A story circulated today that Jay Mariotti quit the Sun-Times Tuesday because he didn't get to a write a certain column. But it rings true.
The column Mariotti wanted to write was written instead by his arch rival Rick Telander for Wednesday's paper. It's about Barack Obama dissing Cubs fans. ''The Cubs . . . they're nice. You go to Wrigley Field, you have a beer . . . there are beautiful people out there, people aren't watching the game." On the other hand, said Obama, ''White Sox, that's baseball . . . south side.''
Mariotti, I hear, originally wanted to do his Obama column for the Tuesday paper, but then he decided to put it off a day and wrote about the Bears instead. One problem: there's an understanding in Sun-Times sports that Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are Telander's days. Mariotti can write on those days if he wants to, but Telander gets first choice of subject. Telander says he called sports editor Stu Courtney Tuesday morning to let him know he'd be writing about Obama. Courtney sounded uncomfortable, suggested another topic, and Telander figured it out. Mariotti wants to do it, doesn't he? Telander asked. Well, said Courtney, he will if you won't.
But Telander would and did, so Mariotti didn't. Instead, I hear, he stormed and raved at Courtney, then e-mailed editor in chief Michael Cooke a two-word message, "I quit."
Did he actually quit just because someone said no to him about one column? Actually Mariotti has a history of threatening to quit and really quitting over trivial slights. Time and again the Sun-Times played the part of enabler -- backing down, making up, adding perks, renegotiating salaries. But as said below, this time, the paper was facing a financial crisis and it reacted differently.
"Finally, hopefully forever, they called this person's bluff," said Telander. "You can only hold your breath and lie on the floor and pound your fist and kick your feet so many times. Why it took the paper so many years to do this is really just a tragedy." The antipathy between Telander and Mariotti was mutual, but other sportswriters around town didn't like Mariotti either. "I've got a lot of reporters jealous of me. To hell with them," Mariotti told me a couple of years ago, when Ozzie Guillen called him a "fucking fag" and the press corps didn't exactly rally round.
A tragedy? I asked Telander.
"Because the damage a 'humorless loner,' as you described him [I did], can do to an overstressed sports department is incalculable." He said the sports department lost its cohesion and became "sinister and secretive and fuck your buddy. It was the worst possible teamwork conditions."
Telander wondered, "Why, if you have somebody like this, do you wait for him to quit? Why don't you just cut him? I will never know. The good thing is that this is a chance for rebirth. This is joy. A whole shitload of guys called me last night joyous! Ding dong, the witch is dead! I want to get everybody together. I want to have a team meeting. I want to give a fiery pregame prep talk and I want us to come charging out of the locker room with our guns blazing, not slinking out like a bunch of dirty little rodents." He said, "Even on a sinking ship, if we're going down let's go down standing up and not on our knees."
Is Stu Courtney the man to lead you? I asked.
"He's been so undermined that I think this is his moment to shine too. He sounded like a new man today. He did, he sounded like a new man. He's been made to eat shit for years because of this guy.
"I don't even know to feel," Telander went on. "I just don't know. But if he's gone forever, praise the lord."