Chris De Luca
  • Chris De Luca

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.

But I don’t speak for De Luca. He asked how life was at the Reader. The checks don’t bounce, so no complaints, I said. And you?

“I’ve been here since ’96, and the outlook has never been this good,” said De Luca. “I came here from the Contra Costa Times and my editor told me, ‘Don’t go to the Sun-Times. It’ll be dead within a year.’ It’s always felt here like the blade was going to drop.” De Luca vividly remembers last autumn. There is bankruptcy, and then there is bankruptcy, and what De Luca was hearing from management back then was that if Jim Tyree’s offer to buy the Sun-Times Media Group fell through, the company would run out of money in three days. Tyree was telling the Newspaper Guild that if it didn’t make major concessions he’d walk away from the deal, and the various guild units were taking votes that basically told Tyree to go screw himself. De Luca figured the guild wouldn’t back down—so that was pretty much that. “I just didn’t see a way out of it,” he told me. “And then it changed.” The guild made the concessions. Tyree closed the deal.

A couple days later the World Series began, and after a debate inside the Sun-Times over whether to send anyone at all, De Luca got the assignment. When he got to Yankee Stadium, he saw something previously unimaginable in the press box—empty seats. “I’d say half the papers that usually go to the Series didn’t go,” he told me. Big-league papers like the San Francisco Chronicle and Cleveland’s Plain Dealer that had always covered the Series, sometimes sending both a reporter and a columnist, had dropped out. Three months later the same thing would happen at the Super Bowl—a lot of papers didn’t show up.

But at the Sun-Times, where De Luca was promoted to sports editor in November, he said, “we’re doing all the things we’ve always done. Covering the Super Bowl. Covering the NFL owners’ meetings. We haven’t scaled back on anything. When we lost a football writer we went out and got a new one.” In these terrible times, simply standing still is virtual progress.

This column traditionally awards a booby prize, the Wiffle BAT to the scribe who finishes rock bottom in the BAT competition. If a giddy writer had predicted the Cubs would snap the Curse of the Goat and cop the 2009 World Series, I’d condemn him to his 15 minutes in the stocks and he’d deserve more. But no one went quite that far. (Ted Cox, the 2009 Golden BAT winner, in his farewell tour as a Reader sports blogger predicted the Cubs would win it all if—a big and unrealized if—Tom Ricketts bought the team in time “to do whatever it takes,” specifically, pick up pitcher Jake Peavy from San Diego. The first didn’t happen in time; the second didn’t happen at all. Peavy’s now with the White Sox.)

So this year’s Wiffle BAT goes to Baseball Prospectus and its once fearsome computer-driven PECOTA algorithm. Recall 2007, when six of PECOTA’s choices reached the playoffs and a seventh missed the postseason by one game. Recall that PECOTA exactly predicted the White Sox’ 72-90 won-lost record and overstated the Cubs’ division-winning 85-77 by a single win. When the 2007 season came to a close, human reason seemed to have been rendered as subservient in BAT as in chess. But in 2008 PECOTA didn’t do as well. And last year it predicted only three of 2009’s playoff teams. No human around here named fewer.

Even worse, PECOTA got just as sappy about the Cubs as the sportswriters did. What was that in the water? Is Cubs fever a virus that can spread from humans to computers?