One of many

Updated: December 11, 2009, 1:27 PM ET
By Buster Olney
A boy waits for the rumbling sound of an old blue car to climb through the maple trees, and right after he hears it he can see through the barn windows the dust rising along the dirt road to the north. It doesn't matter what the boy is doing -- maybe shoveling out the barn, or stacking hay, or maybe just hitting rocks with a stick into the farm's swamp -- he stops, and hustles to the driveway to meet the car.

Part of the arrangement, he knows, is that he must haul the bags of groceries into the kitchen and help put away the week's worth of food; it's his mother's rule. It is a summer Sunday morning, in central Vermont.

All he can do is glance at the outside folds of the newspapers. But he can't touch them until the boxes of spaghetti and cans of tomato paste and loaves of bread are put away, and he knows it's possible that his mother will add more jobs. Empty the dishwasher. Take out the trash. Feed the dogs. Make your bed. That stack of newspapers is the largest carrot she can dangle all week and she intends to use it for all it's worth.

Finally, she relents, and he carries the newspapers into the living room and rips three sections from the folds. He takes the wraparound funnies from The Boston Globe, a strategic seizure, really, because he knows his sister will want those when she comes in from the field and his goal will be to make her wait. He takes the sports section from The New York Times, which is fine for the rest of the family, because they all hate sports. And he finds the prize: the sports section of the Boston Sunday Globe.

The boy turns open the first page and finds what he has been looking forward to all week, the only source of baseball information other than the scores that are read every morning on WDEV -- the notes column of Peter Gammons. He scans the rows of type for any bold-faced reference to the Dodgers, and then starts over from the top, paragraph after paragraph of trade talk and observations and clubhouse banter and words of scouts. When the boy is done, he places the column on the stack in the corner of his room, and during the next week, he'll reread it, and stare at the charts and the statistical notes, taking it all in like air.

The boy is me.

• • •

The sophomore wakes, plucks a pullover shirt from the floor and walks to the convenience store every Sunday. The man who runs the shop puts in a special order for the Boston Sunday Globe. There aren't a lot of requests for The Globe in Nashville, Tenn. The sophomore gets $40 a month from home for nonessentials, and of that, $2 a week is devoted to the weekly purchase for the Sunday Globe -- really, for Peter Gammons' column.

Luck is on the sophomore's side. Baseball's winter meetings are in Nashville that December, at the Opryland Hotel. He gets a press pass and he sees Willie Stargell and Chuck Tanner and Whitey Herzog, but mostly the sophomore hopes to meet Gammons, because he is the best at what the sophomore wants to do with his life.

The sophomore recognizes him from the illustration in The Globe, sees him standing near a table, talking with two other writers. The sophomore is scared to death, but introduces himself. Gammons is genial and chats cheerfully for a few moments, before going back to work. For the sophomore, that is enough.

The sophomore is me.

• • •

The new beat writer is scared to death, because beyond the San Diego Padres' clubhouse, there are 25 other teams and 25 other sets of executives and scouts. The 20-something beat writer feels like there are bullets being fired at him from every direction, but he can't see any of them coming.

There is a phone message. "Peter Gammons called," says the sport department's secretary, her voice rising, because she is not sure if she got the name right and is hoping the beat writer recognizes it. "He left a number."

The beat writer calls back. Immediately. Peter Gammons has questions for him, about the Padres, and he heard something interesting from another general manager about the Padres. "What else do you hear?" Gammons says, cheerily.

It is the first of many such conversations. The beat writer is me.

• • •

Years later, the beat writer walks with Gammons at the Yankees' spring training site in Tampa, Fla. Players seek Gammons out, not the other way around. Manager Joe Torre walks over to shake his hand. "Mr. Gammons," he says, nodding. Derek Jeter talks to all writers, but seems to converse only with Gammons. Mariano Rivera stops to shake Gammons' hand, and slaps him on the shoulder collegially as he moves away.

Gammons stands in a corner and talks with Orlando Hernandez, the defector from Cuba, and the pitcher who professes to know little English carries on. "Boy, is he great," Gammons says, walking away. "Phenomenal."

And it hits the beat writer all at once: In a business that often drives players, managers, writers into cynicism, Gammons wakes up early every day and looks for the good in people, looks for the good in baseball. The players can sense it; the readers sense it.

The beat writer returns to his high school to speak. A teenager raises his hand. "What's Peter Gammons like?" he asks.

I laugh. "Just what you think he's like," I say. I tell them there's a picture on my daughter's wall of Peter and me at a spring training game, and that's what she thinks of when I'm away.

• • •

The fill-in sits in Gammons' chair on a day when he is not available, because he is off on another assignment. Gammons is being honored at the Hall of Fame. He speaks of players who have shared their love for the game, mentioning stars, mentioning the remarkable George Lombard. It's a speech that players will mention to the fill-in in the months to come.

Karl Ravech hosts "Baseball Tonight" that day, and Gammons comes on via satellite to talk about his experience. "You want to ask Peter a question?" Karl asks the fill-in.

The fill-in waves off the idea. He knows he couldn't get through the question intact.

The fill-in is me.

• • •

The pallbearer lifts the homemade pine coffin and feels the weight of his mother. She is buried on the farm, in the meadow to the east. The pallbearer and his little brother silently shovel the rain-soaked Vermont earth.

The pallbearer is me.

The phone rings a couple of hours later.

"How are you?" says the familiar voice on the other end of the line.

"Hi, Peter. What do you hear out there?"

And so he talks about the early trade market, the Dodgers, the Mets, the Red Sox and Yankees, and I listen, because I cannot bear to talk about anything else.

Thirty-one days later, the phone rings. "Did you hear about Peter?" a friend says. "He was taken to the hospital."

An aneurysm. The hours that follow are excruciating. Baseball executives and agents and players call to ask about him.

He lives.

"How are you doing, Peter?" I say over the phone.

"OK," he says, but the medical update is brief, because he is tired of talking about himself. "What do you hear?"

We talk about the trade market, the Tigers, the White Sox, those parts of a summer we both have missed.

We heal.

• • •

The news about Peter breaks on Tuesday. The phone rings. Players, executives, scouts call. "Is he OK?" is the first question. They need to know. He is a friend to them all.

He is fine.

The 6 p.m. "SportsCenter" asks Gammons and another reporter to tape a "Baseball Tonight" segment Wednesday night, from the winter meetings. Thirty seconds before they go on air, a producer tees up the other reporter, tells him that the question will be about the Yankees' signing of Andy Pettitte and the moves to come. But the reporter doesn't think about that, at the moment; he thinks about the gift he has been given, to work alongside the man sitting to his left.

I am the boy, the sophomore, the fill-in. And I have come to learn -- from Jayson Stark and Tim Kurkjian and Billy Beane and Mark Shapiro -- that there are many, many others who have followed similar paths of friendship with Peter.