Dan McGrath says there’s no conspiracy. But where’s his evidence? Where’s the proof that a tight little cluster of Tribune Company overlords, whose chain of command descends to the Cubs clubhouse and the Tribune sports department, isn’t jerking the hapless satraps at the bottom? Satraps like manager Don Baylor and sports editor Dan McGrath.

Dan, nobody in this town wants to believe there’s a corporate line that Tribune sportswriters cravenly cleave to–so just prove it doesn’t exist, and you’ll wash our worries away. And while you’re at it, answer this: How come your guys apologized for the boozers who infest Wrigley Field but hassled poor Sammy Sosa? If not from the top, where the hell was that coming from?

It all looks pretty suspicious, at least from across the street. Even Jay Mariotti, who hasn’t a skeptical bone in his body, was moved to conclude last week that the Tribune Company had applied the thumbscrews to the Cubs’ thumper and told its scriveners to twist. Last Thursday in the Sun-Times Mariotti wrote, “Because you don’t want to pay $100 million to Sammy Sosa, you are using every resource in your domain–a manager with four-year security, a sports columnist who knows how to stay in corporate favor–to shred him up and make him look bad.”

Not ordinarily one to stir the pot, Mariotti reluctantly accused the Tribune (whose identity he tried to protect by referring to it as “the convenient company rag”) of carrying trade-Sammy pieces that finally made the Dominican lose control. “The Tribsters love it,” the column went on (inadvertently blowing the cover). “They want him to rant and rave and blow up, so Cubs fans start to wonder if Sosa is as lovable as he seems, so that no one is too upset when the Cubs put him on the trading market as early as mid-July….It is a vicious, pathetic campaign.”

Too wrought up to let the matter go, Mariotti was back at it the next day, accusing “Cubs management” of “using sinister methods to undermine Sosa’s reputation” to lay the groundwork for dealing him. “Tribune Co. would prefer to wage an ungrateful smear campaign than reward a beloved player with a long-jackpot contract that ensures he will be a Cub for life. Finally, Sosa has been broken.” And last Sunday Mariotti perspicaciously described the plot as coming back to haunt its perpetrators. “They have spent so much time badmouthing and degrading Sosa, the Cubs now run the idiotic risk of diminishing his trade value to another team.”

Lest Mariotti’s analysis be dismissed as one man’s opinion, his colleague Rick Telander made some parallel points in his Friday column, albeit at a healthier diastolic level. “Conflict of interest” was Telander’s theme, and his subject was the debate over how free Cubs fans should be to drink themselves into belligerence. Combining reporting with analysis, Telander provided the most lucid overview yet of the May 16 fracas set off when a Cubs fan grabbed the hat of Chad Kreuter, a Dodger catcher, and various Dodgers poured into the stands.

“People thought this melee was the work of a drunken outsider,” wrote Telander. “But apparently it was the work of a sober insider.” The cap snatcher, he wrote, was a customer service representative for a Tribune Company subsidiary. He’d been sitting in seats behind the Dodgers’ bull pen reserved for friends and employees of the Tribune Company. Which explains why there was no security in the area, according to Telander. “The Tribune Co. didn’t think it had to guard its own.”

Telander wrote that the Cubs “were more interested in cleaning up Wrigley’s soiled image rather than pursuing the lone bandit.” Then he got down to it. “The Cubs are an incestuous mix of media, sports, big business and entertainment. Winning a World Series might be no more important than serving VIPs. The future decision to keep or reject Sammy Sosa, like the past decisions to lose Greg Maddux or not to pursue Randy Johnson, will be made by a conglomerate that has many things on its mind.

“It is something when a single company can create, break, editorialize upon, and solve a national scandal.”

Well, it is something. If not a conspiracy, it’s certainly an absurdity–which could be what Telander was getting at. I went over that passage with Dan McGrath and asked if he could disagree.

“The many tentacles of the Tribune Company certainly do exist,” he said, “but I would quibble with the use of the term ‘national scandal.'” It would never have qualified in the era of Monica, but in these sleepy times a cap-napping might be as good as it’s going to get.

“You know, in a way it’s insulting, and you’d like to answer back,” said McGrath about the Sun-Times barrage. “But it’s also so ludicrous you’d just call attention to it, and I’d rather not do that. I’ve been here almost four years, and nobody has said one word to me about what the coverage should be. It’s never come up. It’s never been overt. It’s never been subtle. To infer in the slightest way that Bernie Lincicome or Skip Bayless takes marching orders from Tribune Tower is totally absurd.”

Yes, I said, but can you prove there’s no conspiracy?

“I guess not,” said McGrath.

The culprit in the cap caper had been revealed June 5 by the Tribune Company’s own John Kass. And a good thing it was that the Sun-Times wasn’t first to the details. Kass used his exclusive knowledge exactly as the Sun-Times would have–to ridicule the competition. “Beer had nothing to do with starting the brawl. Instead, it was stupidity of the cold sober kind,” he wrote. “What makes this difficult–for me as a loyal White Sox fan–is that the stupidity oozed out of a Tribune Co. employee….Josh Pulliam is a customer service representative for NTC/ Contemporary Publishing Group in Lincolnwood, a Tribune subsidiary that publishes textbooks.”

Having dispelled the mystery, Kass proceeded to lament the swivet into which Pulliam had plunged the city. In Kass’s interesting view, Pulliam was no more a culprit than Mariotti–though Kass, as a professional courtesy, hid Mariotti’s name from Tribune readers. “Since then, a terribly excitable sports scribe in that little metropolitan tabloid has been screeching ad nauseum about the evils of beer and Wrigley,” Kass went on. “So the aldermen–well known for their reserved mannerisms–have used the screeching scribe’s turgid prose as cover to jump on the beer issue.”

A few days earlier, the Tribune’s Steve Rosenbloom had also pooh-poohed the drinking debate, again with an allusion that Mariotti might have understood to be to him. Rosenbloom reported that Alderman Edward Burke intended to introduce some bills to curb beer consumption at Wrigley. “Know what?” he wrote. “Burke has not been to a Cubs game recently….The politician hasn’t personally seen the supposed lawlessness of Wrigley, but he did indicate he has drawn some conclusions by reading reports that might be described as hysterical.” The same day, Tribune colleague Bernie Lincicome wrote of “the idiotic overreaction to fans being fans” on the part of “politicians and blue noses and piggy-backers.”

It’s understandable that Mariotti, who had indeed expressed himself forcefully on the matter of fan deportment in the Wrigley grandstands, would have been provoked to retaliate. The opportunity that soon came around was Sosa. Curiously, the Tribster that Mariotti fired his guns at–the “sports columnist who knows how to stay in corporate favor”–wasn’t Kass or Rosenbloom or Lincicome. It was Skip Bayless, who’d flouted the company line–if there is a company line–on beer and baseball. He’d written June 1 that ballpark drunks are so big a problem that the Cubs should go back to playing only day games at home.

Bayless’s sin was his June 4 column, which concluded that maybe the Cubs’ superstar should go. “Baylor can’t rebuild a contending team around Sosa, whose added bulk keeps him from running down balls once within his range,” argued Bayless. No doubt confirming Mariotti’s suspicions that the Tribune Company had issued marching orders, Rosenbloom seconded Bayless a few days later: “Good morning, Sammy Sosa. If I were a cynic I would say this cheesy martyr act of yours is nothing but an exit strategy….You realize the Cubs won’t give you $20 million per when your contract runs out in two years because your skills are diminishing (some are in free fall).”

There are other conspiracy theories that need to be mentioned in passing here. There’s the theory, acknowledged by Mariotti, that Sosa and his agent instigated the falling-out between Sosa and manager Baylor to make it easier for Sosa to get to a winning team. There’s the theory that Mariotti and Telander, by attacking the Tribune Company beast, are serving the ends of competing Hollinger International, which isn’t chopped liver either. There’s even the proposition E-mailed around by Lakeview’s Tom McClurg that “the Tribune planted this guy…to steal Kreuter’s cap knowing that it would set off a reaction, resulting in Dodger suspensions and civil litigation.” As in, if we can just get half of every other team suspended for hooliganism for enough games, the Cubs have as good a shot at the pennant as anybody.

There’s also the proposition, which can never be discounted, that newspapers think readers can’t get enough of this stuff.

What’s interesting is that the head of the Sun-Times sports department, Bill Adee, more or less agrees with McGrath. “My personal opinion,” he told me, “is that I wouldn’t say there’s a conspiracy, no.”

But intelligent people can disagree?

“Exactly,” he said. And when they’re intelligent people who write columns they get to say what they think.

Tribune sports bears the unavoidable burden of the corporate company it’s forced to keep, but Adee doesn’t believe in guilt by proximity. “I know the people in the Tribune sports department,” he told me. “I don’t think for a second they’d bend to that pressure. I tried to hire Dan McGrath. I know John Cherwa [assistant managing editor for sports]. They’re good journalists.”

Adee wished he’d tried harder to find out who snatched the cap–but who could have guessed how delicious the culprit’s identity would turn out to be? “I think anybody who chased after that hard would have gotten it pretty quickly,” he mused. “I’ve been kicking myself over it. Telander has been kicking me too. Given the gusto with which we went after every aspect of that story at the Sun-Times, I wish we had gotten that first. My hat’s off to John Kass.”

Adee allowed, “We’re certainly the pro-Sammy newspaper. Sammy lives in my building. At the end of the night we ride up the elevator together.” Does Sosa think the Tribune’s a party to a corporate conspiracy against him? “Yeah, I think he does,” said Adee. “Sure–which is to our advantage. As you well know, conflicts of interest–perceived or real, it doesn’t really matter. When Sammy thinks Tribune Company, he thinks of the newspaper, the whole deal. He doesn’t make a distinction.”

Adee went on, ruminating on how a simple story of ballplayers and fans whaling on each other escalated into accusations dark and terrible. “Last week was where we kind of moved into some conspiracy theories. Telander’s column was talking about conflicts of interest. There was certainly a hesitation on my part to go down that road, but Rick laid it out in a nutshell there. He and I can disagree. He’s got the column, not me.”

Theology Takes a Seat

I’d been reading with concern about the huge success of The Indwelling: The Beast Takes Possession, the latest in the apocalyptic “Left Behind” series and the nation’s best-selling novel. As devout Christians mysteriously vanish, having been summoned by Christ to the Rapture, the Antichrist emerges and battles Heaven for control of Earth. Authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins have been on a national tour, and the New York Times reported that in Wheaton, where 900 people paid up to $25 to hear them discuss their book, they “were accompanied by a retinue of 17, including a blind singer, Ginny Owens, and a singer-guitarist, Wayne Watson, who played with a throbbing rock sound as the authors sat on thronelike black leather chairs bathed in cyclamen-colored lights.”

What did this mean for Gil Thorp? I E-mailed Jenkins and asked if he’d still have time to write my favorite comic strip.

“Thorp is a great diversion,” he E-mailed back. “I’m writing only two books a year now, where I used to write 5-6, so I actually have more time–except for the media crush of a #1 bestseller. Who can complain?:)”

He went on, “I don’t sing or dance or preach. This is all I do.”

I asked him about the challenge he faces as a “nonsecularist” writing a secular strip?

“I’m a nonsecularist?” he responded. “I suppose. But many of my sports books have been secular (Aaron, Motta, Payton, Ryan), and I’m into my fourth year with Thorp. I was a sportswriter years ago.”

He told me he doesn’t even think about mixing theology into Gil Thorp. “I don’t see a place for it there. I don’t own the strip. I just caretake it. I’ve understood from the beginning that it is not a platform for proselytizing.”

On a recent visit to the Bucket–the Gil Thorp message board–I found lots of lively discussion about the irritating Marty Moon, the return of Tim Leahy in a Baldwin uniform, and an unfortunate inking error that had a Milford Mudlark pitcher striking out a Mudlark batter. But though the Bucket keeps careful track of characters such as Janelle who mysteriously disappear from the strip, there was only the stray allusion to the Rapture.

“Really?” said Jenkins when I let him know. “I have not visited there in probably two years–maybe more. I found so many critics that I just didn’t see the point. I recall discussion of the books when I was a regular there, but if they’re not discussing them now, maybe they are not Left Behind readers anymore.”

Lastly, is JJSon, who weighs in frequently at the Bucket, actually your son?

“Wouldn’t surprise me,” Jenkins responded. “He’s been a Gil fan since long before I started writing it.”

News Bite

Cartoonists sometimes achieve great success, but it should never sit comfortably on them and rarely does. Jeff MacNelly won three Pulitzer Prizes as an editorial cartoonist, but Cosmo, his paunchy alter ego in Shoe, was either sitting at a typewriter under a precipitous tower of papers an hour late finishing a think piece his editor didn’t want anyway, or he was in a bar striking out with babes. I had no idea until MacNelly died last week that Shoe was one of the most popular strips in America. Cosmo was a Charlie Brown for the middle-aged, but I’d always thought of Shoe as a trade secret. That tower of papers was true to every city room I’ve ever seen.

“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote. Hope in Shoe had feathers and was up a tree, hanging in there.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea/copyright Chicago Tribune 2000.