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It's "When Chicago Went Sour on Sweetness," a plea for understanding by the writer Jeff Pearlman. Pearlman's the author of Sweetness: The Enigmatic Life of Walter Payton, a biography that came out last autumn after being excerpted in Sports Illustrated. The book, says Pearlman, "made the New York Times’ best-seller list, but flat-lined in Chicago."
It flatlined, he explains, because of the icy reception the media gave it. John Kass (headline to Tribune column): "Walter Payton Didn't Deserve This Treatment." Michael Wilbon, ESPN: "This isn't news, it's pandering." Mike Ditka to Channel Five: "Pathetic. Despicable." Former Bears PR director Ken Valdiserri, in the Sun-Times: "A self-serving, profit-mongering effort to sensationalize meaningless details of a complex person."
By far the most interesting of these critiques was Kass's. His take a year ago was that Pearlman could tell him nothing about Payton that he didn't already understand, so it should go unsaid. "The great athletes are driven by failure," Kass wrote. "It's what they remember. And it's the haunting memory of mistakes that drives them through intense training, through pain, the way Payton ran through pain on that terrible hill behind his home. It is what Payton did on the field that counts. That's how he should be judged. The rest of it means nothing, except perhaps to his family, and is more about our pathology than his."
Pearlman calls Kass "the Tribune’s awful wanna-be-tough-guy columnist" and claims that Kass's column "savaged me and my book." I guess that's true; but if Kass had read Pearlman's book and concluded Pearlman was entitled to write it, he could have described its insights into Payton's nature in pretty much the same brooding language of the column.
The point Pearlman is making now is that Kass hadn't read the 480-page book. Neither had Wilbon nor Ditka. They had, at best, read the Sports Illustrated "snippet." So now he's offering Chicago a second chance. The book is out in paperback, and Pearlman is asking the locals who stiffed him a year ago for a "fair shot." He pleads, "I don’t care if you take it out from the library or borrow a copy from a friend or pluck it off the $1 rack. I simply ask that you dig into a fascinating life and see if maybe, just maybe, there’s value in understanding both a man’s highs and his lows."
I was thunderstruck by Pearlman's appeal and I immediately wrote Eig back. "You mean to say it's possible to write about books you haven't read! When did this happen? When I think about all the hours I'd have saved . . ."
"Sucker," replied Eig.