Hometown Team Loses an MVP

“Whatever the Tribune says is fine with me,” Bernie Lincicome told me. But it wasn’t. After 29 years with Tribune Company newspapers, the last 16 of them writing a sports column in Chicago, Lincicome resigned last month. News of his departure was buried in Jim Kirk’s media column, where sports editor John Cherwa said only this: “We’re sorry to see him go. He was a very important voice of this section for 16 years. But I understand the appeal of the Denver area.”

“As far as I can tell,” Lincicome told me, “the explanation for my leaving from them is that I have a place in Colorado–and that’s true. But I’m not leaving because I have a place in Colorado. I’m leaving and I have a place in Colorado.”

Because of that place and because he felt disrespected at the Tribune, he called Denver’s Rocky Mountain News last spring and asked if they’d be interested in hiring him to fill a sports-columnist opening. Certainly, said the News, and then Lincicome temporized, waiting for the Tribune to demonstrate it valued him enough to keep him. Lincicome eventually decided the Tribune didn’t.

“I wanted to be respected, and they wanted to be the Tribune,” he said. “When I wanted consideration for the time I’d given the Tribune Company, it seemed it wasn’t there. True or not true, I thought they thought less of me than I thought of me.

“We come and go. I’m flattered that anybody cares if I’m in Chicago or not. All I ever tried to do was put 750 words on a page and have somebody not regret having read it. I came from Fort Lauderdale, where I’d worked for the Tribune paper. The [Tribune] editor at the time was Jim Squires. He said, ‘Look at it this way, we’re bringing you up to the big leagues.’ I said, ‘Why? Do they have a different alphabet up here?’ I didn’t need the Tribune to validate what I’d done in my career, and I don’t need the Tribune to validate me now. They have an alphabet in Colorado. And Breckenridge.”

Lincicome sounded more wistful than angry when we talked. There is a sardonicism to his language on the page that’s belied by its gentle wryness in the ear. I asked Lincicome if his problems at the Tribune predated Cherwa’s taking over as assistant managing editor for sports three years ago. “I think they’re coincidental,” he replied. “That’s a kind word, isn’t it–‘coincidental’?” The word suggests happenstance, but Lincicome knows its first meaning is simultaneous. “I’d say for 29 of these 32 years I could not have been happier. What you never want to do is become a middle-aged person left over from somebody else’s regime. I think this particular group of people–[editor] Howard Tyner, [managing editor] Ann Marie Lipinski, and John Cherwa–appreciated what I did. I think it mattered at the end that I was there in place before them.”

It used to be possible to read old Lincicome columns on the Tribune’s Web site. They’ve disappeared, and in their place is a brief, odd tribute. Quoting Kirk, it characterizes Lincicome’s readers as “those who loved to hate him and those who hated to love him,” leaving unacknowledged the readers I’ve heard from, readers who were happy to enjoy him and took no pleasure from the times when he was terrible.

The “final pebble in the shoe,” as Lincicome put it, was not being assigned to cover this month’s Olympics in Australia. Lincicome doesn’t claim to excel as an Olympian, and the nadir of his career was his horrified coverage of Lillehammer in 1994: “This is a drab, gray, 40-watt place that looks like a baby spat up his milk all over everything.” But Cherwa didn’t give him a chance to say no.

“I’ve been to a lot of Olympics, and mainly they’re a pain in the ass,” Lincicome said. “But there is in that assignment an indication of your standing. What I mostly wanted was to be wanted to go to the Olympics. I had to ask if I was part of it. I asked more than once, I think.”

He went on, “Other times, assignments I assumed I should be getting didn’t come. Stuff like that. We [he and Cherwa] talked about it. I don’t know if ‘about’ is the right word.”

Around it?

“I think so. He’s the sports editor, and I’m the columnist. In the hierarchy of things I work for him. But we probably have some trouble communicating. We’re both very stubborn, and I’m sure part of the problem is that I’d always been there–12 years before he got there. I’d never had a problem. I had my way of doing things. This wasn’t a problem between John Cherwa and me. It was a problem between what I wanted in my life and what the Tribune wanted in my life. And I wasn’t happy. And now I am.”

He talked about his craft. “I think newspapers have changed since I got into them. I’m not so sure what I do–which is to try to turn a nice phrase, make a nice word picture, show a little insight into something, present an entertaining package–is as valued as it was, not just in the Tribune but everywhere. I don’t know if today Red Smith would be well thought of as a columnist. He was an artist who didn’t feel he had to preach. He didn’t tell people how to run their teams. He certainly didn’t scream.”

Lincicome’s last column ran Monday, August 14, and for a couple of reasons he wasn’t sure his superiors realized it was his last. One is that he didn’t come right out and say good-bye. He hadn’t formally resigned yet, and explicitness was never Lincicome’s style. “It was kind of like my final little joke, I guess,” he told me. “I’m into nuance. I rely on being oblique and hoping the reader kind of goes with me to get to that point.”

On its surface, Lincicome’s last column had as its subject Jim Parque, the White Sox pitcher who at the time was publishing an occasional column in the Sun-Times. This device allowed Lincicome to write that “sports columnists are sensitive souls, misunderstood, underappreciated, frequently sober. We come, we go, and occasionally one of us pitches for the White Sox.” It allowed him to tell a few stories from his own career for Parque’s benefit, and to conclude, in the guise of advice to Parque:

“Any sports columnist should expect no more than the appeal that Oscar Wilde noticed in a cowboy bar on the American frontier.

“‘Please do not shoot the piano player,’ a sign implored, ‘he is doing the best he can.’

“At the end, we all hope to be able to say, ‘Thanks for not shooting.'”

Lincicome wasn’t plugged by a customer; he felt he’d worn out his welcome with the joint’s proprietor. “It goes back to how newspapers have changed. You have to be more than just a writer. A columnist is expected to do radio shows, TV spots, essentially be a media person. The Tribune has all of those facilities, and I didn’t do any of those things. I didn’t do them because they wouldn’t pay me to do them. If I was on CLTV I wanted to be paid for it. If I was on WGN I wanted to be paid for it.” Multimedia journalists are valued at the Tribune, he concluded, because they validate corporate strategy. “Whereas in my case I never wanted to do more than what I did. Just sit down–me and the alphabet–and do something people would read to the end.”

The other reason his superiors might not have recognized his last column for what it was, he told me, is that he’s not sure they even read it. “I’m trying to remember the last time,” he began, then recast the thought. “If we’re talking about the principal three people involved in this thing [Tyner, Lipinski, and Cherwa], I cannot remember the last time I received any kind of feedback that indicated they’d read anything. Which doesn’t mean they didn’t. And my ego was not so fragile I needed it. But it’s still nice. Compliments are still nice.”

The next day he quit and was gone. His first assignment for the Rocky Mountain News will be the Saint Louis-Denver football game September 4.

“Of course we appreciated Bernie,” says Cherwa. He didn’t assign him to the Olympics, he says, because there’s a bigger story at home–the White Sox and the American League playoffs. “Bernie is very good at writing on deadline, and he’s gone to the World Series the last few years. He’d be better suited for the baseball assignment. And I think the people of Chicago will care more about the Sox than they will about the Olympics.” Skip Bayless, the Tribune’s other sports columnist, isn’t going to Sydney either.

I tell Cherwa that Lincicome said he didn’t feel appreciated anymore.

“That’s just wrong,” Cherwa replies. “We didn’t want Bernie to go, and we desperately wanted him to stay. And I think if it was any other city he wouldn’t have gone, which to me says a lot about lifestyle. He has a home there, a daughter there, he vacations there. I guess that’s where he wanted to be. It’s not where we wanted him to be.”

Cherwa concedes, “We would go longer than we should without talking. But there are people I’ll go longer without talking to. Bernie is a self-starter–he didn’t need any hand-holding. He liked to come up with his own ideas. And he just never called.

“There are many different columnist styles, and Bernie’s, I can truly say, is unique. He had a unique view of things. And I hope there’s always room for that kind of column in sports journalism. What Bernie did, nobody did better.”

“I’m kind of sorry to leave and not follow the White Sox and see what happens to them,” said Lincicome. “When I got here I found Mike Singletary–what a tremendous human being! And in the middle Michael Jordan, and at the end Jerry Manuel–what a decent guy. It makes a nice circle. Not just rich, spoiled athletes.

“Plus, I got to live in Glencoe.”

Rick Morrissey has stepped into Lincicome’s space, but Cherwa says the Tribune will look both in-house and beyond before he names a formal successor. He doesn’t expect a decision until after the Olympics.

“I’ll be interested in what happens next,” said Lincicome. “The Tribune does deserve to have a first-rate sports section. They’d be idiots if they don’t work to that. Of course they already had one of the best, in me. And now they don’t.”

Lipinski in the Lead

Ann Marie Lipinski has for some time been heir apparent to Tribune editor Howard Tyner, and staff members who enjoyed her social propinquity were christened long ago by less fortunate coworkers as the FOAMs–Friends of Ann Marie. Last week Lipinski was raised to executive editor, the Tribune’s editor in all but name, as Tyner–to quote from the news release–“will devote the majority of his time to expanded duties as group editor for Tribune Publishing.”

And so a Polish-American woman rises to editorial head of the nation’s most purely Republican newspaper–the paper that was present at the creation of the Republican Party in 1854. Until just the other day, Don Wycliff, an African-American, ran the Tribune’s editorial page, and for a brief time during Tyner’s seven-year reign a woman was actually sports editor. The diversity painstakingly displayed at this summer’s Republican convention and roundly derided must be taken seriously at the Tribune. If any of its glass ceilings survive, where are they?

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.