TweedleRick and TweedleJay

A TV studio was built last fall in the Sun-Times newsroom, and Jay Mariotti disappears into it every weekday afternoon to tape his portion of ESPN’s Around the Horn. It’s a show in which four sportswriters in far-flung cities shout at each other and a “ringside judge” named Max awards them points. Behind Mariotti, through a glass wall, the hurly-burly of the newsroom can be seen. The studio is small but state of the art, and the authenticity of the setting, I suppose, is priceless.

“It’s a huge eyesore,” says one of Mariotti’s colleagues at the paper, remembering that when Mariotti began taping Around the Horn “you could be in the other end of the newsroom and hear him screaming. It was mind-numbing to the people who have to do their jobs.”

“It really is a half an hour of screaming,” agrees vice president of editorial John Cruickshank. But he reports that the studio’s now soundproofed and Mariotti’s screams are contained. “It took us a while to get this thing built. It was a pain for a lot of people. But I think there’s no question it’s good for the paper, and if we hadn’t done it, it would have gone to the Tribune. And that would have been very bad for the paper.”

Last November Mariotti wrote a column celebrating and promoting his new TV show. “I must say, I’m thrilled to be connecting with an audience that newspapers are desperate to reach,” he rejoiced. “I’m just happy to be alive and relevant, thank you.” Sun-Times TV critic Phil Rosenthal read this column by Mariotti and, unable to contain himself, promptly pointed out in print that Mariotti used to sing a different tune. A year earlier, before Around the Horn came along, Mariotti had offered his readers this “keen insight”: “The TV bosses think they know sports fans and inundate us with sex, yuks and rock ‘n’ roll with an obvious nod to males ages 18 to 34. But the ratings don’t lie. Target audiences aren’t buying it….But, hey, TV thinks shtick sells. Even when it obviously doesn’t.”

Why would Rosenthal want to score points at the expense of Mariotti, his colleague and teammate? The sheer disloyalty of it vexed Mariotti, who forcefully brought his concerns to Rosenthal’s attention.

Fellow Sun-Times sports columnist Rick Telander also read Mariotti’s column and filed it away for future consideration. On May 8 Telander’s nominal subject was Bob Ryan, a sports columnist for the Boston Globe who’d been suspended by his paper for a month for something stupid and offensive he’d said on a local TV station. Telander admires Ryan as a writer, but allowed that TV can make smart people silly. “He got caught up in the weird world of mass-market celebrity and vapidity wherein whoever shouts the loudest or makes the biggest splash in the water wins,” wrote Telander, who used to be a regular on the old Sportswriters show, which got pretty noisy itself.

Like Mariotti, Ryan was a fixture on Around the Horn, which Telander nimbly worked into his story. “In the realm of sports journalism, especially the electronic side,” Telander went on, “the goal is to say something outrageous, with absolute certitude, as often as possible so as to rise above, or at least float to the surface of, the roiling, screeching cauldron of phlegm and insult that passes as entertainment and information….You can’t just talk in the sports world anymore. You must BELLOW!”

Mariotti was beside himself. By various accounts, not to mention personal experience, Mariotti beside himself is given to picking up the phone at any hour of the day or night and leaving messages that sometimes don’t end until the voice mail gives out. “I try to handle things privately,” says Mariotti, who won’t discuss his grievances on the record. Nor will most of his teammates. I spoke with one whose life, as I hear it, was complicated by Mariotti’s wrath. I was told, after a pause, “I don’t think there’s an upside to talking about this.” And after another pause, “I’d like to help you more, but I’ve probably helped you enough.”

All the foregoing is a prelude to the matter at hand. As a rule, life is calmest in Sun-Times sports when Mariotti and Telander are covering separate events in separate cities on separate continents. But on June 22 both were watching the White Sox battle the Cubs at Wrigley Field. Telander approached Mariotti, who was sitting in a radio booth at the rear of the press box. “He’d been sending me e-mails and phone messages, and I wanted to talk to him in person. That’s how I do things,” says Telander. “I figured a public place like that should be OK.”

Telander was in a state of great agitation. Voices rose. “It was a yelling match,” he says. “Somebody should have come in with a fire hose, maybe blasted me first.” Someone who was not–I repeat, not–at the scene but is in the loop tells me Mariotti was heard to say, “I would love to punch you,” and Telander to answer, “That would be the saddest day of your life.”

Not so, says Telander. “I would never come up with that clever a response.”

At any rate, before they could start whaling on each other, Sun-Times baseball writer Chris De Luca stepped in and pried them apart.

This wasn’t the first time. I’ve been told of a Bulls playoff game in Washington several years ago when Mariotti and Telander screamed at each other so loudly and publicly that Vice President Al Gore and his Secret Service detail stopped to watch.

“Some people are like really pissed that De Luca got between them,” says the guy not at the scene but in the loop. “He’s probably the guy taking the most heat.”

Mariotti and Telander don’t like each other and never have. The consolation, which both acknowledge, is that the chemistry that makes them loathe each other also makes them a one-two punch the Tribune can’t match–though God knows, with Bernie Lincicome and Skip Bayless and Michael Holley and Rick Morrissey and now Mike Downey, the Tribune has tried.

Mariotti joined the Sun-Times in 1991. “Sports With an ATTITUDE” he was billed. Telander, a Sports Illustrated veteran, came along in 1995, at a time when Mariotti, around whom the waters are never still, had been busted down to reporter, wasn’t appearing in the paper at all, and looked like toast. Telander thought he was coming in to succeed Mariotti as the paper’s lead sports columnist. He wasn’t. New owners took over the Sun-Times, and the relentless Mariotti persuaded them to give him his job back. Instead of Mariotti, it was the sports editor who’d hired Telander to replace Mariotti who soon disappeared.

They’ve pulled the Sun-Times sports cart in tandem ever since.

“In all honesty,” says Telander, thinking back to June 22, “anybody who’s ever written deadline journalism who hasn’t gotten in a fight in the press box is somebody I wouldn’t want to hire. People who aren’t there don’t know what it’s like. People don’t know the incredible pressures and tensions. People melt down all the time.”

But Mariotti doesn’t see himself as a brawler. “Every day,” he says, willing to speak on the record just long enough to declare his principles, “I do my job. I mind my own business. My teammates are my teammates. I want us all to get along. Maybe that’s not realistic, but I’m not going to give up on that ideal. And there’s nothing I can do when somebody has a problem with me but to ignore it. But there’s nothing I’m doing that’s causing these public displays. I’ll leave it at that.”

These displays usually wind up in Cruickshank’s lap. The Wrigley Field showdown was no exception. Telander says the boss took him aside. “He said, ‘Look, everybody wants to be a sportswriter. You guys are making damn good money. Come on!’ I said, ‘John, you’re absolutely right.'”

Telander meditates. “Our problems, when you get down to it, are nothing.” What June 22 showed in its own weird way, he says, “was that the Sun-Times has the right guys. Was it enjoyable? No. Does it show we each have a spine? Yeah. I think Jay has said it. We don’t have to like each other. We don’t have to know anything about each other. But we got to get along. Actually we don’t have to get along. But we have to write our best for the paper and our own pride. And you know it, he’s right.”

Says Cruickshank, “They’re a funny pair because they’re both so energetic, they’re both so proud, and they both want to be first at everything. At the end of the day there are times I get called in or [editor in chief Michael Cooke] gets called in, and we say something sage like ‘Don’t take this out on each other. Take it out on the Tribune.’

“You wouldn’t want peace in the valley all the time. This is one of the only aspects in which we still have an old-fashioned newsroom. Do I sometimes intervene? Yeah, but always with a smile. If my staff were made up of Mariottis and Telanders, there wouldn’t be a Tribune in this town.”

I ask Cruickshank what he knows about what went on at Wrigley Field.

“Almost nothing,” he admits.

And you don’t want to know?

“Absolutely not.”

Cardinal Hates Gay Head

A marriage is three things. First, it’s a legal relationship between a man and a woman imposing on each of them certain rights and obligations. But a politician can argue that a gay couple should have an equal right to assume those rights and obligations. Second, it’s an explicit public declaration of a man and a woman’s unconditional commitment to each other. But a politician can argue that a gay couple should be able to make the same declaration.

Third, it’s a sacrament. And at this point the politician should shut up. Sacraments are none of the state’s business.

The opposite side of this coin is that the secular functions of marriage aren’t a church’s. When a church weighs in on them anyway, putting every last ounce of its muscle behind its viewpoint, it’s asking for trouble.

Last Sunday Cardinal George preached a sermon in which he announced that he’d written a letter of apology to Pope John Paul II. Why? Because a newspaper in Chicago–a city the pope always asks of “fondly” and has never thought of “as a center of anti-Catholicism”–published a “false accusation” on its front page. The previous Friday the Sun-Times had carried an AP story headlined “Pope Launches Global Campaign Vs. Gays.” Said George, “The pope, of course, did no such thing.”

George didn’t fault the AP story itself, which reported that the Vatican’s Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith had issued a 12-page document in seven languages that “urged Catholics and non-Catholics…to unite in campaigning against gay marriages and gay adoptions” and put Catholic politicians on notice that they “have a ‘moral duty’ to oppose civil laws granting legal rights to gay couples.”

George explained in his sermon that although Christ raised marriage to a sacrament, marriage springs from “nature itself” and predates both church and government. Marriage is the “lifelong union of a man and a woman who enter into a total sharing of themselves for the sake of family,” and government can no more change this than the church can. A government that claims otherwise “becomes totalitarian.” Defending marriage, the church is defending not doctrine but nature.

Where is the lie in “Pope Launches Global Campaign Vs. Gays”? Apparently it’s in the idea that the pope has declared gays his enemies. The same catechism that “teaches the truth about the nature of God’s gift of human sexuality,” George reminded his audience, “teaches that people of homosexual orientation should be treated with every respect and with compassion.”

But compassion can be intolerably condescending, and a pronouncement that gay love is unworthy of civil protections and that an orphan is worse off with gay parents than with no parents at all can reasonably be construed as hostile–especially when Catholic politicians are given marching orders. “The pope is attacked for many reasons,” said George, who I would like to think was throwing the Catholic right wing a bone and didn’t take his own words completely seriously. “In some Protestant circles he is still regarded as the Antichrist. Among secularists, his teaching office is a threat to human freedom. Among disaffected Catholics, the pope must be discredited so that Catholics will be forced to change their faith. And the headline writers of the Sun-Times? I do not know their motivation.” But “a line has been crossed.”

Maybe the cardinal should have argued that it’s self-evident the pope isn’t campaigning against anybody because you can’t lead a charge from a bunker. At any rate, the Sun-Times stood by its headline and was right to.

News Bites

The Sun-Times couldn’t hail Lance Armstrong without bashing the French in the same breath. “The French don’t like Armstrong any more than they like the nation he represents,” said a July 29 editorial after Armstrong won the Tour de France. “Just as the United States goes about its business unconcerned with the muttered jealousies of formerly great nations, so Armstrong, who is after all a Texan, seems his usual unperturbed self in winning the tortuous 23-day, 2,125-mile race. As with America, he is not resting on past glory, but planning to win again next year, going after an unprecedented sixth victory in a row. No wonder the French are not happy. And no wonder we are.”

Inane Yankee chauvinism on one level, it’s the Sun-Times in all its Anglophilic glory on another, going on like a supercilious old lord raised from the cradle to despise the bloody frogs. Of course the Sun-Times is owned by a supercilious old lord, which may have something to do with it.

When Ray Hanania joined the crew in the City Hall pressroom back in 1978, the Tribune’s Bob Davis opened a desk drawer and brought out a brass key. It opened a giant TV cabinet that Hanania remembers as an ugly pink. “This is the most important thing in this room,” said Davis. “Protect it with your life.”

That Friday the key came out again, and Davis opened the cabinet. “There must have been 150 bottles of booze in there,” says Hanania. “Those were the days when aldermen would come by the pressroom and drop off booze.”

And no TV?

“The TV was pushed in back. I don’t even think it was plugged in.”

Hanania, who covered City Hall for the Southtown Economist back then and later for the Sun-Times, remembers Davis as the “funniest guy in the city of Chicago.” Aldermen would wander in, and Davis and the Sun-Times’s Harry Golden would tell them stories. Davis would throw out some idea for the general betterment, such as a ban on tinted glass in car windows, and sure enough, the next Wednesday one of those aldermen would be submitting a bill to the council.

Davis, 61, died Sunday in his home, four years after he retired. “Bob was like at the back end of the Front Page era,” says Hanania. “He was one of the younger guys as those guys were going out. Harry Golden died at the beat. Bob was just as good a reporter, but what’s really sad is that Bob died outside the beat, which was a terrible way for a good reporter to go.”

As Gary Washburn noted in the Tribune, Davis in retirement taught journalism at three different colleges and worked on special projects at the Tribune. Hanania’s point was that if Davis had died in the saddle City Hall would have stopped what it was doing to send him off with something close to a state funeral, and Davis deserved it.

Credit where due. To Sun-Times business writer David Roeder for the front-page headline July 31 over pictures of the three-masted HMS Bounty clipping the Lake Shore Drive bridge: “The Ship Hits the Span.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Chicago Sun-Times, Jim Frost.