s Derek Jeter, whose name has been in headlines for two decades, facing Evan Meek, who until now has seldom been much more than a footnote.

That — or something like that — is what I was going to say if the count in Derek Jeter’s final at bat at Yankee Stadium had gone to even a second pitch. It didn’t.

Turns out that Derek was not concerned with me, or with what I might have said. He was concerned with getting a game-winning base hit.

He swung at the first pitch he saw … and the rest is history.

How inconsiderate of him.

But that’s broadcasting — and that’s sports.

Turns out that Derek was not concerned with me, or with what I might have said. He was concerned with getting a game-winning base hit.

At first, it appeared that Derek Jeter’s last home game would end much less dramatically. Entering the ninth, Jeter was one-for-four (a first-inning double) and the Yanks led the Orioles 5—2, but David Robertson yielded a two-run homer to Adam Jones and then a solo shot to Steve Pearce. As Pearce rounded the bases, I noted that there was a significant brightside for Yankee fans: Jeter would now come up third in the last of the ninth.

Now, with the score tied 5—5, the Yanks got the leadoff man on and sacrificed him to second. One out, winning run in scoring position, first base open. As Jeter left the on-deck circle, Jim Kaat and I stayed silent to allow the TV audience to hear what the sellout crowd in the Bronx would hear: the distinctive and distinguished voice of Bob Sheppard, the Yankees’ public address announcer for over half a century intoning one last time, “Now batting for the Yankees, number 2, Derek Jeter, number 2.” Sheppard had passed away four years earlier at the age of 99. But in a pitch-perfect touch, Jeter had requested that a recording of Sheppard announcing his name and number be played each time he came to the plate for the remainder of his career. I could offer nothing better than that. So, I just got out of the way. Hearing it for the final time in that setting raised goosebumps.

Jeter stepped into the box. Strategically, the Orioles could have walked him. Maybe with any other at bat, that would have been the move. But this wasn’t any other at bat. The entire stadium was on its feet. At that point, even the opposing catcher — Caleb Joseph — was still standing. I remarked that “if they walk this guy you’ll be able to hear the boos all the way to Staten Island.”

That was when Joseph got down into his crouch, leaving me only enough time to say that Oriole manager Buck Showalter — who had managed the Yankees in ’95, when Jeter came up — appreciated the moment.

And then Jeter hit the first pitch. The last pitch Evan Meek would ever throw in the major leagues. Pinch runner Antoan Richardson raced home with the winning run — the last run he would ever score in a big league game. Bit players as the star of this and so many other shows brought the curtain down with the sense of theater that ran throughout his epic career.

In some (not all) respects that last bit of Jeter theater reminded me of perhaps the most theatrical baseball moment I have ever been a part of: Kirk Gibson’s pinch hit home run for the Dodgers in Game 1 of the 1988 World Series. But while Jeter’s career-capping hit was more of a one-act play, Gibson’s World Series moment played out like a novel.

The Dodgers were substantial underdogs to the powerful, 104-win Oakland A’s. To make matters worse for Tommy Lasorda’s team they were without that season’s National League MVP, Kirk Gibson.

Gibson was hobbled by multiple leg injuries. Not in uniform. Not part of pregame introductions. Not in the lineup. Not available for so much as pinch hitting duties.

That was the first item of business as I set the scene on the pregame show. Then, as the game itself unfolded, Vin Scully and Joe Garagiola would mention the man who was conspicuous by his absence: Gibson.

NBC’s Harry Coyle, who, dating to the late 1940s, practically invented the way baseball was directed, had his cameras pan the Dodger dugout, and as Scully noted, no sign of Gibson. Who knew how any of this would play out?

Still, the narrative was there. Just in case.

Bottom of the ninth. 4—3, Oakland.

Baseball’s best closer, Dennis Eckersley, set to lock it down for the A’s.

Eckersley quickly disposed of the first two Dodgers hitters. With pinch hitter Mike Davis at the plate, Gibson had appeared in the dugout but not in the on-deck circle. When the cameras found him, it was reasonable to conclude that he had left the trainer’s room merely to cheer his teammates on.

With the count 3—2 and light-hitting Dave Anderson waiting on-deck, Davis drew a walk. Only then did Anderson turn back toward the bench as Gibson emerged onto the field.

Talk about drama.

Vin Scully simply said, “And look who’s coming up,” as Dodger Stadium buzzed with excitement and anticipation. But as Gibson limped to the plate, it looked like a mismatch. Gibson, the-willing-but-wounded warrior, versus the nearly invincible Eckersley.

In a few ways, Gibson’s moment differed from Jeter’s. This was, after all, a World Series game. While Evan Meek was a journeyman, Dennis Eckersley was a future Hall of Famer.

And from a broadcasting standpoint, there was another important difference.

While Jeter’s game-winning hit came on the first pitch, Gibson’s at bat took a long time to play out. The count went to 3—2 with a few foul balls mixed in.

On one trickler up the first base line, even as the ball rolled foul, you could see how much pain Gibson was in as he hobbled toward first base. Beyond that, Gibson asked for time and stepped out of the box a couple of times. It would have been great even if Gibson had homered on the first pitch. But the long, tension-filled at bat allowed Harry Coyle visually and Vin Scully verbally to build the drama. Whether Gibson came through with an improbable hit or Eckersley struck him out, the prelude to either outcome could not have been presented any better.

John Iacono /Sports Illustrated via Gett

The barebones facts of what happened that night would have been compelling enough.

But the way NBC captured it is almost a clinic in the difference between merely showing an event and appropriately dramatizing it.

If you made this as a movie, and had as many takes as you wanted, and you could go back and edit it and massage it over and over again, you couldn’t do any better. You couldn’t improve upon a frame of it.

It wasn’t just Vin Scully’s great call. It was the way that game and its climactic scene was directed and produced. Gibson himself says that the way he remembers it now is in large part because of the way it was televised.

They got him coming around first base and pumping his arm, coming around third base and slapping hands with the third base coach, and then being met at home plate by his jubilant teammates.

That was all live.

But then the replays started.

That’s when you see Eckersley craning his neck out toward rightfield to follow the improbable flight of the ball.

You see Tommy Lasorda jumping up and down in exultation as he realizes this nearly impossible thing has happened.

You see yet another shot, this time it’s Tony La Russa looking back over his shoulder and then stalking down the tunnel after the game had been stolen from him.

My relatively minor contribution was to jump out onto the field and interview Gibson. Then, just after we were off the air, I said to the pregame producer, David Neal, “That reminded me of Robert Redford’s last at bat as Roy Hobbs in The Natural.”

With that thought in mind, David went to work. He intercut Redford’s last at bat with Gibson’s. It was eerily similar the way they mirrored each other — and that was the way we came on the air before Game 2. All I said was, “Echoes of a miracle,” and then they played that artfully edited video, with Randy Newman’s soundtrack from the film. The last frame ended with Gibson approaching the plate and his teammates waiting for him and a simple graphic that said, “Welcome to Game 2 of the World Series.”

That was more than 30 years ago and I still occasionally hear about it. From players. From fans. And from Gibson himself.

Now, back to Jeter. Until The Players’ Tribune posed the question, I had never thought about how (just by happenstance) the first and last Jeter moments I broadcast bookend his career.

Coincidentally both came against Baltimore.

October 1996, Game 1 of the ALCS at Yankee Stadium. Orioles 4, Yankees 3, bottom of the eighth.

Tony Tarasco is in rightfield for Baltimore. He’s under a fly ball at the wall when a kid, 12-year-old Jeffrey Maier, leans over from the first row with a glove on his hand and — not by a little, but by half an arm’s length — he tries to make a catch.

He doesn’t snag it cleanly, but just sort of scoops it and brings it back into the rightfield stands.

Tarasco immediately begins gesturing like, Wait a minute. I was going to catch it and someone interfered with it.

In the postseason, of course, there are six umpires, so there’s one down each foul line. Richie Garcia, who was a good umpire, had the rightfield line. He was in good position, had a perfect view of it, but somehow missed the call, declaring it a home run.

Luckily in real time, from a much greater distance, Joe Morgan, Bob Uecker and I saw it as it was, and immediately noted what Tarasco was contending. So as soon as the first replay came on, I was able to say, “He’s right … the youngster reaches out with the glove and pulls it into the stands. If Garcia saw it that way he’s empowered to call the hitter out.”

But, the umps didn’t see it that way, and in 1996 there was no replay review. In today’s game, that would be a very easy reversal, but back then that was not an option.

Oh, and the hitter? A rookie named Derek Jeter, whose disputed homer tied the game. And the Yankees eventually won it in extra innings on a Bernie Williams home run that was beyond dispute.

From there, the Yankees went on to defeat the O’s four games to one. The last out in the pennant-clinching Game 5 at Camden Yards had a touch of poetic symmetry. A bouncer to deep short fielded by Jeter, whose long throw to first beat a desperate dive by Cal Ripken Jr. to send the Yanks and Rookie of the Year Jeter to the World Series. There, they upset the defending champion Braves as Jeter earned the first of his five World Series rings.

And finally, with little to no live sports to follow, America was especially enthralled by ESPN’s superb Last Dance documentary.

As it happened, I called the playoffs and Finals during that 1998 season for NBC. I have often been asked whether I knew that — win or lose — this would be the end of the Bulls dynasty and maybe the end of Jordan’s NBA career. And was that a factor in the way I called the game?

Yes. And yes.

While nothing was certain, it seemed overwhelming likely that this was it.

In the Eastern Conference Finals, the Indiana Pacers pushed the Bulls to the limit. And early in Game 7, on the Bulls’ floor, the Pacers led by 12. In our intro, we made it clear that this could be the game that ends both the Bulls’ dynasty and Jordan’s career. The purpose was twofold. To acknowledge the possibility, but also to frame and enhance the drama about to play out.

That’s sports on TV. Elements of journalism at times, but also a sense of theater and drama. You don’t want to force it, but when it’s legitimately there, you want to make the most of it. And with MJ and the Bulls it was almost always legitimately there.

The Bulls escaped the Pacers and moved on to a Finals rematch with the Jazz.

Up 3–1 as Game 5 began in Chicago, I said, “If this is the Last Dance, it might as well be on their dance floor.” So the notion was out there, front and center.

But the Jazz won Game 5 and the series returned to Salt Lake City. There, Jordan willed himself and the Bulls to a sixth title with the best closing act in the history of American team sports.

That’s sports on TV. Elements of journalism at times, but also a sense of theater and drama.

I am aware of the others.

In 1969, Bill Russell closed his epic Celtic career with an 11th championship and did it at the expense of Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor and Jerry West in Game 7 on the Lakers’ home court.

John Elway won Super Bowls in each of his last two seasons.

Fabulous last chapters both. But neither quite as individually heroic as Jordan’s.

Forty-two year old Ted Williams hit a home run in his last time at bat. It exemplified who he was. But it wasn’t in the World Series. It wasn’t on national TV. It came before a small crowd on a cold, dank day at Fenway Park. Perhaps fittingly, it is best remembered not through what we all saw, but through what some of us read: John Updike’s famous New Yorker essay “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu.”

Michael Jordan made his closing statement, and provided the enduring last image of his greatness (the afterthought stint with the Wizards doesn’t count) before what is still the largest television audience in NBA history. An audience that long since had included millions of folks otherwise not much interested in basketball, but captivated by MJ.

He did it in the closing seconds with a series of plays that turned defeat into victory.

Had any NBA Final been so close and exciting, it would have been a big sports story. But this transcended sports. So much had preceded this closing chapter. And much of America had followed all of it.

The championship-winning shot as a freshman for North Carolina.

His stunning individual artistry in the early stages of his NBA career.

The “Be Like Mike” commercials.

The Dream Team at the Barcelona Olympics as the NBA and Jordan’s stardom went global.

Countless beautiful and spectacular plays filling up highlight reels night after night, year after year.

The first three-peat. Followed by the sudden retirement amid the grief of the loss of his father.

The season in Birmingham as the world’s most famous and scrutinized minor league baseball player.

The sudden return in 1995. And the return to the championship summit the year after that.

And while Jordan was the greatest and most charismatic star in American sports, the team around him was brimming with distinctive and essential figures.





And key role players like Steve Kerr.

Their opponent in this “Last Dance” Final featured first-level Hall of Famers Stockton and Malone, coached by Jerry Sloan, himself a Bulls legend from an earlier, much different era.

The nation was familiar with the entire cast of characters and the rich history that brought Jordan and the Bulls to this moment. So much backstory. So much soap opera. So much texture to a saga that had held America’s attention for a very long time. All that and more gave this series, this game and Jordan’s final display of surpassing brilliance a resonance well beyond that one game, riveting as that game was.

None of this was lost on me and others who covered that season and that extraordinary era in the NBA.

There are times, not all that many, but some, when it is a broadcaster’s role to see a picture a bit bigger than the mere game in front of him. Of course, you want to do justice to all the relevant particulars of the game itself, but I have always felt that a good live account of a truly significant moment in sports should at least touch upon the key points and themes you’d expect to find in a well-written newspaper column or magazine story a day or two later.

I knew that this story and the way it played out wouldn’t just be found in Sports Illustrated or in the nation’s sports sections.

It would be in TIME and Newsweek.

It would be on the front pages of the papers.

It would lead national newscasts.

That’s why I tried to frame that game-winning shot and the classic Jordan pose that accompanied it as the likely last (and lasting) magnificent image of a magnificent career and iconic American story.

And that turned out to be true.

I know there are many, including Michael Jordan, who wish the Bulls’ run had not ended there.

That ego, insecurity and short-sightedness had not denied them a chance to defend their crown until they lost it on the court.

I understand that impulse, and when it comes from those most responsible for and emotionally invested in that run of brilliance, you must respect it.

Still, I have long had a different view.

I believe the legend of Michael Jordan and the Bulls is greatly enhanced by the way it ended. The lingering question of what might have been just adds another interesting layer of texture to an already rich story.

Nothing wrong with that.

“What if?” has its place in films, in literature and in sports.

But here’s the thing: Even if the team had somehow come back intact and won again, it’s impossible to imagine a more fitting and dramatic scenario than the one that played out at the end of Game 6 in ‘98.

Anyway, ‘99 was a season truncated by a lockout. Would a Bulls title have felt as satisfying even if they managed to win it? And could they have beaten David Robinson and Tim Duncan in that year’s Finals?

By 2000, a young Kobe and Shaq would have been waiting for them in the Finals if the Bulls even got that far.

One way or another, the last image would’ve been Jordan walking off in defeat. No disgrace in that, it happens to almost all of them. But it didn’t happen to Jordan.

Isn’t the vision of that title-winning jumper, that clean swish and the perfect pose that goes with it, isn’t that the freeze-it-and-frame-it image you want? The fact that it all holds up so well, and still resonates so strongly, 22 years later tells you that it is.

Well, that’s all I’ve got. And think of it this way, the time you just spent reading this brings you that much closer to the return of actual, it’s-happening-right-now sports. No matter how unusual and daunting the circumstances surrounding them may be.

— BC