Sun-Times Sports Shuffle

Brian Hewitt has been writing a sports column for the Sun-Times less than a month; he’s still full of ideas and it’s easy. But Hewitt is a collector of the received wisdom of his craft, which tells him to enjoy it while he can.

Tacked to Hewitt’s bulletin board is the famous line from Red Smith: “There’s nothing to writing. You just sit down at a typewriter and open a vein.” And a quote from Faulkner: “The tools I need for my work are paper, tobacco, food, and a little whiskey.” (It’s such a damned prim age that Hewitt thought it wise to advise us, “I do not drink whiskey when I write my column. I do not drink whiskey, period! I drink beer occasionally.”)

Columnist Mike Downey of the LA Times, an old friend of Hewitt’s, favored him with another line from Red Smith, the Seneca of the press box: “Writing a column is like making love to a nymphomaniac. As soon as you’re done, she wants more.” (A paraphrase.) And a second old friend, Ron Rapoport of the LA Daily News, recalled Russell Baker’s comment on the columnist’s lot: “You spend the first year searching for your voice, and the next 20 fighting it.” (Another paraphrase.)

The column Hewitt now writes used to belong to Rapoport, who won all sorts of awards for the Sun-Times and then got dumped. Publisher Robert Page and executive editor Ken Towers tired of Rapoport’s voice of reason, and in 1987 they busted him down to feature writer. The Sun-Times already had one gentlemanly sports columnist in Ray Sons, and Page and Towers saw no reason for two. As Towers told us then, they wanted “somebody who’d look at things in a different way and express an opinion that maybe wouldn’t be the type of opinion people would agree with. We want somebody who’s opinionated, very opinionated . . .”

They wanted a horse’s ass.

Towers found his horse’s ass in staff sportswriter Terry Boers. As Boers stepped forward, Rapoport quit, and Brian Hewitt, who’d been a Sun-Times sportswriter since 1976, also quit. Out of solidarity with Rapoport? we asked him last week. “I think if there’s any common thread, it’s that neither of us was terribly thrilled with the leadership at the top,” he said. “Anybody who was there knew there was some sort of madness at the paper at the time. But I’ve got to say, when the Los Angeles Times calls, it’s pretty tough to say no under any circumstances.”

The Times had offered Hewitt a dream job: to live in San Diego and cover the Chargers. But as good a deal as it was, Hewitt quickly discovered that the place he really wanted to be was back in Chicago. Late last year the National offered him the Chicago Bears, and Hewitt came home.

The job at the new sports daily didn’t work out. The National, which started publishing only last January, is still inventing itself. After hiring Hewitt, it decided to deemphasize local coverage, which meant that Hewitt would be covering the NFL in the fall but not specifically the Bears. When the Sun-Times approached Hewitt last spring, offering him “significantly more money and more opportunity to get somewhere,” he happily accepted.

By now, Page and Towers were history. Sam McKeel ran the place and Dennis Britton of the LA Times was the new editor. “It’s a completely different paper from the one I left,” says Hewitt. Nobody knows that better than Terry Boers.

Boers did his darnedest to be the jerk Page and Towers paid him to be–to be what executive sports editor Don Snyder labeled “the resident cynic.” But cynics wear out their welcomes early unless they are irresistibly clever, and Boers was far from that. “He’d make fun of Wisconsin people as ‘cheese heads’ and people from Indiana as ‘Hoosiers’–that sort of thing,” says Snyder. “It’s just a shtick, something he’s doing. He thinks the reader shouldn’t necessarily take it literally–but they do. If you have fun, they wind up taking it literally.”

Snyder said he didn’t have to be told once Dennis Britton took over that Terry Boers was out of step. Britton was not an editor who’d appreciate the advantages of a writer who called some readers cheese heads. Under considerable pressure to lighten up, Boers received new instructions that Snyder concedes boiled down to this: “You were hired as a columnist to be you. And now we’re saying, don’t be you.”

Boers’s response to this existential crisis was to stand fast. For better or worse, he’d established his voice, and Boers considered it nonnegotiable. “Nobody propped me up and said, be an asshole,” Boers tells us. “It comes naturally for me. That’s me! Radio, TV, whatever it is–there’s no difference in my persona.”

Consoled by the continuing opportunity to say what he thinks each week on the Sportswriters, Boers voluntarily gave up his column, although he continues at the Sun-Times in what he calls “a very low profile.” Snyder asked his staff if anyone would like to take Boers’s place for the time being, and Hewitt volunteered.

“I have not been anointed,” said Hewitt. He has the column on what Snyder calls an “unofficial interim” basis, which means Hewitt might turn out to be interim and he might not. “We haven’t decided what to do on this,” says Snyder. Hewitt could wind up writing the column for the next 20 years; but as he knows, the Sun-Times has approached and is now interviewing sportswriters from other papers. One possibility, says Snyder, is for the Sun-Times sports section to begin carrying three columnists.

Another interesting change in the Sun-Times’s sports desk has the Bulls beat being split in two. Lacy Banks, the longtime beat reporter, will step back to survey the entire NBA and write a Sunday column, while Dave Hoekstra covers most of the Bulls games. Hoekstra’s all of 35, and the celebrated nightlife reporter let it be known two years ago that he wouldn’t mind moving into sports. “He’s getting middle-aged now,” says Snyder, “and he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life hanging out in singles bars.”

Sox Security

Someone we know who owns a very small piece of the White Sox is telling us what to write. Stop crusading to turn Comiskey Park into a public playground, he said; what he wants us to do instead is crusade to have the new stadium named after Bill Veeck. (According to a couple of early Brian Hewitt columns, a Veeck Park is the fans’ choice, too.) As our friend said, “There’s no reason in the world why the new park should inherit the Comiskey name. It has nothing to do with Comiskey. If the Old Soldier hadn’t been such a cheap son of a bitch and had built his own park better in the first place, they wouldn’t have to tear it down.”

But down it goes. Full of curiosity, we went out to the final home game Sunday, bringing along a Spanish houseguest who doesn’t know much of anything about baseball but had seen the Paul Goldberger elegy in the morning’s New York Times and understood that a great place was vanishing from the earth. We told Paco that Comiskey was just as much a classic as the bullring in Seville.

As the two of us didn’t happen to be in possession of tickets, and all seats were reserved, we watched the first seven innings from the picnic area behind the left-field wall. Conviviality ran high here. At the next table a man was telling a boy about the 1933 All-Star game; we stepped into that conversation and brought it around to the new stadium looming like a flying saucer over Comiskey’s grandstand roof. They say the sight lines are excellent, the man remarked. The sight lines are perfect to the moon, we pointed out, but that doesn’t make it any closer.

The problem with the picnic area is that someone like Paco who is trying to watch his first baseball game from there will find it incomprehensible. So during the seventh-inning stretch we wandered under the stands over to the far side of the park, to the lower-deck standing room between home and first. There we saw the game end. What happens now? we both wondered, curious about the spontaneous reaction of the mass of which we’d made ourselves particles.

We’ll never know. Steve Lyons pressed his foot against first to end an era, and instantaneously scores of police and Andy Frains swarmed from the stands like bugs bounced out of a bedspread. Before the game we’d seen some of the same cops on Shields Street joking and taking pictures like everyone else. Now they formed a cordon and meant business.

There was barely time to comprehend this daunting formation when the bull-pen doors swung open and out stepped the mounted patrol, 21 men on horseback strutting into the arena like picadors on parade to begin a corrida. Behind them, two paddy wagons raced in, made sharp U-turns to swing their back ends into full view of the stands, and sat there with their gates open. The jitney to hell, ready for boarding.

Now that instant annihilation had been guaranteed to anyone whose blood ran high, a mawkish video unspooled on the scoreboard, inviting us all to get misty and nostalgic. And the players wandered off the field, waving at the crowd. Our friend from Spain did not know baseball but he grasped this. The only manly response was to laugh.

Saddam Hussein and Francisco Franco would have admired the spectacle, two boss men with the same weak spot for sentimentality and brute force. Our thoughts turned to the rites of capital punishment. In the final hours the state puts the condemned prisoner under airtight guard. It’s to guarantee that up to the moment he’s executed no one musses a hair on his head.

Who’s to Blame

There’s a consensus forming among serious thinkers on the subject of what’s really wrong with America. What’s really wrong with America is that Americans no longer take responsibility for their own actions. When things go bad, the fault always lies somewhere else.

Where serious thinkers disagree is over who’s to blame for this miserable state of affairs. They have all sorts of candidates–from the go-go Reagan administration to liberal sociologists and opportunistic lawyers.

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