BATgirl Returns

Though the Bulls were also pretty consistent, the mid-90s can be rightly remembered as the Toni Ginnetti era. The Sun-Times sports sage won the coveted BAT award three times in a six-year span and was never out of contention. Ginnetti, always modest in victory, bestrode the times.

But after her last title in 1998, Ginnetti found victory harder to come by. Perhaps it was simply that the competition grew ever fiercer for the prestigious BAT, or that major league baseball became too volatile to reward rational analysis–wild-card teams like Anaheim and Florida were emerging from nowhere to win unlikely championships and promptly vanish. Though Ginnetti often came close, a fourth BAT eluded her grasp. Some began to whisper that prognostically she’d passed her prime.

The BAT, of course–standing for Baseball Acumen Test–is the highest aspiration of every Chicago sportswriter aside from a free postgame buffet. Each spring the BAT honors the writer who a year earlier foresaw most clearly the approaching season’s pennant races. Founded by Hot Type columnist Neil Tesser back in 1981 to test his theory that crack baseball writers are no more insightful than a litter of wombats, the annual BAT competition has by and large proved Tesser right. Yet it’s also established over the years that some scribes are far shrewder judges of a 25-man roster than others. For instance, former Sun-Times baseball writer Dave van Dyck–whom Ginnetti acknowledges as her mentor–won four BATs before leaving the paper. That was a remarkable feat. But finally Ginnetti’s matched it.

In 2004 she prevailed by every measure. She accurately called the Twins to take the AL Central, the Yankees the AL East, and the Dodgers the NL West, and both the Red Sox and Astros to reach the playoffs as wild cards. No one else did as well. But what really separates her from the pack is this: she actually picked the wild-card Red Sox to become not merely the American League pennant winners but world champions. Only one other vote was cast for the Bosox to shatter the Curse of the Bambino, that of her Sun-Times colleague Doug Padilla.

To retain a sense of perspective, allow me to point out that neither Ginnetti nor anyone else had a clue about the Saint Louis Cardinals, who only won 105 games and the NL pennant. A pity. Any sportswriter who’d done justice by the Redbirds (a team I am not indifferent to) would have been exempted automatically from consideration for the Whiffle BAT, which can be construed as a consolation prize for trying hard but is more accurately the mark of Cain. At any rate, this year’s Whiffle BAT goes to last year’s Golden BAT laureate, Jay Mariotti of the Sun-Times. Others named fewer playoff teams, but Mariotti earned the trophy for picking the Red Sox to win the American League pennant and the Yankees the World Series. Mariotti might want a word with his copy editors.

As a virtual award, the BAT can be made of any material. Most years a Golden BAT is awarded, but the BAT reflects its times: back in 1992, for instance, it was renamed the Cupronickel BAT in deference to a recession so desperate that Americans elected a Democrat president. It became the Lead Slug BAT to register the nation’s contempt after big-league baseball hit rock bottom in 1994 and suspended the season rather than come to terms with the players’ union. The 2000 elections brought yet another change–the 2001 Dimpled Chad BAT, appropriately given to a sportswriter who finished second. This year I’m marking the zeitgeist–as in “They told me it was just some kind of liniment”–by awarding the first Clear Cream BAT. Anxiously I dialed Ginnetti’s number.

It took a moment or two, or maybe less, for her to compose herself after learning of her triumph, and then I put the question to her. Are you clean? I said. Or was your brilliant comeback performance pharmaceutically enhanced?

“No, not at all,” she said. “Whenever I go to the doctor the only things he has to test me for are the usual things.”

Over the years many BAT laureates have candidly shared their championship techniques with me, and it can be said that picking winners often involves about 30 seconds of focus in a barroom setting. It’s the rare set of predictions that hasn’t been pharmaceutically enhanced.

But I trust Ginnetti.

“Was it because I picked Boston?” she asked, correctly guessing what clinched her victory. Like almost everyone else, Ginnetti put misplaced faith in last year’s Cubs, and she went as far as to envision the Red Sox and Cubs meeting in the World Series. So what it came down to in the end, she said, was her conviction that Cubs futility would prove an even more powerful force than Red Sox futility.

But she’s not one to dwell on success. “Didn’t I pick Seattle?” she said. So she did, and Seattle finished 63-99, last in the AL West. “I sort of remember my picks, but the ones that were so wrong I think, ‘God, what was I thinking!'” No doubt it’s this perfectionism, which no pill, ointment, or suppository can supply, that has made Ginnetti a great champion. “Sometimes I’m a year off,” she mused. “I remember being a year off on Philadelphia when they won. Maybe I’m a year off on Seattle.”

Pioneer’s New Frontier

The writers and editors of the Pioneer Press gathered in Glenview on March 31 to listen to the new editor in chief, John Ambrosia, describe the future. Ambrosia said the chain of suburban weeklies had been covering the same beats in the same way for decades and it was time to change that.

“Right now we’re set up on the principle, more or less, of one town and one paper and one staff writer devoted to that town exclusively,” he told me after the meeting. “I propose to take a fifth or a sixth of the staff and dedicate them to business and regional issues, have them out in the street more, working different sources. For example, the business community is really the life’s blood of a town as much as the village hall is. We do a magnificent job of covering school boards, municipal governments, civic events, but not so much covering regional and business issues with local import.”

Ambrosia wants select reporters and editors to develop areas of expertise–regional planning, for example–and produce broadly focused reports that individual papers can then massage to play up a local angle. “For instance,” he said, “we have lots of publicly held companies in our coverage area, but we don’t do a good job of interviewing CEOs. We cover transportation as controversy, but we don’t keep tabs on plans for transportation.”

A young Pioneer reporter told me the reaction to Ambrosia’s plans turned on how “entrenched” the reporter was who was reacting. “For me, it’s a no-brainer,” he said. “I think it’s exciting. Ambrosia’s general theme was getting away from covering the same 12 village officials and quoting them week after week.”

Ambrosia says it’ll be at least two months before his new ideas show up in his papers.

A couple more specific changes Ambrosia has already put in place received a much colder reception from two of his most entrenched writers. In 2000, Hollinger International, which owns Pioneer Press, had bought Lerner Communications, a venerable chain of 14 Chicago neighborhood weeklies. It closed some of them and last September turned others into the Pioneer Press City Group. Earlier this year the Lerner name disappeared altogether from the old Lerner papers.

And so did columnist Ed Schwartz. A former radio personality with WLS, WIND, WGN, and WLUP best remembered as a late-night host who presented himself as the embodiment of his city, Schwartz had been writing the column freelance for five years when Ambrosia summarily dropped it. Schwartz didn’t know what was happening until he opened the February 2 Booster for his tribute to Johnny Carson and couldn’t find it. Schwartz called managing editor Jack Bess, who passed him up to City Group bureau chief Kathy Catrambone, who told him to talk to Ambrosia. Apologizing for the maladroit way in which Schwartz had found out he’d been discontinued, Ambrosia told him his column didn’t meet the Pioneer’s standard of localism.

The Schwartz column wasn’t alone in failing this test. Lerner sports columnist George Castle was told to stop writing about the Cubs and concentrate on high school sports. “We’ll cover the Cubs when an action they take has an effect on the neighborhood,” Ambrosia told me in February. “Should the team do well during the season and we see an uptick in business around there, or more foot traffic–those kinds of things–we’ll write about that. But day-to-day coverage, there’s nothing we can do the dailies aren’t doing. I’m always going to err on the side of the local.”

Castle–who has written books about the Cubs–wasn’t happy, but at least he kept his column. Schwartz didn’t. He began forwarding Ambrosia e-mail from readers who missed him. “He has NEVER acknowledged or answered me on any of them,” Schwartz e-mailed me. “Ald. Bernard Stone wrote and told me he sent a formal complaint as a city official and they never acknowledged or replied to him either.” Schwartz suspected he’d been silenced for writing critical pieces on Governor Blagojevich and Mayor Daley. Some of those columns had hammered Daley for the midnight raid on Meigs Field that shut the airport down two years ago.

“Absolutely not,” says Ambrosia.

But then came good news. The Meigs Action Coalition, which has campaigned to reopen Meigs, informed Schwartz that on March 30 it would present him with an “Above and Beyond” award.

This was an honor Ambrosia needed to know about. “Dear John,” Schwartz e-mailed him, “It should be something of a challenge for me accepting the 2005 public service award from the Meigs Action Coalition for my local journalism on their local story. Somehow I must craft the words to explain how relevant efforts like this caused you to fire me. The only time in my life I ever lost a job for doing the right thing. In fact the only time I have ever lost a job. I will put this honor on the shelf next to my Mike Royko books.

“I began my career in the Chicago broadcast/journalism community in 1966. You have the singular honor and distinction of being the only guy to fire my ass in 39 years.”

Schwartz told me when he sent this off that he didn’t expect a reply. He didn’t get one.

When I talked to Ambrosia last week, I asked what he thought of Schwartz’s note. “You know what, I’m not responding,” he said. “Not out of discourtesy. I don’t want to engage in disagreement with him. I’m very happy for him. I’m happy he got recognized for the work he did on Meigs Field. But Meigs Field is not a local story for the neighborhoods we cover. That’s a metro story. I think it’s great, and I never said he never had anything to contribute to the city. What he was contributing wasn’t a good fit for us, and Meigs Field is a good example of that. Now, if he’d won the award for stories on affordable housing in Rogers Park, he and I might have something to talk about.”

Openly mourning the loss of a public forum, Schwartz tells me he could easily have changed his column’s focus if he’d been given a chance to. “Chicago, its neighborhoods and collar communities, interest me greatly,” he says. “Don’t forget that for 8 of my 16 years in WIND radio I was director of community affairs. I think Mr. Ambrosia had in me an asset. Don’t you?”

News Bite

8 Front pages are wonderful things and a big reason why print journalism should never go away. Headlines dominating page one of the April 1 Sun-Times, listed in increasing order of size:




The last, of course, addressing the Final Four.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Frost–Sun-Times.