There was no panic in the voice.
A few hours earlier, John Sterling had returned to his apartment complex, The Avalon at Edgewater, in New Jersey. He smelled smoke. The radio voice of the Yankees walked to the elevators in the front of the building. They were shut down.
Then John Sterling walked to the back of the building to elevators he usually takes to glide up to his place.
The smoke was so intense it made his decision for him.
“I just said: ‘John, you better get the hell out of here,’” Sterling told me over the telephone Wednesday night.
So, he got into his car, leaving everything behind, and drove to a hotel.
The tone of Sterling’s voice reflected the pragmatic nature of his decision. Leaving The Avalon behind was the right move. Thank God he did not try to go back in. He had every reason to. No one wants to leave behind so many memories. Thank goodness he didn’t feel the urge to go back and get some of the stuff, all the memories he had accumulated.
The pictures. The books. His beloved music.
Sterling was describing the feeling.
“Can you hold a second,” Sterling said.
A couple of minutes later he was back on the line. “That was Willie Randolph,” Sterling said. “He wanted to see how I was doing.”
There were many other concerned callers. Some folks from the Yankees, a friend from Los Angeles (Sterling: “It must be some fire. It was on Ch. 7 in L.A.”), his partner Suzyn Waldman and plenty of others.
“It’s simply amazing how many people found out about this fire,” Sterling said. “How many people were worried, how many called to see if you are doing OK and tell you they love you.”
Sterling has always followed his own beat. He lives in his own world. Still, when faced with the possibility of losing his home and everything in it, faced with so much damn uncertainty, Sterling remained calm. This wasn’t a front. Maybe it was about all who were so concerned and showed instant support. There was also the fact that there was nothing he could really do.
“You know, we can all relate to having our own safe existence, and what it could mean if that’s taken away,” Sterling said. “At least I know I’m safe tonight. I don’t have a toothbrush, but I’m safe.”
Thank goodness. Selfishly (and I told Sterling this), there are a lot of column inches to be filled this summer. And there will be that signature moment this spring when the ever-optimistic Sterling welcomes back Alex Rodriguez with the kind of salute only he can deliver.
Tampa seemed so far away last night. We were not talking baseball.
For reality told Sterling that there is stark uncertainty. As calm as he sounded, Sterling wondered what he was going to do. He’s alone with decisions to make. No one plans for moments like these. Tuesday night he had a roof over his head. A day later he wasn’t so sure.
“You know, I was planning to move to a new complex,” he said. “But that plan was down the road.”
Then, at least in what’s left of my mind, something kicked in. We heard it in Sterling’s voice. It was the same kind of optimism he displayed when the gritty, gutty Yankees of his pal Joe Torre were mounting so many comebacks during the glory years.
Yeah, maybe Sterling would get lucky and would not lose his apartment and everything in it.
“How amazing would that be,” he said.
But Sterling realized he was talking about material objects. Yeah, his life could be turned upside down, but he will deal with it. At least he wasn’t trapped in those flames. “There’s not much else I can do but drive back tomorrow and see what happened,” Sterling said.
See if anything of that stuff he talked about is left, including his wardrobe.
Sterling laughed, sort of. See, on Saturday he’s got a gig taping a segment of the Hallmark Kitten Bowl with Mary Carillo.
“And all I got to wear is what I’m wearing now,” Sterling said. “Jeans, sweater and a polo shirt.”
But in his heart, soul, and mind he has so much more.
And a voice that, thank goodness, flames never got the chance to extinguish.