No Such Lunch
Two weeks ago, discussing the dreadful political endorsements imposed on the Sun-Times and Pioneer Press papers by the Sun-Times's publisher, David Radler, I mentioned being told that he and Mayor Daley had lunched together not long before he'd received a list of the mayor's preferences. The column wasn't contingent on that lunch, but the lunch added a choice moment of drama, which is why I regret to say that Daley's press secretary, Jackie Heard, "categorically" denies that the lunch ever took place. By her records, the last time Daley and Radler were in each other's company was in July 2001, when they and Donald Trump discussed Trump's plan to build what was then to be the world's tallest building on the riverbank site of the Sun-Times building. My source was someone who presumably would know, but Heard would know better.
A BAT for Bayless
It's wholesome, it's heartwarming--and the little guy triumphs in the end. Hollywood has only nibbled at previous BAT competitions, but this year's is too good not to option. Nine months after forlornly leaving town, Skip Bayless is the toast of Chicago. The first expatriate ever to claim the honor, he's the champion of the XXII Hot Type BAT competition.
Recall how low Bayless sounded last July as he gave up the job of Tribune sports columnist he'd held since 1998. "I came in good faith, and it wasn't returned," he told me then. "I wanted to do more, and she made me do less"--"she" being editor Ann Marie Lipinski. "And it just started tearing my guts out."
Little did he realize when he quit that the seeds of his ultimate triumph had already been sown. When we spoke the other evening he jubilantly retold the story.
"It was almost one year ago to the weekend," he said. "I was in San Antonio to watch yet another demise of the Illinois basketball five, who of course lost this past weekend also." It was Friday night in the Alamodome, and the Illini were whipping Kansas, a prelude to their loss to Arizona. "I got a frantic call from the office saying, 'Oh my God, where are your baseball picks?' I said, 'Oh my God, I forgot to make them.' They said, 'We have to have them immediately.'
"So now it's maybe halftime of this game, and I quit watching long enough to make my picks on the fly. And my last pick of course was who wins the World Series. I looked at the teams and I thought, 'You know, I hear this and that about all these teams, but in the end doesn't in fact pitching win? Isn't that the oldest axiom in baseball?' I went with the simplest logic possible, and that would be that if Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson actually do make the playoffs--be it any kind of short series, be it five or seven games--I kind of liked them. I just thought they could steal their division. And what the heck, I'll take them against the Yankees, and I did. I can't say my crystal ball foresaw Mariano Rivera blowing a one-run lead in the ninth."
Let me press the pause button on this riveting tale and digress. The Golden BAT (for Baseball Aptitude Test) was founded in 1981 by Hot Type predecessor Neil Tesser to celebrate the incompetence of baseball writers, but in recent years they've got pretty good at picking the pennant races. So last year as I analyzed the 2001 BAT returns, I applied conventional wisdom to major league baseball to explain this phenomenon. My theory was based in part on playoff inflation and in part on big-payroll squads overwhelming the little. "Before 1969 there were 20 teams competing for two berths in the postseason," I wrote. "Now roughly 10 teams compete for eight."
Serious students of the game promptly dressed me down. They responded hotly that today's competitive imbalance is but a shadow of its old self, that prior to the age of free agency teams like the Yankees won pennants year in and year out, whereas in towns like Pittsburgh and Chicago hope, let us say, sprang eternal. Today of course the situation is completely different.
But here are the facts. Hewing to the obvious favorites, Skip Bayless correctly picked seven of the eight teams that wound up in the 2001 MLB playoffs. Dark horses such as Minnesota and Philadelphia made surprising runs, but Bayless didn't pick them, and they ultimately wound up out of the money. Six of the ten sportswriters in the field named six of the playoff teams; even the Sun-Times's Chris De Luca--who copped the lowly Wiffle BAT, given to the least and last--was right about four of them.
But Bayless was alone in picking the Diamondbacks to go all the way. "I forgot the punch line to my story," he said after we'd chatted about other things. "I sent my picks in, and then I called in. An editor who will go nameless for your purposes, because he's still there, answered his phone, and I said, 'Did you get my picks?' And he said, 'Are you sure you want to pick the Diamondbacks?' I said yeah, and he said, 'Oh, I thought you made a mistake.' That is a true story. I was sitting in the Bank One stadium as Rivera blew the save, and I thought of that editor."
Bayless left the Tribune without a new job in hand, but now he writes a sports column for the San Jose Mercury News. "I'm so blessed," he said. "I walked into the middle of Barry Bonds's 73 home runs. The 49ers had nearly as magical a season as your Bears did. Oakland played the Yankees in a terrific series, and the Raiders are the best soap opera of all. It's just been terrific material, and it's so uplifting for me. It seemed my four years in Chicago, except for Michael Jordan, were based on losing propositions."
Which is the charm of the place, I curtly reminded him.
"When you have to write about it every day it loses its charm very quickly," he replied. "I don't know how many E-mails I answered with the basic message of 'Don't kill the messenger.'"
Then he told me something he could easily have concealed. "My most distinguished pick out here was picking the Rams in a rout in the Super Bowl. I'm still getting E-mail on that one. I will not get the Golden Helmet Award this year."
That's a much, much lesser award, I said.
"It is. It's minor league. It's for children. But baseball is for men and genii."
"Tonight," Bayless said giddily, perhaps not aware that it's in the dictionary (though not preferred), "I can make up any word I want to make up."
Though his name will be forever linked with the BAT Award, Neil Tesser is primarily about jazz, and if you miss the Jazz Forum he hosted on WBEZ from 1980 until 1996, you might not know he's back on the air in an obscure recess of the AM dial. Last May, LesBiGay Radio disappeared from the brokered-time stations WSBC 1240 AM and WCFJ 1470 AM, which together have strong enough signals to pretty well cover Chicago.
Brokered-time stations sell airtime to producers, who are responsible for finding their own advertisers. With two hours a day of evening drive time to fill, Fred Eychaner, who owns both WSBC and WCFJ, had a really off-the-wall idea: he talked to his friend Rich Nelson, a communications consultant, about producing a jazz show. Nelson then turned to a buddy of his from college, Tesser.
The premises were these: studies showed that radio's jazz audience was virtually the same as the public radio audience. By 5 PM, drive time, even the NPR crowd over on WBEZ longed to listen to something besides a rehash of the day's news, and a jazz alternative was nowhere to be found on the dial. Besides, the jazz WBEZ carried later in the evening hadn't been the same since Tesser left.
Miles Ahead was launched on July 30. "We've done a lot of guerrilla marketing," says Nelson, such as setting up a Web site (milesaheadjazz.com) and distributing refrigerator magnets. He claims to have no idea what his audience is, because the audience surveyors measure in four-hour blocks and the audiences at brokered radio stations turn over completely with every show. But there's now a list of loyal advertisers--though not enough yet to cover Nelson's cost.
Nelson says, "We're doing reasonably well."
"We're bucking every trend there is," says Tesser. "We're on AM. Mono. The station's not on all day. It's Russian language in the morning. Then sports, then preachers yelling about the blood of Christ--they're my lead-in! Then it's the Eastern European bloc from seven to eight. I'm always getting calls at the station while I'm on asking me questions in Russian or Spanish or Lithuanian."
But it isn't so bad, he says. "We like the idea of a commercial jazz program. For a long time the whole public-radio rant about jazz has been that it's this endangered American music, and you have to take care of it, you have to support it--it's like homework, it's like a lecture. I probably contributed to that at WBEZ. We like the idea of taking it out of the museum a little bit and saying it's strong enough to support itself. Take it out of this victim status: Why do we have to assume no one would pay for commercials on a jazz program? Why shouldn't it have commercials? Why shouldn't Coca-Cola and other people be sponsoring jazz? They certainly steal from it enough in their commercials. They certainly lean on it enough when they want to seem adult and sophisticated."
I've caught Tesser at home, where he's assembling the day's show.
"On public radio you play things at almost any length you want," he says. "I've got a traffic report every 20 minutes, and I actually have commercials. I consider it a success if in one of those 20-minute segments I can squeeze in four pieces of music that fit together." The temptation, he says, is to stick to tracks recorded before 1950, when the music was all on 78s and each track was three to four minutes long out of necessity. But that wouldn't be much of a show.
"It takes approximately as long to put the music together as it does to actually do the show," he says. "It takes a fair amount of energy and what some might call skill. Of course that would have to come from someone else."
Someone like me? I ask.
"That's what I was thinking," he says.
8 Jack Clark began publishing West Side Stories, his mother Mary Jo Clark's plainspoken reminiscences of another time in Chicago, in the Reader in 1995. Fans of these stories will be pleased to know they've now been collected in a paperback, On the Home Front: My Mother's Story of Everyday American Life From Prohibition Through World War II, published by Penguin Putnam as a Plume Original.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Fred Verhoeven.