By Michael Miner

Where Are They Now?

Dave van Dyck’s doorbell rang as I told him the good news. “This could be the award now,” he exclaimed. If it is, I said, please tell me what it looks like.

When van Dyck returned to the phone I told him that it’s a good thing the Hot Type BAT award is a virtual honor, because he’s won it so often he’d be running out of room. “I reclaimed it,” said van Dyck, deeply moved. “I reclaimed what was truly mine.”

Unlike many other of sport’s hallowed prizes, the BAT–which every schoolboy can tell you stands for Baseball Acumen Test–was established as a hostile act. The point being made 18 years ago was that the mavens of the press box who are paid to prognosticate in print each spring have no more idea than the squirrels in the attic how teams will actually do. But the BAT is now a mature award dripping with prestige, and tentative conclusions can be drawn. The first is that some baseball writers some of the time might have a clue as to what they’re talking about. The second is that overall the Sun-Times’s brain trust has more of a clue than the Tribune’s.

The ’99 BAT race was a barn burner. Ten writers jousted for supremacy, and six wound up in a first-place tie, among them the Sun-Times tandem of van Dyck and Toni Ginnetti, the defending champion. A year ago, forecasting the ’98 big-league season, all six picked three division winners on the nose and named two other teams that also made the playoffs–predicting either division winners that wound up wild cards or vice versa.

So the contest moved on to the dramatic tiebreaker. The tiebreaker is whatever Hot Type wants it to be, and now that our slothful savants are forecasting merely the division champs and not the order of finish of all the teams, marginal superiority can be harder to spot. But this year it was easy. Only one of the six knotted scribes correctly named a pennant winner–that being van Dyck, who foresaw that San Diego would cop the NL pennant and lose the World Series (though he thought it would be to Baltimore, which finished below .500 in the AL East, 35 games behind the Yankees).

Impressively self-aware in victory, van Dyck observed that what counts is not simply winning his fourth BAT in dramatic fashion but unseating Ginnetti. “You know it was kind of like the Cubs,” he said. “It took them an extra game too.” The harder the victory, the sweeter the taste. “I had to let her feel good for a couple of years,” said van Dyck, who won his last BAT in 1996. “Somebody from the office called a little while ago saying Toni was sitting there working on her [’99] picks. And I said, that’s not fair to work on them. You’re supposed to get a bottle of Jack Daniel’s and sit down and say, ‘Oh yeah, I guess I’d better pick somebody.'”

He was nonchalanting his big moment. “You get a bottle of Jack Daniel’s, and you become real brave,” he went on. “You know all sorts of stuff. I don’t have any great explanation except it’s a lot of luck. What you ought to do is go out on the street and pick some kid and have him draw too.” He thought twice about that idea; a kid on the street would probably pick the Cubs. What the pros know is that “the first thing you do is eliminate the two Chicago teams.”

Van Dyck didn’t really mean this. Fact is, he and Ginnetti both picked the Cubs a year ago to win the NL Central. The Cubs didn’t, but they hung on for the wild card. Nobody else saw the Cubs making the playoffs any which way.

Last year, when Ginnetti copped her third BAT in six years, she modestly told me, “I think Dave van Dyck is our sage. I always kind of compare mine to his, and if I’m off I think, ‘God, I’m stupid!'” These two humble soothsayers are the Ruth and Gehrig of a prognosticating murderers’ row. Last year I noted that the Sun-Times entries had called an average of 5.0 playoff teams on the nose, the Tribune a lackluster 3.6. This year all four Sun-Times baseball writers in the BAT race–van Dyck, Ginnetti, Mike Kiley, and Joe Goddard–reached the tiebreaker, along with Jerome Holtzman and Phil Rogers from the six-man Tribune field. And the Sun-Times bunch did it the hard way–unfathomably, not a single one of them picked the Yankees, the winningest team in history, to win the AL East, let alone the whole shebang.

Van Dyck and Ginnetti together have taken the BAT five times in the last seven years, interrupted only by Bernie Lincicome in ’95 and ’97. That’s dominance.

And then there’s the Wiffle BAT, the booby prize that so piquantly perpetuates the spirit of the BAT’s origins. Again the race was a squeaker. Tribune scriveners Lincicome and Skip Bayless ended in a dead heat for last, each getting two division races right and naming a third team that made the playoffs. But to his credit, Lincicome picked the Yanks to take their division and go all the way. Bayless, who’d better clear some virtual space on his mantel, liked Seattle in the World Series.

Relentless Pursuit of Perfection: The BAT Award

Ellen Warren and Teresa Wiltz have rejuvenated Inc. since taking it over in February. That said, I don’t read Inc. religiously enough to identify its fetishes. Someone who does pointed out the following:

Inc. March 15: “Warren marched in [the Saint Patrick’s Day Parade] so you didn’t have to.”

Inc. March 28: “We went shopping for some really expensive stuff–so you don’t have to.”

Inc. March 31: “Inc. asks the hard questions so you don’t have to.”

Study the texts of our finest writers and you’re sure to find certain favored turns of phrase. They’re verbal DNA, the reason literary detectives could establish that Joe Klein wrote Primary Colors.

I decided to take my own measure of Inc.’s compulsion. An on-line search of recent columns revealed that the tipster didn’t know the half of it. There were also these columns:

Inc. February 8 (Warren and Wiltz’s debut): “You’ll see we go to cool places and talk to interesting people so you don’t have to.”

Inc. February 9: “Inc. chases after these people so you don’t have to.”

Inc. February 15: “So in the interest of risking cardiac arrest so you don’t have to, Wiltz actually took the Bible-quoting Blanks’ class in L.A.”

Inc. March 14: “Warren, who happens to have two teenage boys in her household, checked out WWF live so you don’t have to.”

Sometimes a writer’s addiction to a trope is completely subconscious. The writer has no idea how deep the rut is. But this had the earmarks of a motif run amok. Warren confirmed my suspicions. “Teresa thinks I came up with it. I think she did,” she told me. “It’s just something we have fun with.”

My view is that any columnist who persists in reminding readers “You don’t have to” is playing with fire.

Maybe We Don’t Want To

The most important newspaper in Kosovo is–or was–Koha Ditore (“Daily Times”), founded in 1997, which published in Albanian and English, posted ghastly photos of local butchery on its Web site, and came to regard obituary ads as an important source of revenue.

Earlier this year a group of five Kosovar journalists–three of them from Koha Ditore–were taken on a tour of American news operations by the U.S. Information Agency. On February 2 they spent an hour and a half at the Reader. As they introduced themselves in groping English, we were struck by how young they were–all in their early to mid-20s. But given what they’d set out to do, it was hard to imagine them old. They said they regarded themselves as the first generation of journalists in their world who told the truth.

The Kosovars purportedly were here to learn something about American journalism, so once everyone had settled into our lunchroom we began to expound the principles of the alternative-newspaper game. It became obvious quickly that our saga of controlled circulation and comprehensive listings struck them as irrelevant. We didn’t want to hear ourselves talk either. Our visitors were a daring alternative to a regime that for the moment tolerated their existence but when push came to shove would probably want them dead. Soon we were the ones asking the questions.

American editors, they told us, say they would publish more stories about Kosovo but nobody cares about it. Yet just a day earlier, one added, a bellhop had shown interest.

As they left, someone asked what they’d picked up of value on their tour of American papers. Nothing, one of them replied.

When the war began–the NATO bombing of Serbia and the Serbian ransacking of Kosovo–it was soon reported that the editor in chief of Koha Ditore, Baton Haxhiu, had been executed. Did Haxhiu visit us less than two months before, in the group whose names no one wrote down? It felt necessary to find out if a guest of ours had gone home to be murdered.

So we surfed the Net. Unsurprisingly, the Koha Ditore Web site had been abandoned. The Web site for Human Rights Watch reported that the paper’s office had been ransacked on March 24 and the publisher and some of the staff were in hiding. As for Haxhiu, Human Rights Watch carried his photograph (his face didn’t ring a bell) and described him as “a committed and outspoken critic of Yugoslav government abuses against ethnic Albanians” who wore a T-shirt that said “Nato Air–Just Do It” and was the father of a six-year-old boy. HRW cautioned that it “has not yet been able to independently verify the credible reports of his death.”

At my request, the International Visitors Center of Chicago sent us a list of the five Kosovars who’d toured the U.S. Haxhiu’s name was not among them, and we felt better. But then what of the journalists we had met? Britain’s Independent reported on-line that Haxhiu was dead and his “young, vital” newspaper office now “a bullet-ridden, silent place.”

It went on, “The question is, whether Mr. Haxhiu’s team of young journalists have all met the same fate.”

At least one didn’t. Last Friday Ylber Bajraktari, a 20-year-old Koha Ditore reporter and ABC stringer whose face we recognized, showed up on Nightline somewhere near the Kosovo-Albania border after a week of hiding in Pristina. “I was thinking today,” he told Ted Koppel, “that it will take me some 50 years to repair the pain that was caused to my life and to my heart.”

The independent radio station B92 in Belgrade reported on its Web site that Haxhiu’s death could not be confirmed. “A word of caution,” it noted. “In these difficult circumstances our correspondents are unable to report directly from Kosovo. This should be borne in mind when reading any information–including ours–about the current situation in the province.”

But on April 1 the Independent carried Haxhiu’s obituary: “Shortly after attending the funeral in Pristina on Sunday of the human-rights lawyer Bajram Kelmendi, Haxhiu was abducted by Serbian security troops and murdered.” It remained uncertain “whether Haxhiu’s body has been properly buried or, as some reports suggest, is still lying beside the main Pristina-Skopje road.”

This is the first Internet war. But the Net is no more capable than smart bombs of doing the work of troops in the field. The fate of Haxhiu and his staff was ultimately unknowable, as no one remained in Kosovo capable of doing the task they’d taken on for themselves–telling the world what was going on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Dave van Dyck photo by Dan Machnik.