Nobody Wins

This is the week I was finally going to get to confer some immortality. That’s why a lot of kids go into journalism, you know–to confer immortality. Brain surgeons and philosophers don’t get the opportunity. U.S. presidents make only life-and-death decisions. But journalists, especially sportswriters, make the tough calls on who lives forever.

This would have been my first time. The Golden BAT that Hot Type awards each spring is highly coveted, and the competition is always keen. But frankly, it owes its prestige less to the public’s awe of the victors than to the fact that sportswriters are grateful for whatever they get. Faithful readers know that the BAT–for Baseball Acumen Test–is a glistening virtual trophy given to the sportswriter who most accurately predicted the previous season’s pennant races.

The award was established and endowed in 1981 by Hot Type predecessor Neil Tesser to demonstrate that sportswriters are no shrewder judges of baseball than the milkmaids of Slovakia. After a quarter century, observations can be made. One is that some scribes do contend year in and year out. Another is that when scribes falter, when the prognostications of March look preposterous in September, the most common reason is an excess of hometown sentiment. The road to Golden BAT humiliation is paved with hunches that this would be the Cubs’ or White Sox’ year.

But once a century it actually is. And that’s why it was finally my chance to confer immortality. I would award the BAT to any sportswriter farsighted enough a year ago to pick the Sox to run the table. I’d extol this scrivener in language befitting gods on earth. I’d hand him or her a free pass to Valhalla.

No particular perspicacity was required to pick the Yankees for the 2005 playoffs–or the Cardinals, Angels, or Braves. Just about everybody did. But a White Sox pick demanded dazzling acuity. Let me give you an idea. A reader forwarded to Hot Type the 2005 predictions made by 19 experts who posted their choices on the ESPN Web site. Only one picked the White Sox to reach the playoffs (though not to accomplish anything once they got there). And absolutely nobody put the Astros in the playoffs. So none of these veteran sports obser-vers correctly guessed either team in the World Series. Let’s face it: Neil Tesser’s theory about baseball forecasting was one of the fundamental insights of the last century.

But I expected better from the local talent. Surely at least one of our pundits observed the grit and talent of the south-side nine and foresaw the juggernaut.

But no. Not a single Chicago writer picked the Sox to win the pennant, much less the series. Only two writers, Mike Kiley of the Sun-Times and Dave van Dyck of the Tribune, thought they’d even reach the postseason.

Compare this year’s BAT to the last one. The Red Sox are another once-a-century-come-rain-or-shine franchise, but the Sun-Times’s Toni Ginnetti seized her fourth BAT with the astonishing prediction that the 2004 edition would reach the playoffs as the AL wild card and advance from there to the title. This was a historic display of baseball acumen, and if Ginnetti had repeated the performance this year with the White Sox she could have named her spot on Rushmore. She turned in a bravura performance by ordinary standards, nailing six of the eight 2005 playoff races, including the Red Sox again as the AL wild card. But her two misses did her in. She didn’t pick the White Sox for the playoffs; even worse, she picked the Cubs.

Like Ginnetti, Chris De Luca of the Sun-Times and Phil Rogers of the Tribune each nailed six of the eight playoff races. But they didn’t think the White Sox would reach the playoffs–though to their credit, they didn’t think the Cubs would either. Van Dyck, who called five races exactly right, and Kiley, who named six teams in the playoffs but wasn’t always accurate about how they got there, did better by the White Sox. But like Ginnetti, they put the Cubs in the playoffs too.

So this year, for the first time, no Golden BAT will be given. A case can be made for Kiley and for van Dyck, De Luca, Rogers, and Ginnetti, but a case for so many is a stronger case for no one. Not this year of years.

But the booby prize can be awarded. The Tribune’s Rick Morrissey called just two races right–the Cardinals and the Angels–and though he correctly put the Yankees and Red Sox in the playoffs, he was wrong about how they’d get there. The virtual banquet has been canceled, but the virtual Whiffle BAT can be virtually shipped to Morrissey at his convenience.

The Freedom to Say Nothing Much

The U.S. Supreme Court said in 1988 that high school administrators can shut down a school paper if they don’t like what it’s printing so long as they dress up the suppression in pedagogic language. The other day the court refused to hear an appeal in a case involving the student paper at Governors State University, thereby ceding college administrators a lot of the same power.

Here’s what’s good about the court’s dubious behavior: give educators the power to do what they want and we soon see clearly what they want. Out in McHenry County, in public school district 158, it turns out that what every educator wants most is to be seen as a champion of free speech. That’s why the school board voted unanimously on March 27 to allow the Huntley High Voice–which had spent the weekend in limbo–to be distributed to students.

One week earlier school board member Larry Snow had alerted the board president and interim superintendent of schools by e-mail that the Voice was preparing an editorial “that singles me out by name and lambastes me for ‘sticking my nose into’ or words to that effect, in District 300’s referendum.” An odd man out in District 158, Snow had been offering financial advice to the neighboring district, advising its leadership to avoid–as Snow had put it in a January letter to the Northwest Herald, the “fear-mongering rhetoric” of District 158’s “referendum campaign playbook.” His e-mail to the board president and superintendent wondered, “Is this the good governance that you are trying to achieve? Are you collectively so inclined to take another personal attack at me that you condone or encourage this being done in our High School newspaper?”

Snow tells me he was simply making a “routine request” that interim superintendent Robert Hammon review the Voice editorial “for accuracy and content.”

The Voice was supposed to be distributed last Friday before the school closed for spring break. But in deference to Snow, Hammon quarantined the 1,500 copies until the school board could meet and talk about the editorial. A spotlight shone on Huntley High. The Tribune, the Daily Herald, and the Northwest Herald published articles and editorials that slung around terms like “censor” and “stifled” and the two Heralds posted the editorial online. It showed the student journalists wagging an earnest finger at Snow for sounding off about the tax referendum.

“We at the Voice believe that Snow . . . should keep in mind those who will be affected by the possible failure of this referendum and concern himself more with the business of his own district and community,” said the editorial. “We acknowledge that Snow had been correct in his investigations with the District 158 finances in the previous referendums, even when the board would not listen to him. Yet today he is a member of our board of education and as such needs to present a better image for this community. . . . It is irresponsible that he did not think more carefully before entering a situation such as this. . . . We need your focus, Mr. Snow, to be on District 158 in putting programs back together and solving problems here.”

If Snow had a problem with this once he’d read it, it’s not one he admits to. “This criticism was so mild it should have been printed,” he tells me, and adds that when the school board convened he promptly spoke up. “First of all,” he says, “I clarified that I’ve always been a vigorous advocate for free speech in our school district”–despite the “for censorship” label he says his opponents tried to stick him with. He then made a motion he said would guarantee free speech for everybody. The Voice would be given “complete freedom of speech, subject to the laws of Illinois,” and District 158 residents would be given free speech at the district’s “referendum informational meetings.”

There was no second.

Snow tells me in an e-mail, “So the board member who has been criticized for being against free speech for the Newspaper, tried to actually get free speech for the Newspaper, and the other board members who talked about being for free speech would have nothing to do with even seconding the motion.”

Board member Kim Skaja says Snow wanted to give the Voice freedom it already had. As for the referendum meetings, “I didn’t know what he was talking about.”

In the end the board voted unanimously to distribute the Voice and apologize to its staff for the delay. Snow says he voted aye because his simple request had been so badly handled the students had an apology coming.

Those Darn Democrats

Page one, Tribune, March 17: “Lobbying scandal grounds jet set.” Illinois congressmen respond to public criticism by cutting back on junkets paid for by “private interest groups.”

Not that the sweet life’s history. The Tribune, in the second paragraph of its report, noted that Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky recently spent six days in Mexico on the tab of the Aspen Institute, Illinois Democrat Jerry Costello visited Las Vegas thanks to a nuclear energy industry trade group, and Illinois Democrat Luis Gutierrez took eight trips in the past year that he didn’t pay for, four of them to Puerto Rico.

Damn those freeloading Democrats.

The story jumped to page 21, where there was a picture of Schakowsky and four smaller pictures of other congressmen. Why, two were Republicans–Dennis Hastert and Mark Kirk. And there was a chart. It listed the state’s congressmen by the total cost of the free trips they’d taken from April 2005 to January 31. Remarkably, Kirk led the list, and his trips cost sponsors almost twice as much as the trips taken by the number two congressman–Ray LaHood, another Republican.

Remarkably, six of the seven congressmen at the top of the list were Republicans. Schakowsky ranked 12th among the state’s 19 congressmen. The tab she ran up traveling on someone else’s dime was less than a quarter the size of Kirk’s.

Anyway, shame on those Democrats.