By Michael Miner

Runner-Up Walks Away

With the BAT

The turbulent career of Jay Mariotti was very nearly taken to another level this spring, as results of the most dramatic BAT competition in memory came in. Mariotti is the sports columnist you love to hate–if, that is, you love to hate, and only a sicko does. He’s been up, he’s been down, he’s been an enfant terrible and a graying sage, but never has he been a BAT laureate. And this year he came so close.

But before getting into that, let’s go over what the BAT is and stands for. Thanks to the miracle that is Jim Romenesko’s Media News site, Hot Type now enjoys a national readership, and both those readers deserve to be brought up to speed. The Golden BAT–standing for Baseball Aptitude Test–was founded 20 years ago by my predecessor in this space, Neil Tesser, who was not a nice man and wanted to show sportswriters what he thought of them. Tesser’s hypothesis was that the annual pennant prognostications of the bards who chronicle the national pastime were no more reliable than the lunges of a child playing blindman’s buff. So as each new season began, he took to reviewing the predictions made a year earlier and awarding a Golden BAT to the pundit who’d been least in error. The results confirmed his theory.

Times and columnists change. The incumbent in this space doesn’t mind being rude, but he thirsts for cultural significance. To that end, I’ve turned the BAT into a barometer of the national condition. In 1992, for example, the coveted Golden BAT became the equally coveted but less flamboyant Cupronickel BAT, out of respect for the straitened circumstances of American life at the end of the first Bush administration. In 1995 sportswriting’s loftiest honor was further reduced to the Molten Lead BAT–my way of protesting the calamitous 1994 strike and a new playoff structure that made a travesty of the pennant races.

The changes in baseball already in evidence in 1994 have had a curious effect on the BAT. The predictive abilities of Chicago’s wisest heads have, if measured statistically, greatly improved. But statistics lie. What actually has happened is that baseball expanded its playoffs while diminishing the number of teams with any hope of getting into them. Before 1969 there were 20 teams competing for two berths in the postseason. Now roughly 10 teams compete for eight. Under the circumstances, it’s harder for a scribe picking the playoff teams to be wrong than right.

That said, Mariotti’s performance in the year 2000 was nevertheless extraordinary. Last spring he picked four division champions on the nose–Atlanta in the NL East, Saint Louis in the NL Central, New York in the AL East, and Oakland in the AL West, plus New York as the NL wild card, plus the Yankees winning the World Series by defeating their wild-card crosstown rivals.

Any other year Mariotti would be our BAT laureate, with all the acclaim, prestige, and fawning maitre d’s that this entails. But not this year.

For this year the BAT was once again renamed. And the coveted Dimpled Chad BAT goes to the Tribune’s Teddy Greenstein, who finished a close second.

The Dimpled Chad BAT formally acknowledges the exalted position second place has attained in rounders as in life. The big breakthrough came in 1996, when the Florida Chads copped the world championship. Just last year the New York Chads claimed the National League pennant. This spring Greenstein trailed Mariotti by hardly enough to matter, so I’ve decided it won’t.

Greenstein correctly named New York and Oakland to prevail in the AL East and West respectively, and Saint Louis and San Francisco to claim the NL Central and West. He also foresaw New York in the NL playoffs, though he had them first in the NL East, and the Yankees winning the World Series. This was a good solid performance–not as good as Mariotti’s of course, but what of it? Besides, the Sun-Times had won the BAT the last three years; the country needed a change.

The Wiffle BAT, for trailing the field, will be shared by Dave van Dyck of the Sun-Times and his former stablemate Joe Goddard. They needn’t despair. Both were repeat BAT champions back in that golden era when finishing first was taken seriously.

Of Iambs and RBIs

Poetry is such a lucrative line of work that Frank Van Zant estimates he’s turned a cool $800 in just the last ten years–and that’s not counting the free copies of the journals his work appeared in that don’t pay in anything else. Such a journal is Sport Literate, founded in Chicago three years ago to provide “honest reflections on life’s leisurely diversions.” All things considered, the $250 the journal is offering the winner of its current poetry competition is a king’s ransom.

No one connected with Sport Literate has given up his day job, and that includes Van Zant, the poetry editor. If it seems odd that a journal that has never solicited fiction steadily publishes poetry, there’s a good reason–one of the founders had a friend who taught at Stanford, loved poetry, and put her foot down. Neither she nor her founding friend is involved with Sport Literate any longer, and a year ago editor William Meiners decided to drop poetry. He promptly heard from Van Zant. “It rubbed me the wrong way,” says Van Zant. So Meiners made him poetry editor.

A teacher in an alternative school on Long Island, Van Zant claims that a couple of baseball poems he read as a kid–“Pitcher” by Robert Francis and “To Satch” by Samuel Allen–made him want to become a poet. He recently published The Lives of the Two-Headed Baseball Siren, an autobiographical collection of 62 poems that range from his baseball-card-collecting youth to his high school playing days to the coaching he now does for his kids’ teams.

“I’m actually selling a few of these,” says Van Zant, who allows that if a collection of autobiographical baseball poetry is what you’re looking for, there aren’t a lot of choices. Nevertheless, he says, “there’s a bunch of baseball poets out there who are active, and in fact, there’s one magazine, Elysian Fields Quarterly, that’s devoted entirely to baseball.” He says, “I guess as poetry editor I have to work hard not to be prejudiced toward baseball poetry.”

Van Zant knows the poems are waiting for him, either buried in desk drawers or begging to be written. He says that six years ago Hofstra University held an academic conference on, “of all things,” Babe Ruth. Van Zant scheduled a poetry reading as part of the conference, and he advertised in Poets & Writers magazine for poems. “We got about 75 to 100 submissions on Babe Ruth,” many of them written for the occasion. “I thought it was kind of wonderful. I can remember one professor from Ohio had a wonderful poem. One of the lines was, ‘This was the hand that touched the ball that touched Babe Ruth.’ It was so heartfelt, and it was such a moving thing from his childhood.”

A couple of years later there was a similar conference at Long Island University on Jackie Robinson. Again Van Zant organized a reading. His budget was smaller, and he couldn’t advertise. So he worked “the poetry underground,” and once more the poems flew in. “Remember the name of Ed Charles? He was the third baseman for the Mets in ’69, the year they won the pennant and I guess won everything. He had a poem that he came in and read at the conference. It was in a rhyming pattern that I thought was poetically, at least on the page, a little bit amateurish, but his delivery reading it was amazing.”

Sport Literate is also offering $250 for an essay, its usual stock in trade. For details on the competition check its Web site at The deadline’s April 15.

“Somebody said, ‘There’s a poet under every rock in America,'” says Van Zant, who believes there is.

News Bites

The Sun-Times has decided not to renew the contract of Jeff Zaslow, who will soon be leaving the paper after 14 years as an advice columnist, matchmaker, and fund-raiser. The reason being given is financial: Zaslow was a high-maintenance employee who required a full-time assistant. His bashes netted hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years, but those revenues were earmarked for the Sun-Times Charity Trust rather than the newspaper’s bottom line.

According to figures from past Zaslow columns, his “Letters to Santa” program last year brought in $1.2 million in gifts from Sun-Times readers and $119,000 in cash toward the purchase of 3,500 coats–all of this benefiting 46,000 kids. Last August’s “Tools for Schools” drive distributed school supplies to 5,500 schoolchildren.

For some reason, a headline in the Denver Post last Monday jumped out at me: “U.S. plane forced down into China / Bush seeks release of crew in aftermath of midair collision.”

I wondered what President Bush’s seeking amounted to. And while the article under this headline made mention of the “Bush administration” sending diplomats to Hainan Island, if Bush personally had done anything or said anything or even been informed of the incident, the article didn’t say so. “Bush” here was simply a synecdoche, a fresh example of an ageless journalistic convention.

It’s a convention that’s a courtesy, a courtesy that can be withdrawn. A few pages on, the Post carried a Maureen Dowd column ridiculing Bush for vassalage to “the Cheney-Rumsfeld axis” that was making the big decisions while the president–who “seems to have no engagement with contemporary America, except by virtue of being the president of the United States”–mingled with baseball stars from the 1950s. And a day later the Chicago Tribune ran a piece on Vice President Cheney emerging as the administration’s man you want to see.

The presumption that this president runs his own administration has always involved a certain benefit of the doubt. If that presumption grows, if Bush ever feels a need to demonstrate he’s an important part of his own government, we could be in for lively times.