There were well over a hundred of us crowded into the backyard of a home in Mandeville Canyon over the weekend to celebrate the life of Joe Jares, and while a few of us who had been asked to share some memories of Joe were speaking I couldn't help thinking what a shame it was that he wasn't there to enjoy it.
Joe and I were sports columnists for the Daily News back in the late '80s and early '90s and I always thought the joy he took in every aspect of his life is the one thing that set him apart from the rest of us.
I don't think I'm giving away any trade secrets when I say that sports writers as a group can be a pretty cranky bunch. We're always complaining about something--the editors, the deadlines, the travel, the athletes and coaches whose attitude toward us tends to range from compulsory nuisance to dirt beneath their feet.
But Joe never bought into any of that. He was always so happy with the work he was doing, just as he was happy with his family, his love of USC sports, the books he was reading, the books he was writing, the movies and TV shows he was watching and so much more.
But his own enjoyment wasn't good enough for Joe. He was constantly sharing his love for all those things with the rest of us and his joy and enthusiasm couldn't help but make even the crabbiest writers among us come away smiling in spite of ourselves.
It was a gift Joe gave us and I'll miss that.
As writers doing the same job for the same paper at the same time, Joe and I had an unusual relationship. Sports columnists don't have assignments for the most part or much direction either. Steve Clow, our young sports editor who has gone on to become a top editor at the Los Angeles Times, may have thought he had some influence over what we were doing, but he really didn't.
Joe, who had taught Steve sportswriting at USC, and I would listen politely and then, for the most part, go our own way. I always thought of us as lone gunslingers walking down dusty streets poking around for our next idea.
The fact that Joe and I were walking down the same dusty streets most of the time could have been a recipe for trouble, I suppose, It could have easily devolved into "I want to write that." "No, I want write that." But Joe seemed to have a sixth sense, a built-in radar, about not only what he would write on a given day, but what I would write, too. So not only did we never have a shoot-out at the OK Corral, we never even had an earnest discussion that I can remember. Except once.
We were covering a World Series game at Dodger Stadium--for anyone too young to remember, or who wasn't born yet, there actually was a time when they played World Series games at Dodger Stadium--and this was going to be an easy one. Jose Canseco of the Oakland A's got things rolling early when he came up with the bases loaded and hit a ball so hard that it made a dent in the camera beyond the center field fence.
And now there were two out in the bottom of the ninth inning and the A's were leading by a run and they had the best relief pitcher in baseball closing out the game for them. So we were a happy bunch up in the press box, getting an early start on our stories and needing only a couple of post-game quotes to make an early evening of it.
But then a man walked and we looked up to see this big galoot, who we hadn't seen all night, come limping out of the dugout and take his place in the batter's box to face the best relief pitcher in baseball.
After a couple of pitches, the big galoot hit a home run and the Dodgers won the game and the whole ballpark was delirious with joy. But Joe and I, and just about everybody else in the press box, I think, were seized by another emotion: fear.
We all knew this was one of the most dramatic home runs in World Series history and that the next time somebody asked us the one question sports writers hear the most--what are the greatest events you ever covered?--this game would be high on our list. But there wasn't time for that now. There was barely time for Joe and I to have our first earnest discussion.
Here it is word for word.
"Gibson?" I said.
"Eckersley," he said.
We went to our separate locker rooms, wrote our separate columns, looked over at each other as were finishing up and shook our heads and laughed.
Now that, I think you'll agree, is teamwork. That was working with Joe.
Thinking about it all these years later, I realize now that it was just another gift he gave me.
Joe Jares died in July at age 78.