"You get used to it," Mike says.
An instant after Derek Jeter turns on a hanging curveball and knocks it over the leftfield wall at Yankee Stadium for his 3,000th hit, while he rounds the bases to the loudest sound 48,000 New Yorkers can make, someone in the press box asks a trivia question: Who are the four shortstops to reach 3,000 hits?
Baseball is at its best when past and present click together seamlessly, like pieces of Ikea furniture. I think this is the biggest reason there is a different tenor of outrage in baseball when star players are caught or admit to using performance-enhancing drugs. Commissioner Bud Selig has often lamented that there never seemed to be that kind of outrage for steroids in football.
But football is different. Football is about looking ahead, betting on the future. Football is about recruiting and the draft and three-team parlays on Sunday. Sure football celebrates its history, but only as history, like a married couple that every now and then looks at the wedding album. In baseball, history is a living and breathing character. When Mark McGwire hit 70 home runs and then Barry Bonds hit 73 and 762 and both, one publicly, the other tacitly, later acknowledged having used steroids—well, that wasn't just an unhappy incident for many baseball fans. It was the crack in baseball's timeline. It broke up baseball's once hallowed connection to Hank Aaron and Roger Maris and Babe Ruth and the past. If football's history was wiped blank tomorrow, the game would go on, as popular as ever. Not so baseball. Derek Jeter hit a home run in the third inning of a July game against Tampa Bay. The homer tied the game 1--1. So what? Why would anyone care about that? But no one who was there will forget it, because it was Jeter's 3,000th hit, and only 28 men have done it. Ruth did not get 3,000 hits. Lou Gehrig did not. Joe DiMaggio did not. No Yankee ever had. No matter how much people love the NFL, when Clinton Portis becomes the 26th man in NFL history to rush for 10,000 yards, it won't be magical like that.
The four shortstops to reach 3,000 hits? First was Honus Wagner, the Flying Dutchman, who played 21 seasons at the dawn of the 20th century, most of them in Pittsburgh, where he won eight batting titles in an era when that was the greatest thing a hitter could do. Robin Yount was second—he joined Milwaukee when he was 18 years old and throughout the early years of his career he wondered if he was better suited for professional golf. He gave himself to baseball fully in his mid-20s, and in eight years he won two MVP awards and in 1982 led the Brewers to their only pennant.
Third: Cal Ripken Jr. By the time he reached 3,000, he was already a legend. In 1995, the year after the players' strike forced the cancellation of the World Series, Ripken played in his 2,131st straight game, breaking the consecutive-game record held by Lou Gehrig. To many of us, that feat represented the best sports can offer, giving your best effort every day. Something about Cal reminded me of my father.
And Derek Jeter was the fourth.
Ichiro Suzuki once told Bob Costas that his favorite American expression is this: "August in Kansas City ... it's hotter than two rats in a f------ wool sock." It is only July, but it is 109° in Kansas City. Anyway, that's what it said on Bill James's car dashboard.
"You know," Bill says amiably in the third inning as we sit in direct sunlight behind home plate, "we are very much in danger of sunstroke."
He began his quixotic writer's life in the 1970s as a security guard at the Stokely-Van Camp cannery in Lawrence, Kans. (I've often imagined that Bill protected the pork from the beans.) There he would pore over box scores clipped out of The Sporting News and try to figure out baseball. He was intensely interested in what was real about the game. "Write the truest sentence that you know," Ernest Hemingway had said. Papa could not have predicted that a writer would come along whose truest sentences said that errors are a stupid way to judge a player's defense, that creating runs was more important than getting hits, that pitching is not 75% of baseball and so on.