Let’s talk a minute about wisdom. Collective wisdom. These days it comes in two varieties. There’s the new Wikipedia model, what we might call the wisdom of the tribe, in which each member adds his unique glimmer of understanding to a common pool. It’s a fine thing, if not as fine as some communards want us to think. Bees make honey, but solitary geniuses in dingy rented rooms make breakthroughs.
At least they do in the movies I like to go to.
Then there’s the other kind of collective wisdom–old-fashioned conventional wisdom. Conventional wisdom isn’t about getting it right, it’s about safety in numbers. In the case of sports, that means going by the book. If Bill James and Billy Beane come along and tear up the book, that’s OK, because they’ll leave behind a new one. And there’s no shame in being wrong when you only did what the book told you.
Every spring, the cream of Chicago sportswriters predict the outcome of the impending baseball season. I’m not saying there’s a book they go by. I’m simply saying that there’s no way I can single out for good-natured ridicule the ones who picked the White Sox to triumph in the AL Central last season, because every last one of them did that. And there’s no way I can hail the perspicacious scribes who predicted the Cardinals would prevail in the NL Central, because all but Rick Morrissey did that, too.
I was reviewing their performances, of course, because it’s the time of year when I announce the winner of the Golden BAT (Baseball Acumen Test), the coveted honor given by this column to the previous spring’s most successful forecaster. In the past I’ve always favored accuracy, but this year I’m searching for a formula–what the smart set calls an “algorithm”–that factors in originality as well. For what time has taught us is that the scriveners score high in years when the favorites prevail, and score low in years when they don’t. The maverick who leaves the herd without humiliating himself should get the credit he’s due.
If anything skews the results here in Chicago, it’s the scribes’ touching inclination to favor the locals–which isn’t individualism, it’s wishful thinking. Yet their unanimous support last spring for the White Sox wasn’t sentimental–it was by the book. The Sox were the defending champs, after all. If they’d asked me, I’d have told them a team that can be counted on to win a championship every 90 years isn’t a good bet to repeat, but they didn’t ask me. And sure enough, the Sox finished the season out of the money, trailing Minnesota, which had the best record in the division, and Detroit, which wound up in the World Series. Not a single scrivener picked either team to reach the playoffs. So it goes.
But enough fanfare. The winner is: the Tribune’s Paul Sullivan, who has copped his first Golden BAT by picking the New York Yankees and Oakland A’s to win the AL East and West respectively, and the Cardinals, New York Mets, and San Diego Padres to prevail in the NL Central, East, and West. The race couldn’t have been closer. Right behind Sullivan were his Tribune colleagues Phil Rogers and Rick Morrissey. Rogers’s mistake was naming the Dodgers to claim the NL West. Instead, they finished the season in a tie with the Padres, dropped to second because the Padres dominated them in the season series, but reached the playoffs anyway as the wild card.
As for Morrissey, he was done in by chauvinism, an old story. He chose the Cubs to win their division and they lost 96 games. Now he’s throwing up his hands. “This year I decide I’m going to have my 13-year-old son make my choices for me,” he wrote on March 30. “I’ve given up.” Morrissey went on to describe himself as the “guy [Hot Type] gave a booby prize to for having the worst 2005 baseball picks.” Aside from the Cubs, he couldn’t remember any of his other 2006 predictions, but he assumed the worst. “Let’s just say I like my chances for Miner’s award again.”
Morrissey was way too hard on himself: he got four races right and the Cardinals were his wild card team. Not only that, in a burst of eccentric insight he accurately picked Saint Louis to wind up with the pennant. (Only the Sun-Times’s Mike Kiley and the Tribune’s Mark Gonzales called the Cardinals’ world championship.) I could easily have lifted Morrissey above Sullivan on the strength of that prognostication, but the Cardinals are my team, and I didn’t want to be accused of having a thumb on the scales.
“It’s the greatest day of my life,” Sullivan said when I notified him. “Oh happy, happy day. And here I was, thinking the highlight of my day would be writing about Wood and Prior going on the DL.”
I suggested he simply dust off last year’s story about Wood, Prior, and the disabled list. That would free up his evening to go out and celebrate.
“Basically, I can dust off the last three or four years,” Sullivan said. “I’ve won enough of the Whiffle BATS in my career, so it’s, you know, like they say about the blind squirrel finding an acorn once in a while. Maybe this means there’s hope for the Cubs.”
Is there hope for the Cubs? I asked him.
“No,” he said.
So there’s our winner. The big story this year is the booby prize, the Whiffle BAT that’s been the bane of Sullivan’s existence. Normally it’s given to the local sportswriter who finished last in the Golden BAT competition, but Hot Type regulars Greg Novak and Eugene Dillenburg independently pointed out to me that last season saw a performance of such transcendent incompetence our rules should be redrawn to acknowledge it.
At the end of the 2006 regular season, ESPN rounded up 19 baseball analysts and asked them to predict the playoffs. To these 19, collectively, the Whiffle BAT. Knowing which eight teams had moved on to the playoffs, not one analyst picked the Cardinals to win the World Series–or even reach it. Not one picked the Tigers over the Yankees in their AL Division Series. Just one picked the Cardinals over the Padres in their NL Division Series.
Blindfolded monkeys randomly pushing buttons would have done vastly better. But those monkeys would have operated without the benefit of conventional wisdom, the invaluable counsel that makes sure you’re often wrong, but always in good company.
Sam Zell: An Old-Fashioned Publisher?
Canadian reporters in Chicago should take note: Conrad Black, aka Lord Black of Crossharbour, is nothing we haven’t seen before. Black’s blunder was to take his company public, putting his vast vanity and indulgences on a short leash held by stockholders. Sam Zell is buying the Tribune Company to take it private, where goofy media moguls can do what they please.
When Canadian journalists asked a few weeks ago what Chicagoans thought about Black’s federal corruption trial, I had to tell them most Chicagoans weren’t thinking anything. I had a flash of deja vu Monday as another out-of-town reporter asked about the reaction of Chicago to the sale of the Tribune. I said that if she were asking about the sale of the Cubs then we might have something to talk about, but the proprietors of the Tribune haven’t made much of a dent on the public consciousness. Colonel McCormick died half a century ago. His successors have been ciphers. What we know about Zell is that he’s a fierce-looking local guy who rides motorcycles and is taking over an $8.2 billion company with about $315 million of his own money. If you work for him now and the debt’s on your back, you’re probably feeling a little numb. But if you don’t, you probably think a deal like that makes him sound kind of cool.
Zell keeps a low profile, but he’s no cipher. Freelance writer Joy Bergmann is among the people who have seen how Zell likes to spend his loose change. Bergmann lives in New York now, but in 1999 she had a place on Lawrence Avenue in Uptown, and she could see from the trucks and the work crews that a very big event was coming up at the Aragon Ballroom. The event, she found out, was Zell’s birthday party. She hooked up with Redmoon Theater, which had been hired to provide strolling musicians and masked actors dressed as birds on stilts.
I called her and asked her to reminisce. “It’s important to remember 1999–September 1999–and what a puffed-up era that was,” she says. It was before the economy crashed and before 9/11, and the only thing looming on the horizon was Y2K. The night of the party cops shut down the Lawrence el platform and held back the winos so Zell’s guests could arrive on chartered trains. They wore T-shirts that said “Z2K” and “Zellenium.”
Bergmann remembers “Trojan warriors at the front door and girls painted in gold body paint with vines twisted around their nipples wearing little bikini thong bottoms. They were nymphs of some sort, bodacious nymphs draped along the buffet. I don’t think his guests had a very good time–that was the big take-away for me. The theater people I was with had a really good time and ate great food and saw great entertainment, and the people who were his guests were there to make an appearance with Sam Zell. I didn’t sense a feeling of celebration for this man’s birthday. It was a see-and-be-seen business function.”
For instance, “James Brown was the opening act. The guests ignored him. They treated him like a Holiday Inn cover band. But we performers went apeshit.” Later, Aretha Franklin came on. Her closing number sticks in Bergmann’s memory because for about eight minutes its lyrics consisted of one word, “Jesus.” Then the 200-strong Soul Children of Chicago chorus appeared in the balcony singing:
We’ve got euro-dollar currencies, in our hands.
We’ve got ADI securities, in our hands . . .
The evening’s extravagance suggests that Zell–though he insists he’s getting into media only for the money–has a little William Randolph Hearst in him. Some will say that the only thing that can happen to a newspaper worse than being publicly held is being privately held, and that may be true, but the press lord whose ego knows no bounds is one of the great capitalist archetypes. It’s a role Black played to perfection until ungrateful shareholders did him in, and Zell, with none of them to answer to, might triumph in it. And if Zell ever deigns to meet any of the working stiffs in his employ, he might like them. No journalist would ever have turned his back on the Godfather of Soul.
Meanwhile, the Black trial creeps along, before a Canadian press corps that wonders if a man of Black’s stripe can get a fair trial in this grubby blue-collar town. Who knows? Bergmann recalls a supervisor telling a paramedic posted to Zell’s party, “If you have to deal with any of these people, remember, kiss their asses.” The paramedic wasn’t buying. “Kiss their ass? Maybe you got the wrong guy for this job. Billionaire or no billionaire, I don’t give a shit. Everybody looks the same in the back of an ambulance.”
Black must hope that man’s not on his jury.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Chicago Tribune/Phil Velasquez.