The editorial staff of the Tribune is waiting for something dreadful to happen. This will be the announcement that, in a capacity not yet defined, Jay Mariotti is joining the family. “Only six groups would be offended by Jay being hired,” says Tribune sports columnist Mike Downey. “The Cubs. The White Sox. The Bears. The Bulls. The Tribune staff. And our readers. Everybody else is going to say, ‘What a great hire!'”

“Everybody else” may be a majority of two — Tribune Company COO Randy Michaels and innovation chief Lee Abrams. From what I hear, no mere editors are involved in the project to lure Mariotti into the Tower. Michaels and Abrams, with no prior newspaper experience between them, are Sam Zell’s guys, and I’m sure these two men of the world will have no trouble shrugging off Mariotti’s history of surly Zell-bashing back when Mariotti did his writing for the Sun-Times. “Can you believe the Cubs are stuck with this loon?” wrote Mariotti of Zell last February, when Zell was talking about selling naming rights to Wrigley Field. “Maybe a front can be mounted against The Evil Zell if enough fans raise hell.”

That’s all so yesterday. Mariotti abruptly left the Sun-Times last month when, in another of his familiar rages, he threatened to quit and this time the paper let him go. And even before that, from what Downey’s heard, Michaels and Abrams were eyeing Mariotti for the Tribune franchise. “No one I know wants to work with him,” says Downey, who knows everyone in the Tribune sports department, “but I don’t believe Jay cares if they do or don’t. Jay’s a very independent guy. It won’t matter to him if he’s accepted. He won’t care.”

Reports of mass resignations in the sports department are overblown, according to Downey, because people need their jobs too much to give them up on principle. “But a couple of people probably would leave” — Downey wouldn’t name them — “and several more would begin looking for something new.”

Including you? 

“It’s not impossible.” Naturally, Downey wonders if the addition of Mariotti as a sports columnist would make his own column expendable. On the one hand, the redesigned Tribune gets rolled out on September 29, and he’s been asked to go out into the marketplace and do meet-and-greets. The paper’s also taken a new picture of him for his column. On the other hand, the Tribune Company is crying poverty and Downey is well paid, though not nearly as well paid as Mariotti would be.

“They would be costing me a considerable amount of money if they were to let me go,” Downey says, “so I’d at the very least have to explore what my legal position would be.” But as he describes it, hiring Mariotti wouldn’t put the Tribune so much in legal as in ethical jeopardy. Facing massive debt, the Tribune Company is slashing costs. “If we weren’t having serious cutbacks I’d say, ‘OK, they want to add him to the stafff,'” Downey says. “But to lay off hundreds of people and then go pay him hundreds of thousands of dollars — I’d find that hard to understand. I’m not sure how they’d justify it — but they may not care whether they can justify it.”

There’s apparently a wrinkle that’s kept the Tribune from announcing Mariotti’s arrival already. Mariotti’s Sun-Times contract had a clause keeping him from quitting to join the competition. Various scenarios have circulated around the Tower as possible resolutions to this impasse. One would set Mariotti up as a sort of independent contractor writing for his own Web site — which would be accessed through the Tribune home page. Another would throw some dollars at the Sun-Times to buy his freedom. A third would simply defy the Sun-Times and begin printing Mariotti’s columns anyway — this strategy banks on the Sun-Times being too poor to fight back in court.

“I’ve been alerted that the announcement could happen any day now,” says Downey. “I have colleagues who are appalled by this and would like to protest in some way if it happened” How? “A petition to the editor, or a formal letter of protest.” 

But isn’t the time for that now,  before he’s hired?

“Yes, but the company hasn’t admitted they’re trying to hire Jay.” And he reflects that Lee Abrams could reply that it’s his very toxicity “that makes Jay so controversial and marketable.”

When Mariotti left the Sun-Times, that paper went crazy with joy. The celebration in its pages was absurd — if the paper hadn’t kept throwing money at him he wouldn’t have stayed there 17 years — but the sense of deliverance was genuine. “This is a chance for rebirth. This is joy,” said sports columnist Rick Telander, who despises Mariotti. “A whole shitload of guys called me last night joyous! Ding dong, the witch is dead!”

But not dead, apparently, just moving east.

“The two Ricks — Telander and Morrissey — hate Jay Mariotti more than anyone I know,” says Downey. “Telander describes himself as reborn since Jay left. He’s almost giddy. And my friend [and colleague] Rick Morrissey is livid about this, if it turns out to be true. He can’t imagine a worse case scenario.”

“We think communication is knowledge, but it’s not — it’s hollow,” says Telander, trying to explain Mariotti’s appeal in our media-battered age, “and we’re all caught up in the techniques of screeching and texting. The original thing was Bughouse Square, where the people were on soapboxes. You had to be heard — it didn’t matter what your message was. But if your veins were bulging and your eyes were popping out of your sockets, then people would watch. Like the fat lady and the three-headed boy at the Illinois fair, it was a quick shot of goof.”