Where Do You Get a Bat Like That?

When a broken bat broke the sports story of the century, neither the 11-page report in last Thursday’s Sun-Times sports section nor the slightly briefer coverage in Tribune sports, nor news columns by Mark Brown, John Kass, and Eric Zorn, nor editorials in both papers, nor a Jack Higgins cartoon adequately addressed the essential issue of tradecraft. And I haven’t seen a word on it since.

When a big leaguer wants to swing a corked bat, how does he go about getting one? Do the players have workshops in their basements with drills and glues, sandpaper and varnish? Are there .250 hitters back in Triple-A who rue the day they decided to take AP English instead of shop? Where, for that matter, does a slumping veteran go to buy a length of cylindrical cork?

Or are there weaselly little guys who mysteriously have the run of the clubhouses, and when you hand them a bat they know what to do with it, no questions asked? Do they report to a ruthless Portuguese cork cartel? Did Bud Selig receive a midnight call from Lisbon ordering him to contain this now!

Sometimes reporters ask why when readers are wondering how. Oblivious to what intrigues the hoi polloi, the scriveners have had more to say about sin, penance, and redemption than Milton and Dostoyevsky did. Just this Tuesday morning, Greg Couch reported in the Sun-Times that “several experts” are of the conviction that “if Sosa wants his old life to return, it will be important to live on as the old Sammy.” Two pages away, the headline over Jay Mariotti’s column asserted “Hold the hug: No free pass for Sosa’s sin.” Earlier Mariotti columns on the state of Sosa’s soul were headlined “A permanent smudge of suspicion,” “Yankees’ visit overshadowed by scandal,” and “The ‘Old Sammy’ is gone forever.”

One popular line of inquiry considered the effects of scandal on Sosa’s endorsement income. Sherri Day of the New York Times quoted a marketing executive who saw no problem: “Advertisers have signed on guys who have been criminally involved, so if there was going to be interest in him before the corked bats, there will be continued interest in him.” Day wasn’t so sure. She wrote, “But some analysts said Sosa’s transgressions could be viewed differently from the indiscretions of athletes who are violent or break the law.”

Sosa didn’t beat up a girlfriend or slice a stranger outside a nightclub, but Day’s point was that Sosa’s indiscretion took place on the field and violated baseball itself, a game he played so well that fans were ready to forgive him anything he might do off the field. I think Sosa’s punishment isn’t so much disgrace as it is demystification. We hold some athletes in awe as symbols of youth in all its wholesome splendor, others as the menacing emissaries of outlaw culture. Sosa has lost his place in the first camp, but corking a bat is way too wussy a dereliction to get him into the second. One thing the papers did tell us in detail was why some famous physicists think a corked bat is of little help in hitting a baseball–hallowed superstitions notwithstanding.

Sosa has landed in a limbo unworthy of a superstar, in “scofflaw culture.” You’ll spot the occasional athlete there who isn’t bad to the bone but got caught being sneaky. Mostly though it’s what fans come to games to escape–a dreary world whose depths of depravity are marked by the squirming mope telling the tax auditor, “I swear I’ve got that receipt here someplace.”

The Trouble With Transparency

Only Red Streak played the story right. It plastered the New York Times resignations all over page one last Friday. The screaming headline, “YEAH, THEY SCREWED UP,” was unintelligible, the question posed in the subhead, “Is it too late?,” spurious. The brief story on page three (from the Daily Telegraph) was a typical Red Streak example of all sizzle and no steak. But Red Streak understood that the Times debacle was a major morality tale, as juicy as anything around.

Executive editor Howell Raines and managing editor Gerald Boyd should have quit a month ago, but they did the right thing by giving up their jobs. It was their paper, it had been shamed by Jayson Blair and then made to look silly by Rick Bragg, and I hope there was at least an ounce of volition in the resignations they turned in. Honor required that they go, and a good day for honor is a very big news story indeed.

Red Streak’s parent, the Sun-Times, stuck the story inside, running an AP item even shorter than the Red Streak account. The Tribune properly put the resignations on page one, but in a diffident position, a single column below the fold. David Greising wrote a savvy column for the business section, and there was an editorial preaching that readers “need to know that the newspaper is dedicated to truth.” That’s why a newspaper such as itself “is not diminished by printing a daily collection of its past flaws.”

I checked to see what flaws the Tribune was putting right in that day’s edition, but there weren’t any. So I checked the day before and found, among other things, the Tribune setting the record straight on the name of the publisher of a new book, The Wild Woods Guide, and the year of the Watts riots. True enough, these confessions didn’t diminish the Tribune in the least.

But a paper’s dedication to truth is demonstrated by what it prints in the first place as well as by what it corrects later. The Tribune would not only not be diminished but would be enhanced by a willingness to print truths inconvenient to the interests of its parent company.

My case in point is last week’s FCC ruling that sanctified the kind of cross ownership the Tribune Company already enjoyed. The ruling led the paper, as it should have. But if the ruling was that important, why hadn’t there been commensurate coverage before it was made? I’ve searched the Tribune archives for “FCC” and “cross ownership” and for “FCC” and “Powell,” and it appears that in the previous year, while the FCC was making up its mind about the rules that chairman Michael Powell had made clear he wanted relaxed while citizens’ groups organized in opposition, the Tribune carried three stories in its news (as opposed to business) sections on the subject. Just one of them, a sharply questioning account on May 11 by media writers Jim Kirk and Steve Johnson, appeared on page one.

Last Sunday the Tribune ran an editorial hailing “transparency.” The subject was the May 30 editorial cartoon that “was viewed by many readers as virulently anti-Semitic.” The Tribune was sorry. “Newspapers often talk about transparency in government and other public institutions,” the editorial said. “A newspaper that values such transparency is compelled to tell its readers this fact: The paper is put out by fallible human beings. It is written and edited by people trying their best. We regret when those efforts fall short.”

The editorial was like a broken mirror shining the sun in our eyes. Not the least bit transparent itself, despite its revelation about human imperfection, it smacked of damage control ordered from on high. It made no mention of, let alone explained or apologized for, a far more vicious cartoon the Tribune chose to carry four days after the one in question. But in this case the grotesquely drawn Semite was an Arab.

In the case of the FCC, here’s what truth and transparency would have brought Tribune readers: A complete accounting of Tribune Company media properties, focusing on the cities where the company had already acquired both newspapers and television stations it wouldn’t be able to hang on to unless the FCC changed its rules; an acknowledgment of the hundreds of millions of dollars the company had staked on the presumption that the FCC would change them, and of the money it was spending to lobby the FCC to make that happen; and either a detailed explanation of the internal safeguards that insulate the Tribune news desk and editorial page from corporate interests even when they’re as overwhelming as these were, or an admission that there are times when the editorial page speaks for the owners and this was one of those times.

Were truth and transparency–combined with aggressive coverage of the FCC debate–too much to hope for from a paper that makes as much of its virtue as the Tribune does? The editorials lauding deregulation rang with idealism. For instance, on June 1 the paper–certain of how the FCC would vote the next day–criticized it for not going further. In the name of first principles, the Tribune called for total deregulation of media–“The notion that the government should control the breadth and volume of speech is offensive to the 1st Amendment.” But the best proof of virtue is virtue, and the Tribune would have made its case more persuasive by matching high-mindedness with candor.

On the same day, June 1, Manning Pynn, a columnist for another Tribune Company daily, the Orlando Sentinel, allowed that papers such as his found themselves in an “awkward situation.” They–and presumably their employees, himself included–would benefit if the ban on cross ownership were lifted, but perhaps the public wouldn’t. “Although the nation’s newspapers haven’t exactly ignored the issue,” he wrote, “neither have they gone out of their way to see that you pay attention. It has not exactly been front-page news. That seems strange for a proposal that critics decry as likely to result in a very few companies controlling the information Americans receive.”

Pynn noted that in February the Pew Research Center had done a survey on the proposed changes and discovered that “72 percent of 1,254 adults it asked knew nothing at all.” This was a proposal of such social importance that when the FCC approved it the news led the Tribune and other newspapers. Yet the press hadn’t felt a duty to alleviate the public’s ignorance when public opinion might have mattered. Pynn observed that the Sentinel was planning a major report on the proposal for the next day’s paper–the next day being the day the FCC would vote. “A little late,” he commented. As was his own column.

They Choose, We Lose

Medill’s Dick Schwarzlose added to Chicago magazine’s April issue on over- and underrated Chicago by weighing in on journalists. Underrated–the eccentric Colonel McCormick, who built the Tribune into a juggernaut. Overrated–Rupert Murdoch, who bought the Sun-Times in 1984 but “in the end, ran the paper only two and a half years.”

I could see Schwarzlose’s point, but I hated to accept it. Whether the good name of Marshall Field has ever recovered from his selling the Sun-Times to Murdoch I leave to the circles he travels in, but the Sun-Times itself suffered wounds that still bleed, not the least of them being that half of Chicago seems to think Murdoch still owns it.

Murdoch, at any rate, sold the paper because he’d bought Channel 32, and the rules the FCC has just repealed wouldn’t let him keep both. He still owns Channel 32, as well as the Fox network it’s now a part of, and he recently bought Channel 50. There’s a lot of talk in Boston, where Murdoch sold the Herald to a friend in 1994 after buying a TV station there, that now he’ll buy the Herald back. There’s been less speculation about the Sun-Times, though there’s nothing to keep him from going after it or any of the other papers Hollinger International owns in and around Chicago–and Hollinger’s a troubled company that might want to deal. Murdoch could buy even more TV stations here too. So could the Tribune Company.

The Tribune likes reminding us that in this day and age everyone has lots of media choices. That’s particularly true of institutions like the Tribune Company and Murdoch’s News Corporation that are in the market to buy them.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/William L. Brown.