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Inside the Walls of BA

By Alan Schwarz

We never wanted you to know. That was the whole point.

We never wanted you to know the obstacle course we faced to put together the issue of Sept. 30, 1996. One of the great thrills of working for any magazine is how readers take it so much for granted, expecting it simply to materialize in their mailboxes, that you can’t ever let them down. Whatever problems ensnarl the office, whatever disaster befalls it, the issue simply must get out the door–on time, in full and with no indication that anything was ever wrong. A good tailor never shows his seams.

We never wanted you to know because it was our little secret. But five years removed, I suppose we can fess up–and invite you to the windiest, the wildest, the why-don’t-we-just-wing-itest week in the 20-year history of Baseball America.

"You can’t do it," our boss claimed.

He was wrong.

We were enjoying just another Thursday evening on Sept. 5, 1996, when Hurricane Fran ripped through central North Carolina and left it unforgivingly tattered. We woke up to find trees tossed like toothpicks and power lines strung about the streets like giant shoelaces. Electricity was fantasy. The few of us who could actually drive to the office in downtown Durham–a wispy, two-story dwelling we were lucky wasn’t whisked away to Narnia–found computers dead as doorknobs with the same chance for resurrection. Word was power would return in about a week.

Considering our issue was to go to press the following Tuesday, this was decidedly inconvenient. But people must find out that Andruw Jones is our Minor League Player of the Year! What about all those Troy Neel fans craving news of his hot streak for the Orix Blue Wave? Duty called–though for several days all it got was an earful of out-of-service bulletins.

We wandered about the parking lot for an hour or so before learning that power grids near hospitals would be enlivened first. I lived about a mile from one and happily discovered at about 3 p.m. Friday that the juice had returned. Bingo. No one else had much chance of electricity for at least several days, so we packed up a half-dozen computers–praying they hadn’t been flash-fried–and set up a home base in my living room, which soon buzzed like the headquarters of an underfunded Congressional candidate.

You should know, by the way, that at BA there’s no army of little elves to put together the magazine. Not only do elves have a better health plan, but there were just seven of us–editors Allan Simpson, Will Lingo, John Royster and me, plus three production people. Our managing editor, Jim Callis, had stealthily scheduled his vacation for that issue and was overseas in London; after we got my rudimentary AOL account up and running again, Jim kept in contact with us with several instant messages. "Tee hee," I believe they went.

The top people at the magazine thought we’d never get the issue out anywhere near our 2 p.m. Tuesday deadline. We had to track down each of 40 correspondents and coordinate them sending their stories (through one schizophrenic phone line) to my ramshackle Powerbook. Because we had no network, floppy disks transported stories from one terminal to the other for editing. And then, because my fuse box began smoldering, the production side of the operation–the construction of page layouts and advertisements–had to be relocated to the only other employee home with power. In Raleigh, 40 minutes away.

But who wouldn’t enjoy this? Who wouldn’t giggle at the scene’s sheer absurdity? We regressed some 5-15 years apiece to our college days when we didn’t know any better but to have a blast. Fourteen-hour days never tasted so good: Jill Simpson, Allan’s wife, had two freezers full of frozen burgers and shrimp and tater tots that were melting like the Wicked Witch, so she stuffed all she could in my freezer. We hadn’t eaten so well in weeks.

We churned through the stories as normally as we could: Will’s Andruw Jones cover feature, Peter Gammons’ column heralding how the Red Sox might lure a Japanese phenom named Hideki Irabu to Boston, and Tracy Ringolsby’s story on how screwed up the Pirates are. (Ah . . . some things never change.) Everyone but me left at 10 p.m. for homes with still no electricity; I would wake up at 6 a.m. to get things moving and cut pages while propped up in bed in my bathrobe. "You’re Hef!" a friend of mine rejoiced. Sadly, the only pinups in this joint were production schedules ticking away.

On Monday afternoon, about 24 hours before deadline, we learned that power had returned downtown. Somewhat disappointed, we drove all the computers and pages and pica poles back to the office and finished up the issue where we had started it one week before. But the heart of it lay back in my living room, which for several days retained the unique aroma of editors and chicken fingers equally fried.

We made deadline–with a half-hour to spare–something Jim, our absent leader, hadn’t done all summer. Best of all, we made sure the magazine had no mention of the hurricane, the blackout, the modem or the mayhem, because for you to never know was the ultimate triumph.

But you know what? If you’ve read this far, if you enjoy this magazine as much as we do, you would have done the exact same thing.

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