The Usual Dearth of Wisdom

I’d decided to shatter precedent if that’s what it took to name a worthy Golden BAT champion this spring. But the wisdom I yearned to pay tribute to was nowhere to be found.

The BAT, of course, is the highest honor a sportswriter can aspire to that doesn’t involve a free buffet. Introduced in this space in 1981 by Neil Tesser, the BAT–for Baseball Aptitude Test–seeks an empirical answer to the eternal question: do these jokers know what they’re talking about?

Tesser’s method was so flawless it’s never been modified, though I intended to this year. Each spring Hot Type reviews the pennant predictions made a year earlier by the national pastime’s foremost local scriveners. There’s always one scribe not quite as hopeless as the others, and to him or her goes the BAT. The level of performance has picked up over the years, but I’ve argued that perspicacity had nothing to do with it–that the game had simply fallen into the hands of fools who expanded the playoffs to the point where it was almost impossible for a competitive team not to make them, while letting salaries get so out of control only a handful of rich or very cleverly operated teams remained competitive.

Which brings me to this year’s Golden BAT. Normally I grade the writers by toting up the number of division champions and wild-card teams correctly predicted. But I decided that any sportswriter wise and bold enough to predict that the glamourless, low-budget Anaheim Angels would come from nowhere to win the 2002 World Series would perforce receive the BAT–and it didn’t matter if every other prediction was wrong. If a sportswriter so much as picked the Angels to make the playoffs (they got in as the AL wild card), that was good enough to earn the BAT.

But nobody saw the Angels coming.

Since I still needed to name a champion, I resorted to the usual methods. The Tribune’s Phil Rogers smartly picked six of the eight 2002 playoff teams. He foresaw Atlanta winning the NL East and Saint Louis the NL Central, and though he was wrong about San Francisco finishing on top of the NL West, the Giants did make the playoffs as the wild card. In the American League, Rogers had New York taking the East and Oakland the West. Most impressively, he also saw the Minnesota Twins, a team Major League Baseball tried to liquidate before the season, winning the Central Division; he and the Sun-Times’s Jay Mariotti were the only writers to name the Twins.

The less coveted Whiffle BAT, awarded to the scribe with the murkiest Magic 8 Ball, goes to the Tribune’s Paul Sullivan, who named only three playoff teams and favored the hometown Sox in the AL Central. Going with the locals is an almost automatic deduction.

I tracked Rogers down Monday in the press box at Shea Stadium and gave him the good news about his first BAT. “It’s the best thing that’s happened to me today, that’s for sure,” he said. (And it was already 2:12 PM there!) I reminded him of last year’s thrilling BAT competition, which Skip Bayless won posthumously, so to speak. Four months after making his winning predictions for the Tribune, he’d quit in despair, feeling unappreciated. When news of his triumph reached him he was at a paper in San Jose. He was overjoyed.

“It doesn’t take much for many of us,” said Rogers. “We don’t get many highlights.”

Backing and Flacking

Promoter Sonny Vaccaro has been staging prep all-star basketball games since the mid-60s, almost always with a local newspaper as a partner. During his 27 years running the Dapper Dan Roundball Classic in Pittsburgh, the Post-Gazette was a cosponsor. In 1992 Vaccaro started wandering: he took his game to Detroit for eight years and to Raleigh for a year, and two years ago he brought it to Chicago.

Lacking a media cosponsor, the renamed EA Sports Roundball Classic tanked two years ago in Northwestern’s Welsh-Ryan Arena. But Vaccaro hooked up with the Tribune’s community relations department and moved the 2002 game into the United Center.

Is there any way to succeed with a game like the Roundball Classic without a newspaper on board? I ask him.

“It’s very, very difficult–you can’t do it,” he says. “You need to reach out to people. It’s a national game–you’re trying to tell them to come in and see these kids they don’t know yet. Unless you can get that advertising you can’t afford to do it.”

Even though Tribune Charities was designated to benefit from the game’s proceeds, last year Vaccaro didn’t get that advertising. It turned out that an understanding with community relations wasn’t the same thing as an understanding with Tribune sports. “That’s a complete separation of church and state,” says Tribune spokesperson Patty Wetli. The Tribune disappointed Vaccaro big-time. “Basically,” he says, “they didn’t really get the grasp of the game.” Pregame coverage was indifferent, a mere 7,400 people turned out, and Vaccaro couldn’t believe the Tribune game story.

“They sent an intern to the game!” he says. “Come on! The main beat writer didn’t cover the game!”

It’s true. A young intern who spent three months with the Tribune last winter was assigned to the Roundball Classic. “We thought it was good exposure for him,” says the top sports editor, Dan McGrath. And though the intern’s story failed to mention that he was covering a Tribune-sponsored game, it was such a downer no one could possibly have accused him of shilling. “The game’s overall talent pool declined this year,” he wrote, “and the Roundball Classic, which originated in 1965 as the Dapper Dan, didn’t get all the best high school players.” The gloomy headline announced: “Absentees dull Classic’s luster: / Brown, Iguodala among big names who skip event.”

Says McGrath, “When we set out to cover this, we didn’t say, ‘Let’s thump the tub for this.’ I can’t stress this enough–community relations is totally separated from the newsroom.”

The Sun-Times’s game story turned out to be a lot more enthusiastic than the Tribune’s. “We started seeing who was the true basketball prep paper,” says Vaccaro’s wife, Pam. “They really love prep sports. Their prep sports section is amazing.”

So Sonny Vaccaro called Steve Tucker, the Sun-Times’s top prep sports writer, and offered his paper the 2003 Roundball Classic–the game that would showcase the once-in-a-lifetime LeBron James. Tucker set the wheels in motion. This year’s game was played Monday before a United Center crowd of 19,678, and the Sun-Times Charity Trust was its chief beneficiary. The paper, Vaccaro says, “was totally involved.” The Tribune was out in the cold.

Exploiting its privileged status, the Sun-Times announced exclusively on January 24 that James would be playing in the Roundball Classic and a week later exclusively published the names of the other players (the Tribune had to wait a day for the roster). Every Friday from February 21 through March 28 the Sun-Times published a profile of a different player. And while consistently forgetting to mention that the Sun-Times was sponsoring, and its charity benefiting from, the game, these feature stories faithfully provided readers the Roundball Classic’s Web site address and the number to call to order tickets. Last Thursday’s paper offered an eight-page special section on the game.

Last year Tribune sports had no intention of doing Vaccaro any special favors. Prep writer Marlen Garcia tells me, “I didn’t even know we were sponsors of the event until we lost it to the Sun-Times and we started having all these problems.” To Sun-Times sports, sponsorship was an opportunity. For example, it was a chance for Tucker to reach James on the phone for a Q and A when the Tribune couldn’t get the time of day from him. “I think it’s hysterical,” says Taylor Bell, the legendary Sun-Times prep sports writer. “All the Tribune people are complaining. But the only ones they have to blame are themselves. They had the game, they had LeBron, and they blew it.”

Bell, who’s semiretired, is probably the most influential prep sports writer in Illinois history. “Right now I’m officially a stringer,” he says. “I’m in the same position as the guy who covered the game last year for the Tribune.” That’s one way of putting it. Actually, Bell keeps his hand in with the occasional Sun-Times story and he still refers to himself and the Sun-Times as “we” and “us.” “I’m still working for the Sun-Times,” he says. “They still pay me money. I’m not totally forgotten.”

He and Vaccaro have known each other forever. Bell wrote the program for this year’s Roundball Classic, and a few weeks before the game he made an important phone call on Vaccaro’s behalf. It was to the father of Proviso East’s Shannon Brown, the Michigan State recruit who was the Sun-Times’s player of the year and contributed a weekly “diary” to the paper.

Vaccaro hadn’t asked Brown to play in the Roundball Classic this year because he understood that Brown was already committed to two other all-star games, last month’s McDonald’s All-American Game and this month’s Jordan Capital Classic. James can play in all three because he’s turning pro, but two’s the NCAA-imposed limit for any player going on to college.

Because of injuries, a couple of positions opened in the Roundball Classic’s 22-player roster, and Bell told Vaccaro he’d heard Brown might be available after all. Bell called Brown’s father to find out. “We’d love to have him play in this game,” Bell told Chris Brown, a Maywood police sergeant. Bell says Brown responded, “He hasn’t signed anything. We’ll talk it over.”

Several days went by, and though Chris Brown called Tucker to discuss the situation, he didn’t get back to Bell. Finally Bell called him again to ask about Shannon. “His father said, ‘Well, he made his commitments [to the other two games],'” says Bell. “I said, ‘Thank you very much.'”

“They did not ask him in the beginning to play,” Chris Brown tells me. “It was not an original request. It was after a kid named Dave Padgett got hurt, way after the rosters had been filled. He was asked by Taylor Bell. There was no formal invitation, no letter, no nothing. Taylor Bell and them tried to do their job, but Sonny Vaccaro never did give a formal invite.”

Brown has no problems with how the paper treated his family. “I’m happy with the Sun-Times and Taylor Bell and Steve Tucker,” he says. He adds the name of prep sports writer Clyde Travis, explaining, “He’s the one who did the article every week on Shannon.”

Bell thinks Shannon Brown decided to skip the Roundball Classic because it’s an Adidas-backed game–Vaccaro is Adidas’s director of sports development–and Brown leans toward Nike. Chris Brown says his son has no deal with Nike and shoes had nothing to do with it.

Of course it’s not the Browns’ behavior that matters here. Bell was a Sun-Times sportswriter helping to set up the event his paper was covering. And notwithstanding a million sports stories about weekly polls, end-of-season honors, hall of fame selections, and even Golden BAT laurels–all of them the concoctions of journalists–a case can be made that that’s wrong.

News Bite

8 The Sun-Times produced a notably schizoid editorial this Tuesday when its favorite mayor took the weird step of carving Xs into the face of Meigs Field. It called Mayor Daley’s conduct and explanations “ludicrous,” “appalling,” and a “concrete illustration of the arrogance of entrenched power.” At the same time the paper bent over backward not to be mistaken by the mayor for an enemy. “There was no need for this act, which will only delight Daley opponents,” the editorial mourned. Its convoluted headline fretted, “Meigs maneuvers land Daley where critics want him.”

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