Sportswriters: Masters of Their Universe; Never Having to Say You're Sorry; Flack's Wet Dream; News Bite | Media | Chicago Reader

Sportswriters: Masters of Their Universe; Never Having to Say You're Sorry; Flack's Wet Dream; News Bite 

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Sportswriters: Masters of Their Universe

One of the joys of being a sportswriter is that you get to do things journalists are never ever supposed to do, like manufacture the big story before you write it. You can even boast about doing it.

War isn't contingent on the correspondents who cover the fighting, but without the gang in the press box, the big game is just a bunch of beefy guys working up a sweat. The jocks don't create myths and anoint legends; the TV cameras don't either. But when a sportswriter or announcer throws out a phrase like "they'll talk about this one forever," well, then we do.

A lot of sportswriters despise many of the jocks they cover because the jocks aren't properly grateful. They don't get that they owe the journalists everything: not merely fame and fortune but the arrogant certainty that what they do in life is worth doing. Bobby Knight famously once said of sportswriters, "All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things." Sportswriters should have replied, "What a coincidence! All of us learn to bounce a ball when we're two. Most of us go on to greater things too." Without sportswriters, no one would give a rat's patootie what Bobby Knight went on to.

Sportswriters have arrogated to themselves certain powers. One is the right to decide which myths to give life everlasting. The ten-year veterans of the Baseball Writers' Association of America choose the retired ballplayers who will be admitted to the sport's Hall of Fame, and most are solemn and studious about their duty. Last week Dennis Eckersley and Paul Molitor were elected to the hall, and ESPN.com's Jayson Stark posted an elaborate story explaining his ballot.

"Nowadays, we live in an age in which nothing is ever simple," Stark wrote. Having agonized, he walked us through his agonies. He'd voted not only for Molitor and Eckersley but for Goose Gossage, Bruce Sutter, Ryne Sandberg, Andre Dawson, Dale Murphy, and Jack Morris. He hadn't voted for Jim Rice, Lee Smith, or Joe Carter, but he'd been tempted. He told us in detail exactly why in his view some were worthy and others weren't. If at any time during the long nights he wrestled with his soul he'd ever wondered why acting as gatekeeper to Valhalla was any of his business, he didn't let on.

Then there's Pete Rose. During his playing career he collected more hits than anyone else in baseball history. Years later he was thrown out of organized baseball for betting on the Reds while he managed them. Despite overwhelming evidence, Rose stubbornly denied the obvious--until in a new book he changed his tune. Apparently he reached the remarkable conclusion that by admitting he'd lied to the world for the last 14 years he'd collect enough brownie points to be allowed into the Hall of Fame.

On January 9 five Sun-Times baseball writers wrote stories explaining how they'll vote this year if Rose's name is allowed on the ballot. Three said they'd support him. "Nobody played the game harder than Rose did," wrote Ron Rapoport. "Nobody enjoyed playing it more than Rose did." Two said they wouldn't. "If he somehow survives this and reaches the Hall, I'm turning in my BBWAA card," wrote Jay Mariotti. But the situation is fluid. Joe Goddard, still a yes vote, has about had it with Rose. "This is a very stupid man," he tells me. "He's even contradicting his own book now. He's just not getting it."

If the BBWAA does get to vote on Rose next year, the voters will empty barrels of ink analyzing what they did and why they did it. This self-involvement will be entirely to the hall's benefit. Halls of fame, like games of the century, matter only as much as the people involved with them think they do, and as long as membership is a prize awarded by journalists, journalism will exalt it in language due a pope or president. Baseball writers have been the ones choosing the members since the hall was founded in 1936, and it's hard to imagine anyone else taking over. "I think we do it as well as anybody," says Goddard. "I'm not sure we're more qualified than managers or players, but we see these guys all the time."

The op-ed pundits of America who contemplated the sins of Bill Clinton back in the days of Monica Lewinsky wrote themselves into a lather, but they weren't the ones who voted on whether to impeach him. If they had been, they probably would have produced a more enlightened, less cynical vote than the House of Representatives came up with. But their job was merely to influence public opinion and enlighten Congress, not to take matters into their own hands.

Sportswriters take matters into their own hands because if they didn't, those matters wouldn't matter. They decide who's in the Hall of Fame. They decide who's the most valuable player, the Cy Young Award winner, the rookie and the manager of the year, and just about every paper goes along with this--the New York Times is the only one that doesn't. Sportswriters live in another world.

Never Having to Say You're Sorry

The managing editor of Elgin's Courier News is digging himself out of a hole. Mike Bailey writes a column each Sunday, and on December 28 he began: "Once in awhile, I have to do something for my people. This one is for the frustrated, abused and underappreciated males who would love, just once, to summon up the courage to say one of these things to their wives/girlfriends."

"These things" made for a long list. It began, "If you think you are fat, you probably are. Don't ask us. We can't answer." It ended, "If we ask you 'what's wrong' and you say 'nothing,' we will act like nothing's wrong. We know you are lying, but it's just not worth the hassle."

Ring a bell? The Courier News runs a feature called "Speakout" that's fed by readers who phone and leave recorded messages that give writers what for. Several called because Bailey had either infuriated or tickled them. But here's a comment published on January 6: "Shame on you, Mike Bailey. Your 'if only men had the courage' column has been floating around the Internet and been seen in e-mail forwards for months. Why didn't you acknowledge those were not your own words?"

This caller had Bailey dead to rights. The paper responded, "Mike did not mean to imply that the column was original. The original list, in fact, was sent to him via an e-mail from a reader."

Two days later another caller showed up in "Speakout" asserting, "I have read those same comments in a trade publication at one of my places of employment." The Courier News responded, "The column was never intended to be portrayed as original. The list has been in circulation for months and most readers recognized it as such."

Regret is carefully calibrated at most newspapers, and it's not surprising that the Courier News did no serious breast beating. But theft of language is the sin of sins. Even some staffers were a little startled at the lack of anything that even vaguely approximated an apology.

"I'm explaining this. I'm not on my hands and knees," Bailey tells me. "It was a holiday column. I was in and out that week. I wanted to make sure I had something light and humorous." The list showed up, he went with it, and he forgot to say where it came from. "I disclosed all this to my publisher. She said, 'Fine. It's not like you stole William Faulkner and claimed it was yours.'"

This week in an editor's note, "Speakout" took up Bailey's column for the third time. The note said, "We have pretty much excoriated Mike Bailey for his (unoriginal) Dec. 28 column, which he mistakenly assumed everyone knew came from the Web. He assures us that were he to pilfer something and claim it for his own, it would be something of greater literary value."

So Bailey had caught it at work. But from whom? His publisher hadn't excoriated him, and Bailey's the top editor. Did he excoriate himself? Bailey explains that he was excoriated by readers who didn't like the column. I'd say the editor's note was trying hard to give readers a different impression. But Bailey should know. He wrote it.

It's usually a mistake to nonchalant a screwup. A quick dip to hands and knees is shorter, sweeter, and a lot more coherent.

Flack's Wet Dream

On the front page of this week's Windy City Times is something I've never seen before--a long, important article on a controversial subject that confesses at the get-go it was written by a publicist. Under the headline "Chicago to Bid for Gay Games in 2006," in the space where a byline would normally go, there is instead the announcement, Chicago Games, Inc., Press Release.

The press release was written by Kevin Boyer, managing partner of Third Coast Marketing and a board member of Chicago Games, Inc., the body that was formed to try to bring the 2006 games to the city. Another board member (so identified in the press release) is Tracy Baim, publisher and managing editor of Windy City Times. For five years Baim has been campaigning to bring the 2006 games here. In 2001 the Federation of Gay Games chose Montreal instead, but because the FGG couldn't work out a licensing agreement with the Montreal sponsors, two months ago it reopened the bidding process.

This background was explained at great length in the front-page story that was actually a press release.

Why a press release?

"We're in an awkward position," Baim allows, "like the Tribune owning the Cubs." But the Tribune has never covered the Cubs by press release. Baim says opponents of the games have had their say in her letters section, and Windy City Times columnist Rex Wockner has been free to argue for Montreal--which intends to host its own sports festival regardless. Even so, she's been writing pro-Gay Games analysis pieces for Windy City Times and working 30 hours a week to get the bid, and she recognizes that her paper is so thoroughly identified with the Gay Games that nothing it publishes on them will be trusted as objective. "Last week was just the official announcement of the actual bid," she explained in an e-mail. "I felt the only way to deal with this was the press release. Any reporter would still be perceived as working for the publisher who is part of this effort."

Maybe it's time to reconsider the merits of the oft-maligned press release. I'll give you that it's partisan. I'll give you that it's totally one-sided. But at least you know where a press release is coming from. You can't always say that about a newspaper. Some lesser papers actually run press releases disguised as articles. Baim wouldn't stand for that. She told readers up front that a press release was what they were getting.

"I did it on purpose, absolutely, consciously on purpose, because of the critics," says Baim. "I said, 'It's this point of view.' This was a very conscious effort on my part."

"I think that's honest," says Lisa Neff, managing editor of the competition, the Chicago Free Press, which has editorialized against the games. Even so, Neff takes the traditionalist's position that actual reporting would have been superior. "A better way to go," she says, "is to hire a freelance writer and say, 'I won't interfere with the story you turn in.'"

The Free Press's front-page story on the Gay Games was written by a staff writer. Balance was achieved by quoting from the same press release that made up the totality of the Windy City Times coverage and from skeptics who think the games are a bad idea.

News Bite

8 Do closers belong in baseball's Hall of Fame? Dennis Eckersley was just voted in, but he's only the third one to make it. Ron Rapoport, a fan of closers, wrote last week, "Oh, please, sniff the naysayers. Relievers are part-time players, one-trick wonders. The moral equivalent of designated hitters."

I read Rapoport and realized that it was time to pose a different question. Do starting pitchers belong in the Hall of Fame? Today's starters strut out to the mound determined to go a full five innings come hell or high water. As coaches carefully tally each pitch lest (shudder) fatigue set in, these doughty moundsmen engage the opposing batting order once, perhaps even twice, and beat a retreat just about the time that enemy batters get a bead on them. Sometime next week they'll recover enough of their strength to attempt this ordeal again.

Closers, on the other hand, show up only when there's no margin for error and it's kill or be killed. They're expected to be ready to go every single day.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/William L. Brown.

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