By Michael Miner
There's good news and bad news as the time to announce the hallowed BAT Award comes around again, and as so often happens, the bad news turns out to be the good news examined more closely. At a glance, Chicago's sportswriters covered themselves with glory last season, lighting up the scoreboard with an awesome display of prognostication. How did this miracle happen? How did the bards of the press box finally take their small gift for guessing pennant races to the next level? It seems the races have become a whole lot easier to predict these days--because so few teams have any prayer of winning them.
Free-agent movement from the have-nots to the haves has destroyed competition in the bigs, turning two-thirds of the so-called major league franchises into farm clubs of the elite. Now this migration has contaminated the BAT awards, long the last bastion of baseball purity--if we define purity as honest effort alloyed with endearing mediocrity.
Here are the facts. With eight playoff berths to call in the 1999 season--that's three division champions in each league plus two wild cards--eight of the ten competing Tribune and Sun-Times scribes nailed five or more. In another era this feat would have been astonishing. But today all it means is that every single writer penciled in the Yankees and Indians in the AL East and Central last year, while the Braves and Astros were picked by eight of the ten to rule the NL East and Central. Defending champs with deep pockets, they were as easy to like as FDR in 1936.
To acknowledge the changing times, the tradition-caked Golden BAT--for Baseball Acumen Test--shall henceforth be known as the BAT.com, a virtual award for virtual perspicacity applied to virtual competition. And in our winner we find an apt symbol of the modern era.
Mike Kiley of the Sun-Times copped his first BAT by picking the Yankees, Indians, Braves, and Astros, and also the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NL West and the Mets as the NL wild card. He also named the Texas Rangers--who went on to win the AL West--to make the playoffs as the AL wild card. In short, a year ago Kiley named seven of the eight eventual playoff teams for a staggering six and a half points, and if the competition had been forced into a tiebreaker (which it wasn't), he also saw the Yankees beating the Braves in the World Series.
Kiley avoided a familiar pitfall. With so many races foreordained, the biggest danger a BAT.com entrant faces is sentiment, and Kiley refused to let it trip him. "That's the other thing," he told me when I asked for trade secrets. "Besides picking the four sure things, it's not to pick the Chicago teams."
Kiley has led his own professional life in a manner that comports with baseball's new era of knight-errantry. He came up in the Tribune organization, covering the Blackhawks and Bears before switching to the Cubs at the '96 all-star break. "They wanted to switch me to the White Sox for '97, but I kind of wanted to stay with the Cubs," he says. "It all came down to money, as all things do."
Looking for more, he rolled the dice at the Tribune and crapped out. On New Year's Eve the phone rang at the desk of Bill Adee, sports editor of the Sun-Times. It was Kiley. Adee remembers, "He called me from the Tribune and said, 'I need a place to work.' I said, 'Come on over.' He'd never been in the Sun-Times building until he walked in. I greeted him at the door and brought him upstairs and introduced him to Nigel Wade--and that was it." The next morning his byline showed up in the Sun-Times.
Now we come to the booby prize, the only slightly less hallowed Wiffle BAT. Last year Bernie Lincicome, who's claimed both Goldens and Wiffles in his storied Tribune career, defiantly denied the Braves or Astros any place at all in the playoffs. His reward was to finish a distant last.
More good news. If you think of the Sun-Times as just one je ne sais quoi shy of perfection, it's now come up with a dandy. Nobody can say for sure what "Chicago Scene" is supposed to be. It looks like snapshots of guys and gals in bars and like advertising for Chicago-Scene.com, the Web site that provides the pictures. Yet when "Chicago Scene" showed up in the paper two weeks ago, it carried a note explaining that it's a new feature "recording the faces and places that keep the metro area pulsing." So apparently it's hip new editorial matter with an urban edge.
Chicago-Scene.com bills itself as "the premium online entertainment guide." One big attraction is its "photo album"--scads more pictures of those same revelers, the ones who maintain the metropolitan pulse. Ted Widen, president and publisher of Chicago-Scene.com, tells me Sun-Times editor Nigel Wade called a while back and said, "We like what you're doing, and we'd like to work something out." So now the Sun-Times runs a picture from Chicago-Scene.com every Friday, Saturday, and Sunday.
"They categorize it as a column," says Widen. He takes the pictures. "[Wade] said it makes sense for him to have me do it. If they did it themselves they'd have to have a union writer and photographer do it."
Whereas unionized employees insist on getting paid, under the present arrangement the Sun-Times is given the pictures for nothing. What Chicago-Scene.com gets out of the deal is access to the newspaper's 500,000-some daily readers. Meanwhile, the Sun-Times is exposed to the "pretty nice hip crowd coming to our Web site," as Widen puts it--some 40,000 visitors a month. It's a clean deal. No money changes hands, and each hand washes the other.
Once "Chicago Scene" really takes off, Widen hopes for remuneration. He'd also like to see the paper print more than one picture at a time--"maybe four and maybe eight and maybe a whole page." His goal is more pictures "and less words."
Less words? There aren't that many now. The copy--to use the word loosely--consists of a few names, the address of the revelers' bar, and the motive they gave for being there. Such as "Having drinks with friends" or "Get Palmed Party; looking for a good time and found it!"
This strikes Widen as extraneous detail. "They're getting drunk," he reasons. "What do you want?"
Tangled Up in D'Angelo
When even John Kass isn't sure what's going on, the story must really be weird. On Friday, March 24, Mayor Daley's right-hand man, Terry Teele, mysteriously gave himself up to the Sun-Times and Tribune, confessing that he'd borrowed $10,000 from operator-about-town Oscar D'Angelo. "It was dumb," Teele told the Sun-Times.
The stories broke Saturday, Teele resigned Sunday, and on Monday Kass went behind the scenes. "City Hall knew there was more pressure coming; it had been building for weeks. It was being provided by Tribune investigative reporters Andy Martin and Laurie Cohen, who were looking into Teele and D'Angelo, one of Daley's closest friends....City Hall decided to get out in front."
So Teele went away. But D'Angelo didn't. Last Sunday the Sun-Times splashed a "joint investigation" with the Better Government Association across three pages. This story was about how D'Angelo allegedly collected roughly half a million dollars to set up a couple women chummy with the mayor's wife as minority partners with the British firm that controls bookstores at O'Hare.
The next day Kass wrote, "The weekend's BGA-Sun-Times expose about Oscar D'Angelo's airport clout explains last week's intriguing City Hall political puzzler. Why did City Hall leak out damaging information to the press about the $10,000 private loan from D'Angelo to his protege--mayoral aide Terry Teele--that forced Teele to resign? It seems Teele was amputated early, so that when the new D'Angelo story broke, the Teele-D'Angelo O'Hare friendship trail back to City Hall would have been swept away."
Is Teele out because City Hall saw the Tribune coming or because it saw the BGA coming? Maybe City Hall just heard a lot of footsteps in the night. At any rate, Kass was wrong on one point in last Monday's story, though no one has any reason to care but Channel Two.
This wasn't a BGA-Sun-Times expose. Terrence Brunner, executive director of the BGA, tells me he'd been working the D'Angelo story with Channel Two's Carol Marin for a couple of months. "We were sitting here wondering whether whoever gave the Tribune and Sun-Times the Teele stuff--or however it got there--was going to flush out what we were doing," says Brunner. "We had a feeling everything was going to unravel."
Brunner called the Sun-Times's Chuck Neubauer, who had his name on the Teele story, to see how much he knew about O'Hare. Neubauer didn't have any of Brunner's terrific documents. Even so, says Brunner, "he was getting close. So we decided to do it together."
"God bless him, he came to us," says Neubauer.
The new plan was to make everything public fast. The Sun-Times would race the story into print in the Sunday paper, and Channel Two would race it onto the air Saturday night. The problem with that, from the TV station's point of view, was that the first edition of the Sunday Sun-Times hit the streets about nine o'clock Saturday morning.
"It was chop-chop, hurry up, chop-chop, hurry up. We could have profitably waited a while," says Channel Two's Mike Flannery. "I wasn't happy with the arrangement that was cut. The Sun-Times is on the street 12 hours before we're on the air. Among the cognoscenti, it looks like we're re-covering their story."
Flannery says his station intended to follow up with a more extensive story Sunday night. But by then the mayor was flat on his back in a hospital bed, so Channel Two held off.
Hope still springs eternal in major league baseball, thanks to the ingenuity of the men who run it. So many teams now make the playoffs that even a have-not team can wind up there by accident.
As for the rich teams in major media markets, here's where the system really shines. If baseball were ruled by parity, a team could expect to wind up world champs once every 30 years. Who wants that? Cubs and White Sox fans don't care if their favorites haven't won a World Series in about a century, because what's past is past. They hope each spring will finally launch the era of ruthless, crushing dominance. It used to be they pinned these hopes on some flashy rookie who looked like the goods. Now all they have to do is pray that this is the year the billionaire owners pop for hegemony. After all, the Tribune Company just bought the Los Angeles Times. It could just as easily spring for another pitcher.
It takes a village to cover Northwestern basketball. "WLS-Channel 7, citing a report on WGN-AM, reported sophomore guards David Newman and Steve Lepore have decided to leave the program," reported the Sun-Times last week.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mark Guilland.