Political Baseball 

A hard-throwing lefty aims for the head of the Sox

By Ben Joravsky

If Jerry Reinsdorf thought he could win over all his local critics by signing Albert Belle to a multimillion-dollar deal, he was wrong.

Oh, there was a gush of approval from fans who rushed out to buy tickets, forgetting of course that they had only recently lambasted the ballpark as ugly and tacky; and a surprising number of media types took to the airwaves to praise Reinsdorf as one of baseball's shrewdest wheeler-dealers.

But Reinsdorf's sharpest local critic, David Peterson, a freelance writer out of Evergreen Park, refused to jump on the bandwagon. A few days after Belle was signed, Peterson fired off an essay on E-mail that castigated Reinsdorf as a hypocrite for showering millions on a free agent after urging his fellow owners to stand tough against the union and wasteful free-agency spending.

Chalk one up for consistency. Win or lose, empty seats or sellouts, as far as Peterson's concerned his war for "honesty" will continue.

In the last few years he's written dozens of essays and letters to the editor (most of which never got published), substantiated by a raft of facts and dedicated to the theme that, as he puts it, "Jerry Reinsdorf is probably the most loathsome sports figure in the history of the state of Illinois." It's a campaign he vows to continue even if the White Sox win the World Series.

For their part, White Sox officials say they've never heard of him. "Sorry, the name doesn't strike a bell," says team spokesman Rob Gallas.

When told of Peterson's letters to the Sun-Times, Tribune, Daily Southtown, and Reader, among others, virulently assailing Reinsdorf for perpetuating the baseball labor dispute and strong-arming the state into building a stadium, Gallas said, "Sounds like he needs more things to do."

It's not surprising that the Sox could claim to know nothing of Peterson. He's not part of the usual media crowd, and he has no university position to give him institutional authority. An ideological soul mate of Noam Chomsky, he relies on the letters-to-the-editor page as his forum.

His political beliefs are somewhat surprising, given that he's the son of a conservative Republican who ran a trucking company. He was raised on the southwest side--hardly a bastion of radical politics--and graduated from Marist High School in 1977. "I can't say that there was any kind of earth-shattering event that took place in my life transforming me politically into what I am now," says Peterson. "But a lot of the nuns I had from fifth to eighth grade were of the new generation coming out in the 60s. They were not afraid to ask questions, so maybe that had something to do with it."

He graduated from the University of Illinois at Chicago with a major in philosophy, and helped rehab buildings for a few years before quitting to devote his time to research and writing--making ends meet by "watching things closely." Peterson says his workday begins early, as he confronts the mass of newspapers, magazines, and journals he regularly reads, clips, and files by subject. By his own count he subscribes to 40 different publications--ranging from the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists to Covert Action Quarterly to such journals of the Right as the American Spectator and the National Review.

"I have to read those magazines and I have to read the Tribune so I can keep a tab on how much is out there that is dirty and corrupt," he says. "I have to constantly familiarize myself with the point of view of corrupt institutions. There's a benefit to reading crap, if you recognize that it's crap."

What makes Peterson so unusual among leftists is that when he's not writing about more esoteric concerns (like international monetary policy) he writes about sports--or at least about the business ethics of the White Sox.

Part of his interest is personal: he rooted for the Sox as a kid and still has fond memories of the great South Side Hit Men of '77, Bill Veeck's last winning team. But he's not a fanatic. Though he claims a phenomenal ability to recall conversations from ten years ago, he can't remember the name of the team's starting center fielder. He might never have written about the team had Reinsdorf not sought public funding for a new stadium. To Peterson, that was a classic case of the haves stealing from the have-nots.

"If the government's going to subsidize anyone it ought to be on the basis of need," he says. "You can't make the case that an owner has any authentic need or that resources ought to be dedicated to that use. Beyond that, it's fairly clear that these things [ballparks] are money losers--that is, the Chicago White Sox don't add anything significant to the local economy."

Over the years he has built a voluminous clip file on the White Sox, with articles arranged by subject. "I've got a Reinsdorf file, a baseball file, a publicly subsidized stadium file, a new Comiskey Park file, and an old Comiskey Park file," he says. "I clip articles like crazy and then I remember where they are."

Pity the reporter lazy or naive enough to print Reinsdorf's assertion that the old Comiskey Park was beyond repair. In his files Peterson has a copy of a 1988 engineering report commissioned by the state that says the park could be renovated. He'll use that report to write a sarcastic letter pointing out the writer's error (as he once did with me). "A lot of times I'll take the opportunity to write a letter just to get old information out, so it's not forgotten," he says.

Some of his harshest criticism is aimed at press coverage of the Sox. With the exception of Bill Gleason of the Daily Southtown and Jay Mariotti of the Sun-Times, Peterson says, most local reporters print pretty much whatever the White Sox give them (he's particularly critical of the Tribune's Jerome Holtzman, whom he calls "a stenographer to power"). He believes the local press never adequately reported how the city was blackmailed into building a new ballpark for the Sox.

To demonstrate his point, he plucks an article he found two years ago in an out-of-town paper, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. It quotes Reinsdorf as saying: "When I first went and spoke to Gov. Jim Thompson about the need for a ball park, he told us right away he would do everything he could to help us. But he said, 'It'll never happen unless people think you are going to leave.' He told us that right away. And I didn't want to play it that way. And we spent a long time trying to convince everybody of the need for it. And we didn't get anyplace. So we really had no choice. Fortuitously, we were contacted by several cities who were interested in the possibility of our moving there....We decided that we ought to explore those options, that maybe Thompson was right. Unfortunately, we had to go to the brink before it could get done."

It's disgraceful, Peterson says, that local publications did not pick up on Reinsdorf's comments. "That should have been a big banner-headlined story," he says. "In effect, you have the governor colluding with the owner in order to get a subsidy. Instead, it goes virtually unreported in this town."

Peterson's not nearly as outraged over the Tribune Company's management of the Cubs, an ambivalence that says a lot about his and the public's conflicting attitudes toward the two teams. Certainly the Tribune Company's been heavy-handed. True, it didn't demolish Wrigley Field, which is what one Tribune editorial suggested it do if residents didn't drop the fight against lights. But it desecrated it with beer ads and pushed many sidewalk vendors out of business, while using the paper's editorial voice to keep aldermen and legislators in line regarding its Wrigley Field interests. And the Cubs made the single biggest boneheaded move of any local team in the last 25 years when they let Greg Maddox leave through free agency. But Cubs fans seem happy.

"Cub fans know the Tribune Company is a moneymaker that uses the Cubs to feed its other entities, but they don't care 'cause they have Wrigley Field," says Mike Quigley, a Lakeview resident who helped lead the unsuccessful fight against lights. "It's almost like they don't care what the Tribune does as long as they have their sunshine and their ballpark."

White Sox officials contend that Tribune Company bosses get less scrutiny because they're more anonymous. "With the Tribune Company, you have a faceless, nameless corporation," says Gallas. "With the White Sox, you're talking about a recognizable face and name, Jerry Reinsdorf. He listens to complaints, he answers his mail, he talks to reporters, he faces the fans. Not only is he visible, he's a lightning rod."

(Indeed, neither Gallas, Quigley, nor even Peterson, who says he reads the Tribune every day, even knew who runs the Tribune Company. The CEO is John Madigan.)

Peterson says he has no interest in the Cubs because the public didn't build them a new stadium. "I've never been a Cubs fan," he says. "I'm not that much of a Sox fan anymore either--the owner's killed it for me. I wish sports teams were owned by someone who isn't separate and distinct from the players. I think they should go back to the way they had it in the 1850s when the players owned the team. It's been downhill since then." o

Script Tease

So you wanna be a screenwriter . . .

By Bill Stamets

"Unlike many of you, I don't consider myself an artist," said Ira Deutchman, the keynote speaker opening Script Sessions. "I'm going to get a bit controversial. I don't think there's anything wrong with working with formulas, it's what you do with them that counts." Deutchman, the founder and president of an independent film production company called Redeemable Features, was appearing at a three-day screenwriting workshop put on by CineStory--a screenwriters' conservatory--and Columbia College. He once ran a film society at Northwestern, and now teaches at Columbia University on the side. He bashed the latest batch of independent films at the Sundance festival for their absurdly antiaudience posture. "Look at the career of someone like Jean-Luc Godard. He spent his life deconstructing the pantheon and he never broke through to an audience. He grew tiresome."

Script Sessions drew over a hundred aspiring screenwriters who are on a tireless quest for formulas to Hollywood success. In the clubby environs of the Union League, where 39 brands of cigars are sold from under a glass counter in the lobby, Script Sessions set up shop on the eighth floor. Registration tables carried flyers touting the latest software from FictionMaster and Dramatica ("At the click of a button see which classic stories share the same structural elements as your story"). Collaborator's Version III Plus includes a "Conflict Thesaurus" and "Conflict Arena." There are also reference books for injecting realism: Deadly Doses: A Writer's Guide to Poisons; Cause of Death: A Writer's Guide to Death, Murder & Forensic Medicine; and Malicious Intent: A Writer's Guide to How Murderers, Robbers, Rapists and Other Criminals Think.

CineStory cofounder Dona Cooper, who at age 13 got into a screaming match with the boy next door over the faulty dramatic structure of Sartre's Nausea, sold copies of her handbook Writing Great Screenplays for Film and TV. Cooper, a senior vice president of daytime programming at ABC Entertainment, likens screenwriting to erecting a roller coaster with "load-bearing pillars of plot." Anticipate your audience's "emotional ups and downs," she advises in her handbook. "It's almost as if you could hook up EKGs to the bodies of your viewers." You'll hear "the clear beep-beep-beep of an internal Geiger counter" when you connect with your script's "dramatic center." It's a "visceral click," she writes.

Various speakers--including the screenwriters of Groundhog Day, Georgia, and Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead--showed clips from the movies that affected them most. Among the 16 clips were scenes from Around the World in 80 Days and My Brilliant Career, where the heroine announces: "I want to be a writer." Each clip elicited a round of applause that seemed to celebrate the art form and congratulate the tastes of the speakers, with further kudos going to those who got choked up while commenting on their selections.

The oddest choice was a double bill from Ken Kokin, the coproducer of The Usual Suspects. He juxtaposed a scene from Fritz Lang's child-murder thriller M with a Nazi rally scene from Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will that ended with a close-up of a monumental swastika. The applause afterward was notably muted. "My thing as an artist is to be very aware of your world and what's going on," he explained.

On Sunday Kokin hosted a session where he detailed the hectic life of a producer. His current roster of 15 production possibilities includes Cleveland Mob and LA Cop. A bit fidgety, he interlaced three pens between the fingers of his right hand and complained that he hadn't gone surfing in over a year.

Afterward he met privately with screenwriters to hear their pitches. (The CineStory brochure cautioned attendees, "Please remember: no pitching allowed except in designated pitch sessions.") Listening to the opening scene of a romantic-comedy caper involving an HIV positive Texan who marries to get health insurance, Kokin counseled one screenwriter: "The line 'Hot pink azalea bushes as tall as basketball players' is good for the reader, but it does nothing for the movie." He dispensed such quasi-Zen one-liners as "Figure out what you want to say, then don't say it" and "Let's see it without saying it."

Kokin's next appointment was with DonnaMarie Vaughan. She pitched her screenplay about a serial killer with terminal ovarian cancer who custom executes her victims in grisly styles inspired by the methods they have used to abuse their children. A mom on cocaine lets her baby get critically sunburned, so the killer irons off the unmindful parent's face and douses her with barbeque starter fluid. There's a love angle, there are bureaucratic obstacles between the child-services department and homicide detectives, there's a sleazy senator who's a copycat killer. "Cut to the chase," prompts Kokin, as plot threads intricately tangle. "How do they figure out it's her?"

Kokin gave Vaughan points for a compelling presentation, but worried about her business acumen when she mentioned a one-page, no-pay option she signed after her script won an honorable mention in a Colorado contest. "Me, I want to write," she said. "I don't want to worry about points in other countries." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): David Peterson photo by Bruce Powell.

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