Though he labored under a crippling handicap, last spring Chris De Luca, now the sports editor of the Sun-Times, successfully predicted six of the eight teams that would play in Major League Baseball's 2009 postseason. That's why he's our man of the hour: the winner of this year's Golden BAT.
The BAT, De Luca's first, is one of two pieces of extraordinary good fortune to recently befall him. The other is that he still has a job.
I called and gave De Luca the news.
"Oh my god!" he said. "Wow!"
His reaction was a familiar one, sportswriters thirsting for even a drop of the glory with which they shower Neanderthals.
"Wow!" De Luca said again.
That's one more wow than I'm used to, I said.
"I've been trying to win this forever, and then I just gave up," he said.
I told him the presentation would be made at a lavish virtual ceremony.
"With virtual drinks?"
There'll be a virtual open bar, I promised.
The BAT—standing for Baseball Acumen Test—was founded by Neil Tesser when he was writing Hot Type back in 1981. The point Tesser wanted to make was that there's precious little acumen in the press box, and a tin of sardines could judge the upcoming pennant races as accurately.
It's turned out that baseball writers frequently outclass the sardines. But a critical exception must be acknowledged—the occasional pennant race when, on paper, either the Cubs or Sox are hands down the team to beat. Sardines are immune to mindless optimism, but Chicago's finest scriveners always succumb. This was the handicap De Luca labored under last year: the mass delusion that because the Cubs looked unbeatable in 2009, no one in the National League Central would beat them.
"They did it the last two years and I didn't see them not doing it again," De Luca said sadly. "Usually I never like to pick the Cubs, but the Cardinals just didn't dazzle me."
The Cubs ended the '09 season seven and a half games behind the Saint Louis Cardinals and out of the playoffs. With one exception, every baseball writer in the competition picked the Cubs. Rick Telander's choice in the NL Central was the Cardinals, and if he hadn't weakened in the end and gone with the Cubs to make the playoffs as the wild card team, he'd have earned the Golden BAT for strength of character.
But as things stand, De Luca nipped him. Telander also named six playoff teams, but he was dead-on about only four of them. De Luca aced the American League: he had the Yankees, Twins, and Angels winning their divisions and the Red Sox reaching the playoffs as the wild card. (Telander called the Red Sox and Yanks but in the wrong order.) In the National League, where Telander accurately called the Cards and Dodgers to win their divisions, De Luca named the Dodgers and Phillies—but he underestimated the Phils, even though they were the defending world champs, and predicted they'd make the playoffs only as the wild card.
When it came to the actual pennant winners, the performances were generally dismal. Only Dan McGrath, then at the Tribune (and today at the Chicago News Cooperative), called the Phillies' second straight NL pennant, and only the Trib's Paul Sullivan called the Yankees' AL flag. Whatever was in the local water last spring, Sullivan drank it: he had the Cubs actually reaching the World Series. But he picked the Yanks to win it—even the most reckless wishful thinking has its limits.
The Golden BAT has long been esteemed as the highest honor likely to come the way of a working stiff on a local sports desk, but today it's the visionary aspect of Tesser's competition that shines brightest. It would be neither inaccurate nor immodest to suggest that the award he invented almost 30 years ago anticipated the future of journalism. At the time, newspapering was a tactile line of work that involved physical contact not only with paper but also ink—a familiar 20th-century fluid—and it was done for living wages. But all that's changed. The virtual champagne that will flow at De Luca's virtual coronation will be virtually swilled by numbed colleagues who barely know what hit them. All they know is that the future of journalism seems to belong to a new generation of enthusiasts writing under virtual names for virtual media that pay virtual salaries. To be a journalist today is to share the excitement of getting in on the ground floor of a mine shaft.