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Field of Reams/ Sun-Times Blindfold Act

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By Michael Miner

Joseph Reaves had spent 13 years overseas, covering the world for UPI and then the Tribune. He came home in 1991 "more in touch with the Philippines and Romania than I was with the people of Peoria or Racine." He felt journalism had nothing more to offer him, and he intended to quit.

Trib managing editor Richard Ciccone knew what button to push. "What about the Cubs?" he said. So Reaves became a baseball writer. "I was trying to find my way back" into American society, he explains toward the beginning of his new memoir. "Fortunately, I had baseball as my road map."

Or as he told me the other day, "I was a stranger in my own land. What better way to get back in touch than through baseball? I wouldn't be like a lot of foreign correspondents--coming back and smoking my pipe at the Council on Foreign Relations. I was able to throw myself into the middle of America."

The middle of America wasn't much interested in the world he'd just returned from, and in this respect, if none other, big-leaguers were regular guys. Reaves recalls Alan Solomon, who covered the White Sox for the Tribune, introducing him around that clubhouse. "Joe's spent the past couple years working in Poland," Solomon told catcher Ron Karkovice. "If you wanna know anything about Poland, he's the guy to ask."

"Fuck Poland," Karkovice replied.

Warsaw to Wrigley: A Foreign Correspondent's Tale of Coming Home From Communism to the Cubs is notable for its extravagant frames of reference. Reaves writes, "There isn't a vast difference between the myopia of pampered professional athletes in the United States and the fanaticism of gun-slinging thugs in Bosnia." And "I couldn't decide whether Jim Lefebvre reminded me more of Nicolae Ceausescu...or Ferdinand Marcos."

If Reaves was looking for America, baseball didn't turn him into a de Tocqueville, But while his book isn't deep, it's candid. Most baseball writers are "seamheads," Reaves tells us, and have no more interest in the world beyond their sport than most players do. "I learned that if I wanted to avoid ridicule, I'd read the front section of the New York Times in my hotel room before I got on the team bus," he writes. "I'd wait until the lights went out on the team plane before pulling out a hardback book."

Reaves names exceptions, colleagues he admired for their erudition, or at least their unwillingness to suck up to the players. Then there was Solomon. "We never got along," he tells us gratuitously, "and, more importantly, I never came to respect him." He remembers Solomon as a "hack" thrown off the White Sox beat for doing "the dumbest thing I saw a baseball writer do"--offending the new sports editor, Margaret Holt, someone else Reaves doesn't have much nice to say about.

Reaves is very clear about who he admired and who he didn't--in baseball and in journalism. Because the Tribune Company owns the Cubs those weren't two entirely separate worlds.

Consider the head of the company. Thrown a lavish retirement party in 1990, Reaves writes, Stanton Cook didn't take the hint. "Like a bad dream, Cook wouldn't go away. He stepped down as publisher of the Tribune, but stayed on as chairman of Tribune Co. and arranged a new role for himself as chairman of the Cubs." Out of his league--"Cook was widely considered the Mister Magoo of the baseball world...generally benign and bumbling"--Cook quickly committed what Reaves deems the catastrophic mistake of hiring Larry Himes as general manager. "Awed by Himes' resume," Cook didn't realize "how miserable Himes was at dealing with people. Cook never found out because he never bothered to check around....His circle of confidants on baseball affairs was embarrassingly small."

With Himes, Reaves pulls out all the stops. His "strange behavior" reminds Reaves of Captain Queeg, of President Marcos's chief of staff asking permission to turn the tanks on demonstrating Filipinos, of the Afghan tribesmen on horseback he watched tearing apart "a 130-pound headless calf in a magnificent ceremonial game called Buzkashi." He blames Himes for hiring manager Jim Lefebvre, "who should have been wearing a pleated skirt and carrying pompoms," and Cook and Himes for alienating Greg Maddux. "In the first 14 years under Tribune Co., from 1981 to 1995," Reaves writes, "the Cubs had five general managers and 13 field managers. Chaos was a constant....Himes, though, brought the madness to new lows."

In 1994 Reaves got a tip. The Tribune Company was courting Andy MacPhail, general manager of the Minnesota Twins, to come in and run the Cubs. But though Reaves was sure he had the story right, his new boss wouldn't print it.

"Margaret Holt was built like a 5-foot-6 bowling ball and rolled through the sports department like one....She was determined, she publicly told several people, to become publisher of the Chicago Tribune. Not managing editor. Not editor. But publisher."

Howard Tyner, the Tribune's new editor, had brought in Holt from Florida to shake up Chicago's second-best sports department. "We can't run this unless someone goes on the record and says what it means for Mr. Cook," Reaves claims Holt told him. Reaves knew that if MacPhail took over the Cubs, it meant that Cook would lose his last shreds of authority. And that, Reaves writes, is why Holt drew the line. "Her priority was to protect 'Mr. Cook' from being embarrassed....It would be difficult to become publisher of the Chicago Tribune if you played a role too often in embarrassing members of the Tribune Co. board."

James Dowdle was the Tribune Company vice president who'd courted MacPhail. Dowdle could have spoken to Reaves on the record about MacPhail and Cook if he'd wanted to, but he wouldn't return Reaves's calls. So Steve Rosenbloom eventually broke the MacPhail story in the Sun-Times. "The Tribune had been beaten on news one of its reporters had for weeks because an ambitious editor was concerned with coddling her higher ups and because an overcautious executive deliberately put an employee of his own company at a disadvantage," Reaves writes. "It was a blatant conflict of interest and I never again felt comfortable when anyone asked me if the Tribune ever interfered with my coverage of the Cubs."

Reaves, as you might have guessed by now, isn't working at the paper any longer. His wife took a job in Hong Kong, and he quit after the 1995 season to go there with her. We communicated by E-mail. "I wanted the book to be a tale, not a lecture or an editorial," he wrote after I'd asked about the tone he took. "And the only way to make it a tale was by writing about real people in real situations. There are some outstanding executives and journalists at the Tribune. And there are some people who don't quite measure up."

Howard Tyner appears to be someone who fell short. Reaves describes an incident in which Tyner, then deputy managing editor, made a "panicked decision" to kill a Mike Royko column that offended young staffers acting as "moral police." Reaves cringed. "It was worse than disturbing to see a veteran journalist who would eventually become editor of the Tribune meekly pander to such pups."

Tyner, Reaves wrote, "was possessed of what the poet John Keats called 'thick-sighted' ambition. It impaired his judgment time and again at varying cost to the Tribune."

Time and distance have soothed Reaves. I asked him what the problem was with Tyner. "He and I disagreed about a number of things over the years," Reaves wrote back. "But I can honestly say he is an excellent journalist,"

Tyner told me he hadn't read the book but he'd heard about it. Margaret Holt, still with the Tribune but no longer sports editor, recalled, "Clearly we had a problem with Joey's effort on sourcing" the Andy MacPhail story. "As far as protecting Stan Cook, I don't know what he's talking about there. It sounds like an elaborate excuse for getting beat on a story."

"I wish him well," said Alan Solomon, now a travel writer. "He's happier being away from the Tribune, and the Tribune's happier him being away."

Sun-Times's Blindfold Act

A great and glorious theater district is coming to downtown Chicago, but first a few eggs will have to be broken. Peter Palivos, former owner of the landmark Oliver Building, which is being gutted to expand the stage of the adjacent Oriental Theater, is loudly complaining that those eggs are being broken over his head.

The city condemned Palivos's building and took it away from him, and Palivos has complained for months that the price--less than $2.5 million--is half what it should have been. He denounces the mayor, Richard Daley, who's been quoted as calling Palivos "strange." He denounces the mayor's old law firm, Daley & George Ltd., which represents Livent Inc., the Toronto firm renovating the Oriental. And he denounces the Sun-Times, which has blessed the project.

"There are only two newspapers in this city, and one of them's gone south," Palivos told me this week.

Palivos complains that the city lowballed him yet came up with some $17 million for Livent's Oriental project. Actually, Palivos thinks the answer's obvious--Livent hired clout. He showed me several documents he's obtained through court proceedings. One's a list of "Oriental Theater Project Immediate Priorities," dated January 24, 1995. The Haymarket Group, which has managed the project for Livent, placed "Retain Daley & George" number three. Another's a memo to Garth Drabinsky, chairman of Livent, from Thomas Coffey of the Haymarket Group. "The City has retained Brian McCann to appraise the Oliver building," Coffey wrote. "McCann was Jack George's first choice." (His own memo notwithstanding, Coffey tells me George played an insignificant role in choosing McCann.)

The Tribune and other media have called the Oriental project into question. "At center stage in the intrigue surrounding the Oriental project," the Tribune reported, "is the law firm of Daley & George Ltd., whose name partners are Michael Daley, the mayor's brother, and John George." The newspaper said sources told it that "FBI agents have been questioning participants in the deal about the law firm's role in the project as part of an on-going federal investigation of the firm."

Palivos says the FBI has questioned him "a number of times."

Time magazine reported in July that the FBI and U.S. attorney's office are "deep into a probe of possibly illegal activities at the law firm of Daley and George, Ltd., which has become a runaway favorite of anyone who might be seeking to do business with the city." Daley & George reacted to the Time item by suing the magazine for defamation. While not denying an investigation, the suit asserted that Time's "inference . . . that the Daley & George firm has engaged in illegal conduct . . . is false."

Chicago is financing the Oriental project through the North Loop TIF--tax increment financing--district. A TIF's an arrangement in which the city authorizes improvements that are paid for through real estate taxes that increase as property values rise. But though a circuit court judge ruled this year that the city was within its rights to condemn the Oliver, she also declared that Chicago had broken state law by not amending its TIF plan to include a theater. Palivos has appealed the ruling to the appellate court, but that didn't stop demolition. "They're proceeding to destroy the building while the case is pending," he told me. "It's government run amok."

The Oriental project's troubling aspects have largely eluded the Sun-Times. While the Tribune wondered this summer if the city was abusing the TIF process, a Sun-Times editorial declared that "the benefits outweigh the concerns." Putting the cart months or years before the horse, the editorial went on to say, "Chicago's successful projects include the upcoming restoration of the Oriental Theater."

Palivos immediately wrote editor Nigel Wade. "The irregularities and possible violations of the law in the Oriental Theater project have been well-documented in the Chicago media over the past few weeks, with the noticeable exception of your paper....It troubles me that after virtually ignoring the case in the pages of your paper, you would go so far as to actually praise the project in an editorial."

Palivos reminded Wade that a judge thinks Chicago broke state law by awarding TIF funds for Livent's theater. And he helpfully pointed out that Livent was a company "on whose board sits the publisher of your newspaper."

Wade promptly replied, though he ignored the crack about his publisher. "While it is true, as you state, that other Chicago news organizations have focused more closely than us on matters surrounding the Oriental Theater, while we have focused on other matters such as City Hall ethics, this in no way prevents us from expressing an opinion on the theater project in general."

Wade was dead-on. A newspaper has every American's God-given right to state a firm opinion on something it's paid no attention to. In early September the Sun-Times again let its enthusiasm rip. The editorial "Great White Way II" applauded Chicago for "building a North Loop theater district that will be second only to New York's Broadway." This time Wade heard from a new ad hoc group called the Committee to Save Chicago Landmarks. Attorney Tommy Brewer complained that while other media were digging into the story, "the Sun-Times has gone quietly along, praising the project at every turn."

Why? Brewer had an idea. "It is common knowledge that your paper's publisher sits on Livent's Board of Directors."

On this sensitive score, Palivos and Brewer are both wrong. David Radler, publisher of the Sun-Times and president of Hollinger Inc., doesn't sit on Livent's board. His boss, Conrad Black, chairman and CEO of Hollinger Inc., does.

Black, who lives in Toronto, can sit on any board he likes. But by neither acknowledging Black's relationship nor aggressively covering the Oriental story, the Sun-Times has made itself look as bad as it can look.

Of course, it's not clear that the Sun-Times backed off because of Black. City Hall reporter Fran Spielman has written a couple of modest stories that couldn't have troubled the mayor--one described his "dream" of creating a north Loop theater district, the other let Daley dismiss Palivos as someone "just looking for money." But Spielman told me she had no idea Black was on the Livent board. And she didn't write about an alleged federal investigation of Daley & George because "I didn't have enough to go on. I asked [Mayor] Daley to his face, 'Is there any investigation of Daley & George?' He flat out said no. I asked the planning department. They hadn't been questioned. Their records hadn't been subpoenaed. So I tried every which way. If you think for a minute there's some sort of directive from the top--'Don't go after this because Conrad Black is...' --that's totally false. No way."

Which is not to say she defends the coverage. When the Committee to Save Chicago Landmarks held a news conference in front of the Oliver to champion the building and denounce "back room deals," the Sun-Times didn't print a word. Spielman says, "I read about it the next day [in the Tribune] and said, 'Jeez, why didn't we have that?'" o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Joseph Reeves photo/ uncredited.

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