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Mariotti: Time Out or Benched?

The Sun-Times is hunting for a sports columnist–has been for months. The paper’s been turned down by Diane Pucin of the Philadelphia Inquirer, Mike Downey of the Los Angeles Times, and Melissa Isaacson and Sam Smith of the Tribune.

No one wanted the job more than Smith. The Tribune sports department was in flux, and Smith says he’d been told he’d never get a column there. Smith’s one hesitation was the columnist the Sun-Times already had, Jay Mariotti. When Smith published The Jordan Rules three years ago, Mariotti christened it “the book from hell.” Says Smith, “I didn’t want to get into a working environment where I was fighting with the cocolumnist.”

But one day last spring at WMVP, where Mariotti ran a daily sports show as a sideline and Smith was trying out for a similar gig, the two began to talk about the Sun-Times opening. Mariotti urged Smith to go after it, so Smith did. He still isn’t sure why the Sun-Times didn’t hire him. He asked for a little more money than Rick Jaffe, the assistant managing editor for sports, was offering, and for some reason there was no bridging the gap.

But leverage is a wondrous thing, and today both Smith and Isaacson are writing columns. “I guess we’ve furthered some careers at the Tribune,” Mark Nadler, the Sun-Times’s executive editor, said wryly.

Money isn’t the only thing about his negotiations with Jaffe that now strikes Smith as a little odd. “I said I wanted to be the second columnist,” he remembers. “He said, ‘Oh, no, no, no. You have to share with Jay all the national assignments.’ I kind of had the sense they were a little concerned with what was going to happen with Jay. I know their relationship had changed a little over the ‘MVP thing.” Smith didn’t push the subject. “Jay was in my corner. I didn’t want to undermine him.”

As it turned out, Mariotti didn’t need Smith to undermine him. He was accomplishing that all by himself. On November 11 WMVP took him off the air. Three days later he lost his column. He’s sitting despondently at home now, his famous attitude silenced, possibly for good. He muses, “From the very outset of the radio show [in October ’93] my relationship with the Sun-Times has deteriorated. They didn’t want me doing the radio show.”

Last summer WMVP pushed back Mariotti’s two-hour show from 10 AM to 1 PM, and his editors blew up. That late in the day they wanted him working on one thing only–tomorrow morning’s column. “The paper jumped in and said, ‘No, you’re off the radio completely.’ I said, ‘Why? You’ve got Rich Roeper doing five shows a week and commentary, other reporters doing stuff.’ I never really got an answer. I found it to be a great double standard. You can’t say it has anything to do with my work. Hell, I was in Norway doing five or six stories a day and I could still be on the radio an hour.”

Mariotti, the Sun-Times, and Larry Wert, general manager of WLUP and WMVP (the former WLUP AM), worked it out so Mariotti would write four columns a week–he’d sometimes done five or six–and cut back to three afternoons on the air. The arrangement wobbled like a two-legged stool. “Last Friday,” says Mariotti, “Larry Wert calls me in and says, ‘I’m very sorry, but we’re sick and tired of your newspaper telling us what to do.’ It was just frustration on Wert’s part that the show cannot be on five days a week.”

We wondered. Does this really have nothing to do with WMVP’s avid courtship of Jerry Reinsdorf for play-by-play rights to the Bulls and White Sox? Mariotti has a history of painting Reinsdorf in the same jolly hues that Anne Rice paints Lestat.

“Before I went to work for them,” Mariotti replies, “I said, ‘I know you guys are after the Sox and Bulls. I’m an outspoken sports columnist. Can you handle this?’ They said, ‘Hey, we’re the Loop. We’re the crusaders of free speech.'”

And does it have nothing to do with Steve Dahl’s show running late the day Ryne Sandberg retired, and Mariotti, with guests waiting, getting so impatient he grabbed Dahl’s producer and tore his shirt?

“I apologized,” Mariotti says. “I remember Larry [Wert] being quoted as saying those things happen. I was wrong. It was stupid. I’m an Italian guy with a temper, yes I am.”

When Wert gave Mariotti the boot he fumed and blamed his paper. “That was a nice chunk of change to take out of your pocket,” he says. “I’m a guy with two kids, and I need that outside income.”

We reminded him that his Sunday paper that weekend couldn’t have cheered him any. The Sun-Times had polled its readers about sportscasters, and Mariotti received more negative votes than anyone else in the city.

“I thought that poll was kind of funny,” says Mariotti.

Then it was all he had to laugh about. Dumped by Wert on Friday, he put in a typically frenzied weekend–in Milwaukee Friday night to see Glenn Robinson, in Champaign Saturday to cover Illinois, and on to Miami Sunday for the Bears game. And all the while he was brooding, “I’m screwed. Somehow I’m screwed.”

He told us that Monday he called Jaffe and said this: “It probably would be best for me to take time off. I’m real angry, and I have to let things cool down. I need to sit back and survey the situation. I’ve got to get out of here for as long as six weeks.”

Did he say six weeks? Or did he say two months, which is what everyone at the Sun-Times understands? At any rate, he said his piece to Jaffe and hung up, leaving both of them standing on familiar ground. “This is about a paper that kind of drove me crazy and did nothing about it,” says Mariotti, who complains of a desk that constantly butchered his copy. “I’d say I’d called Rick 40 or 50 times about copy problems. Nothing ever got fixed. And I’d say, ‘Guys, I need to take some time off.’ They’d say, ‘You’re our only columnist.’ The problem is we don’t have a second columnist.”

Jaffe never took the outbursts that seriously. “Most of the time he was blowing off steam.” But both sides were running out of patience. Over the summer Mariotti had explored a job in San Jose. His agent had sounded out the Tribune. And now the Sun-Times was fed up.

Having talked to Jaffe, Mariotti waited. “What I expected was a call: ‘Come on, let’s meet.’ My relationship with these guys isn’t as bad as I’ve portrayed it. I wanted to express my frustration. And that’s when all hell broke loose.”

The call came Tuesday from editor Dennis Britton. He was so furious he demoted Mariotti to general assignment. “He was in a mood to pound, pound, pound,” says Mariotti. “He was in no mood to listen. He was not fair to a guy who’s given him a lot of service and never asked for an hour of overtime. He didn’t seem to understand that I had felt screwed in this deal.

“I am not a slacker. I’m an emotional guy. I get a little wrung out. But a lot of people do. I’ve never been in a strike environment. I’ve never been in an environment where a paper’s being sold. I wish there were more understanding on their part of why a person would stress out in this environment. I call this stressing out, nothing more.”

This is not an explanation guaranteed to corner the market on sympathy. Everyone at the paper from Britton down lived in the same environment. To our knowledge only Mariotti needed to take six weeks off to recover.

“My intention was not to take six weeks off,” he says now. “It’s killing me not to be writing. There was a frustration there that was really bugging me. I wanted it taken care of, and it wasn’t being taken care of.

“When I came back from Norway we were all in the newsroom with Britton and the new owners, and Britton stops the meeting and says, ‘I just want to introduce the guy I think is the symbol of this paper. He went over to the Olympics in Norway and held his own against a Tribune staff of nine or ten.’ And everybody gave me an ovation for 15 seconds. It was a proud moment.

“I went from being the symbol of the paper in March to suddenly being this guy who was wrung out for a lot of emotional reasons and isn’t entitled to voice those frustrations without being reprimanded.”

He compared himself to an athlete in mid-season who tells the coach he needs time off. And of course the coach can’t give it to him right then, but a good coach would say, come on into my office and we’ll talk.

Mariotti mourns, “In this case the coach says, ‘Screw you. You’re benched.'”

News Bites

Rumblings from the dispossessed. Dennis Byrne, Sun-Times, November 15: “Now that evil white men supposedly have taken back the government, maybe some men will find the backbone to say what needs to be said: Despite all the press given to the bias against women in health care, the one irreducible and final fact is that men continue to die younger than women.” Raymond Coffey, same paper, praising Bill Gates for paying $30.8 million to buy a da Vinci codex: “Leonardo was, of course, born white, European and male. For 67 years (1452-1519) he was also alive. For some 500 years, none of that was held against him, or counted as a shortcoming. That, of course, was then. This is now. And now, as we are all relentlessly instructed by the oh-so-politically correct commissars of multiculturalism, ‘dead white European men’ are to be regarded as a blight upon civilization.”

Pundits now have two months to think great thoughts about why the Republicans are taking over Congress. We’re partial to the explanations that agree with our own, which is that the end of the cold war’s behind it. Americans began calling each other the names they could no longer call the Dirty Reds, and Republicans figured out how to make them stick.

David Halberstam argues that America needed a new “them” and found one in its immigrants. Charles Krauthammer neatly observes that the ’94 returns don’t so much contradict the ’92 election as embellish it. In ’92 a cold-war president was sent packing; this month a cold-war Congress was turned out. Now as in earlier postwar eras, the people felt safe enough to turn to new faces.

So welcome to power, Jesse Helms and Bob Dole.