Mad ABout Mariotti
Jay Mariotti writes about sports the way some bristling young intellectuals used to write about film: it was their means, their end, the alpha and omega of their reality.
Mariotti fascinates us. He works like a dog and writes with the obsessiveness of the fanatic. He seems to view any other reporter anywhere as his supporting cast. A few weeks ago he was cribbing from the New York Times's Ira Berkow. Last week he rewrote a Mike Royko column.
Here's Royko in the Tribune on June 4: "Professional basketball has become this popular despite a serious public relations problem that other team sports don't share. Put simply, the problem is this: Many fans, maybe a majority, think the games are rigged."
And here's Mariotti in the Sun-Times on June 16: "What the league has right now, as so much chatter proves, is a perception problem. If enough people suspect the NBA product is less than authentic, [Commissioner] Stern is stuck with a hot potato that could become as much a public turnoff as a fix itself."
Royko on June 4: "I'm not saying that this scenario is reality, but most fans I've talked to believe some or all of it. And you can't blame them. Not after they hear a radio commentator, such as the one who broadcasts the Bulls games on local radio, angrily declare that one foul was so blatantly and outrageously wrong that it could compromise 'the integrity of the league.'"
Mariotti on June 16: "Gel-smeared sports anchor Mark Giangreco, who must have been in a high school glee club, cried fix on camera and angered the league."
Royko on June 4: "There is no other major sport about which such things are said. You don't hear anyone say that baseball umpires are going to give the home team an edge by calling more strikes and fewer balls on the visiting team."
Mariotti on June 16: "One official makes a certain foul call, another won't. It's so unpredictable. You don't see this nonsense in other sports."
Royko on June 4: "Nor do you hear that kind of talk in pro football. The most frequent beef in that sport is by offensive linemen who are caught holding an opponent. But, once again, nobody suggests that it's anything more than a referee's poor judgment."
Mariotti on June 16: "No one ever says about the NFL, 'Oh, that crew will call the crackback block, and that one won't.' Only in the NBA, where some officials don't hide grudges against certain teams."
Royko on June 4: "Something ought to be changed. The rules of the game should be simplified, clarified and evenly enforced."
Mariotti on June 16: "The first mess to clean up is officiating. Simply, there are too many discrepancies in the styles of referees."
Appearances trouble them both. But Mariotti scoffed at hysterics who say the smoke means fire. And he added this:
"The old billy goat at the sleepy paper, who still thinks George Mikan is playing, cried fix in a recent column."
The "old billy goat," of course, is Royko. "He says I cried fix, but I didn't," said Royko, who brought Mariotti's poaching to our attention (the old goat acknowledging the kid). "If I inspire someone to a column, I don't mind that. But to kick the shit out of me for it--he even picked up my line about NFL referees. It was just sort of a well-done triple shot off the ceiling, off the wall, and no net. Christ, that's in addition to calling me senile."
We talked to Mariotti. "It seemed to me Royko was a bit reckless," he explained. "The NBA has a perception problem, but 'fix' is a very, very strong word. That was the point of my column."
Unfortunately for this argument, Royko never used the word "fix." It showed up only in the headline--"Let's put real fix in pro basketball." And Mariotti knows a columnist is never responsible for the headlines.
Last Sunday Mariotti wrote this: "In this paper two weeks ago, after the Knicks series, a headline that accompanied a laudatory column about Pippen suggested Jordan should 'move over' because it was Pippen's team now, which is absurd. Michael reads everything, but should he take such a thing so seriously that it drives him to take over games?"
Here's the absurd headline: "Move Aside, Michael: Pippen the Pride of Bulls." Mariotti wrote the column that inspired it and this is what he had to say:
"It occurs to the sports world that this isn't [Jordan's] team right now. At the moment, incredibly, it is Scottie Pippen's team. Indeed, the caddie has inherited the earth. He is the leader. He is the spokesman. He is the glue that mends Jordan's cracks. He is the savior. . . . Scottie Pippen is the pride of the Bulls until further notice. His supporting cast, Jordan included, thanks him."
"Never did I say, 'Move aside, Michael,'" Mariotti told us. We read back to him what he did say. "Yeah," he said, "for this particular space in time when Jordan was not dealing with the media. That was a broad-based headline for a specific period of time. Sometimes the public doesn't understand that they're not my headlines. Most of the headlines are terrific, but in this case--we talk about perception again, and that's everything--in this case it may have been off a tad in terms of what I was trying to suggest."
Here's how we grade it. Headline--A minus. Column--D lirious. Yet Mariotti told us that Jordan, who "reads everything," was overreacting only to the headline.
In Mariotti's lively imagination someone is always overreacting to something. There must be editors who don't share this lurid vision of how the world works, and we suggest they step in now and then to save him from himself. His giddy attack on Royko might be overlooked as competitive trashtalking, but when he turns a teammate into a fall guy do they really want it in the paper?
Everyone is so quick to think the worst. A few Saturdays ago Whad'ya Know?'s Michael Feldman read a memo that had originated at the Tribune Company.
We missed the show but soon heard about the memo. Word had it the author was Tribune editor Jack Fuller himself, doing his bureaucratic duties back when he was still on the way up.
That rumor's a libel. Actually, someone smuggled two memos to Feldman, but neither was even written in Chicago. Here they are anyway.
The first one, dated April 21, 1992, issued from the advertising-division director of the Tribune Company's Orlando Sentinel.
"Subject: Advertising Department Employees with Work Stations at Exterior Windows
"As remodeling nears completion, the interior of the Advertising Department is taking on a very professional appearance. It is important that the department have a similar appearance from outside the building. This is particularly important after business hours and at night.
"As a result, it is important that the mini blinds on the window(s) in your work station be set at a standardized position at the end of each business day. During the day you may adjust the angle of the mini blind to allow for light and temperature control. At the end of the day, however, it is important that the blind be returned to a horizontal position (parallel to the ground). In addition to the blind being set in the horizontal position, it should be fully descended to the window sill level.
"IT IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY TO MAKE SURE THE BLINDS ARE IN THE STANDARDIZED POSITION AT THE END OF EVERY BUSINESS DAY.
"Please begin the maintenance of this standard immediately. A periodic check of the blinds will be conducted as part of the housekeeping inspection.
"Thanks for your cooperation."
Mini-blind fever quickly swept the Sentinel. The second memo issued two days later from the "operations facility manager."
"Subject: Mini Blind Adjustment during Stockholder's Meeting.
"On Monday, April 27th, and Tuesday, April 28th, we would like to have all the mini blinds on interior and exterior windows adjusted to maintain the same angle of the slats and fully extended to cover the entire window opening. Tribune Company management has requested that we do this to give the facility a uniform appearance for visitors attending the annual Stockholder's Meeting.
"Depending on outside weather conditions the blinds may have to be readjusted during the day to prevent glare on terminals--unless we can predetermine a satisfactory angle to cover varying weather conditions. We would like to try to avoid having to re-adjust blinds during the day; however, if it becomes necessary, all other blinds will have to be adjusted to match in order to maintain uniformity.
"[The] Plant Services Manager will serve as a 'monitor' to see that this Tribune Company request is accommodated. Obviously, we will need your help. [The manager] will be getting with each of you to determine the best angle to suit everyone and will be monitoring the areas periodically on Monday and Tuesday.
"Thank you for your help."
What a splendid example of the provinces toadying up to Rome! CEO Charles Brumback "has a blind fetish," a well-placed minion told us. "After he leaves you can adjust them any way you like."
The saga of Jon Burge is now a video. It's called The End of the Nightstick, and it was put together by Peter Kuttner, Cyndi Moran, and Eric Scholl in cooperation with the Task Force to Confront Police Violence. Funding came from the MacArthur Foundation via the Community TV Network.
Evenhanded it's not. It's the brief against Burge as a torturer that the media tried to ignore for years, and the media come in for a proper drubbing. The first public showing of Nightstick is this Saturday evening at 7:30 at the Harold Washington Library. It's a benefit for Community TV Network and the task force. Tickets are $20, $10 in advance.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.