Tribune Staff Rider

“I get an awful lot of mail,” said Jim Mateja. “A lot of it’s threats. A lot of it’s steamy.”

Mateja commits something akin to mass cuckoldry. He violates the terms of endearment bonding the Chicago male to his wheels.

“Basically, it gets down to the fact that when you criticize a car that somebody’s just paid $15,000 for, you’re going to make some emotional enemies,” said Mateja. He’s been reviewing automobiles for the Tribune since 1970. “They paid their hard-earned money for it. They show their friends and neighbors–they’re beaming at the fact they got this great new car.

“And they’ll get a call on Sunday, or their friend or neighbor will stop by on Sunday with a great big grin on their face and say, ‘Did you read the Trib? No? Well, I brought a copy with me in case you missed it’–and they’ll really rub it in.”

Mateja reflected, “The average price of a car is about $15,600, $15,900. That’s a lot of money for an individual, and every month for years to come there’s a reminder of what they’ve got and how much they had to pay for it. And then some clown in the newspaper says, ‘Boy, did you screw up!’ It’s like saying you bought the wrong house. You live in the wrong suburb. You send your kids to the wrong school . . .”

Mateja spends two hours each night reading his mail. He’ll get 200 letters “on a bad week” and as many phone calls. And if he gives a jalopy a rough time on Sunday, the death threats roll in on Monday and Tuesday.

Do you take precautions? we asked him. No, he said, but then remembered a Saturday when a Tribune guard walked him to his car. A man had called and threatened him and then called back. Most fulminators dial once. They are usually so angry that Mateja has trouble understanding them.

And they are always men. The women Mateja hears from have a different agenda. “Women, as a rule, if they see something critical or hear something critical about a car will follow up on it to learn the specifics. The male goes by ego–and if his ego suffers, he’ll curl up and shy away from learning more. Women are always asking questions. The male doesn’t want to admit he doesn’t know.”

Mateja went on, “Probably half my mail is asking questions, seeking advice. Some of these people–my God! they write 15-page letters asking all sorts of questions, and these are always the ones who say, ‘I need a reply within two days.'”

Another significant source of correspondence is the auto dealers themselves. “Of course, the salesmen and dealerships just go bonkers because of the potential for lost sales,” Mateja said. “You can always tell a letter from a dealer or a salesman because they carbon copy the letter to the publisher.”

Lost sales will tighten a salesman’s jaw in the best of times. These are the worst. “The market’s in the toilet right now,” said Mateja. “People have very little interest in buying cars. They’re more interested in whether they’re going to be working next year.

“The bulk of my calls I’ve noticed lately have been about problems with existing cars they wanted corrected as opposed to ‘I want a new car.’ I can always tell when the market’s about to come back by the number of calls on new cars. In a good year, 75 percent of the calls are about buying new cars. Now, 75 percent are on existing cars . . .”

A couple of weeks ago the CEOs of GM, Ford, and Chrysler got together on Nightline to defend their wares as far removed from the buckets of bolts the Big Three were turning out in the 70s and to insist that today’s challenge is not better product but better image. Mateja’s inclined to agree. “The American car quality has gotten just about equal with the Japanese,” he said. “The Japanese have made the U.S. cars better.”

But Consumer Reports consistently rates imports as the most reliable and trouble-free cars on the market, we reminded him. Mateja said those ratings are based on owners’ experiences, and the owners of imports take better care of their cars. “They have this thing–they’re very religious about maintenance.” Why? we asked. “All the buyer profiles will show there’s a higher percentage of college graduates among import buyers,” Mateja told us, “a lower age level, and a higher income level. They’re more concerned about protecting their investment.”

Mateja doesn’t try to predict how long a new car will last, although some readers think he should. “I have people writing in wanting to know in what year a car will rust.”

Mateja test-drives a car for a week before writing about it. “The dogs really stand out,” he says. Whenever they do, he rises to the occasion.

“I remember a while back I wrote about the Jeep Wrangler, and the lead was, Mother Teresa would find fault with a Jeep Wrangler. And the Volkswagen Corrado–I drove it one Thanksgiving. The lead on that column was, I drove my Volkswagen Corrado over Thanksgiving, which was appropriate because it was a real turkey . . .

“Chrysler is really good in terms of ‘Hey, if you criticize us, maybe we deserved it.’ GM is pretty decent about it. Ford can get tacky. The imports can get very tacky. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Japanese or European, they get irritated really easily. If there’s an unfavorable review–I remember Volkswagen, I couldn’t get a car from them to test-drive for two years.”

New Comiskey: Photo Friendly?

A festering grievance out at the new ballpark may have been settled a week too soon for Hot Type to move in and fully exploit it. AP’s local chief of photographers, Rob Kozloff, and the new director of public relations for the White Sox, Doug Abel, met for lunch last Thursday and matters went unexpectedly well.

Topic A was the press photographers’ inability to shoot pictures from behind home plate. They’ve been confined to pits along the baselines just past the dugouts.

Photographers like to be able to shoot pitchers head-on. “Obviously in a lot of games you don’t even need the damn pitcher,” Kozloff told us. “But if you’ve got a no-hitter . . . shooting him from the side is unacceptable.” There’s a TV well behind the plate that’s plenty big enough to allow one or two press photographers at a time to slip in alongside the TV cameraman and squeeze a few frames. But the White Sox said this was impermissible–the well and the passageway behind it under the stands must be kept clear for security reasons.

“‘If there’s a riot,'” said Kozloff, quoting management, “‘it’s the only place the police can come in.’ We just shook our heads and said, ‘Sorry, that just doesn’t wash with us.’ The last riot, I think, was disco demolition night.”

The photographers also complained that they weren’t allowed in the clubhouse, or even in the press box, and couldn’t take shots from the stands. At Wrigley Field the only way to shoot pitchers head-on is from the seats, but the photographers have their run of the stands so long as they don’t bother paying customers. The photographers feel liked and appreciated at Wrigley Field. They haven’t at the new Sox park.

Bob Davis told us his famous peanuts story. Davis, a Sun-Times photographer, said he went up to the press box early in the season looking for a roster list. While he was there, he helped himself to some peanuts. Abel stepped in. Abel told him this wasn’t his press box and those weren’t his peanuts. Davis told Abel not to blow things out of proportion. Abel told Davis he shouldn’t be working in Chicago.

We asked Abel about this. “We have a policy that no food and drink is allowed to be removed from the press box,” he said.

Said Davis, “It’s just deteriorated from the relationship we had with the Sox prior to the new ballpark.” Said the Sun-Times’s Phil Velasquez, president of the Chicago Press Photographers Association, “They run the place like it was a prison. Photographers are treated like dirt.” Said UPI’s Ray Foli, “In the old ballpark it was a real nice, friendly atmosphere. Over here it’s totally cold.”

But if Abel is vigilant to a fault, it happens that he was hired to tighten up a lax operation. Sun-Times baseball writer Dave van Dyck says that a lot of dubious press credentials got issued in the old park, and so many characters “wandered in and out of the old press box” that the genuine reporters had trouble working. “I have found that most of the time with Abel,” he said, “if I had a problem and I went to him and talked about it, it got straightened out.”

About a month ago several of the photographers met at the Sun-Times to gripe collectively; as a result, Kozloff had a brief talk with Abel that resolved nothing. Meanwhile, the Tribune’s Bob Langer called American League headquarters in New York. Langer was upset because the new photo pits hadn’t been screened in. But after reporting that threat to life and limb, he complained that the photographers couldn’t shoot behind home plate.

The screens–a detail the White Sox simply hadn’t attended to yet–quickly went up. But the TV well remained off-limits, and Sox management smoldered at Langer’s appeal to higher authority.

“This,” said Abel’s boss, senior vice president Rob Gallas, “is a small group of people who want their way.”

Gallas said that last week. The same day, Abel and Kozloff finally had lunch together. And Abel told Kozloff that the photographers can go in the press box–so long as they don’t hang around; they can shoot from the stands, including the stands right behind home plate–so long as they don’t get in the way. And if there’s a shot they have to take inside the clubhouse–of that no-hit pitcher, say–they’ll be accommodated.

Abel even told Kozloff he’d ask his bosses about using the TV well. The answer came down this week, and it was still no. But having access to the grandstand makes the veto easier to live with.

We called Abel and told him we heard the problem was solved. “I didn’t think there was any problem to begin with,” he replied dourly. “A lot of these things seem very petty to me.”

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