Jerry Reinsdorf said this about Jay Mariotti on WBBM radio on June 22: "The best thing to do is for people to bring to the public's attention the things that he does that are inappropriate. And I think you'll see more of that happen going forward." Oh, and Reinsdorf, the White Sox chairman, also called him a "piece of garbage." This was a couple days after Ozzie Guillen, the White Sox manager, called him a "fucking fag."
Columnists such as Rick Morrissey of the Tribune and Rick Telander of Mariotti's own Sun-Times soon weighed in to regret Guillen's language but endorse his larger point: that Mariotti's way of ripping athletes in his column without showing his face in the clubhouse betrayed the sportswriter's code. Under withering fire, Mariotti mysteriously disappeared from the Sun-Times, and on July 5 the Web site Jay the Joke (jaythejoke.com) carried this posting: "There's a little spring to my step these days. . . . I think you know why: Mariotti has been missing from the Sun-Times for 9 days! That's right, folks. Ozzie Guillen called Mariotti a 'fag,' and who got in the most trouble? Mariotti! Life can be beautiful."
A couple sympathizers emerged. Danny Sternfeld, writing in the Chicago Sports Review, pointed out that Mariotti was doing his job: the column that made Guillen so angry was the one where Mariotti ripped Guillen for ordering rookie pitcher Sean Tracey to throw at an enemy batter and punishing him when he didn't. "He expressed an opinion and supported that opinion," wrote Sternfeld, who called Mariotti the best and most influential sports columnist in the city. In Hot Type I'd shown some sympathy for the be-true-to-the-code school of thought, which disgusted Mariotti; he sent me Sternfeld's column in an e-mail labeled read, learn.
Then along came David Peterson. A political analyst of the Noam Chomsky school, Peterson can put two and two together even if he has to drag them across the dance floor to make the introduction. In a series of e-mails he told me to wake up.
Like Guillen and Reinsdorf, Peterson dismisses a lot of Mariotti's output as "nothing more than a trashing of his subjects." But, he adds, "this is far from true of everything that Mariotti writes. Particularly when he writes about sports as a business enterprise. . . . And it most assuredly has not been true over the years when Mariotti has written about the reigning Sports Lords from within the ranks of the various ownership regimes. None more effectively, by the way, than when he's written about Major League Baseball's. And Jerry Reinsdorf."
In Peterson's view, Guillen's "fag" comment was insignificant, "because Guillen's opinions about the world beyond Baseball are both ignorant and trivial. But this was not how the rest of the Chicago and national sports media treated it. More important, other sportswriters began to attack Mariotti." To Peterson, this attack wasn't "beautiful"--it was suspect. Only a handful of columnists had written about the Sean Tracey incident, he observed, "Mariotti the most intelligently." Mariotti's reward was a "smear campaign."
Peterson believes Reinsdorf all but acknowledged such a campaign with his "I think you'll see more of that happen going forward" remark. He points to Jay the Joke--teeming with mockery and enjoying some 800 visitors a day since it was touted on June 27 by Tribune sports media columnist Teddy Greenstein. Peterson has a hunch that behind the site there's a PR firm hired to destroy Mariotti. He notes that Jay the Joke posted a letter Reinsdorf and Cubs president Andy MacPhail jointly sent on March 28 to Sun-Times publisher John Cruickshank protesting a Mariotti column on baseball commissioner Bud Selig and steroids. How could Jay the Joke get that letter, Peterson wondered, unless there was collusion?
He told me, "I regard this 'If you're a sports columnist, you show up in the clubhouse to face the music' to be a canard--a false issue. When was the last time our brave heroes such as Rick Morrissey or Teddy Greenstein (times literally dozens of others) actually wrote one critical word about the ownership regimes around Chicago that was anything more than trivial?"
This week Peterson defiantly came to Mariotti's defense on Jay the Joke, quoting a Mariotti column written just before last year's World Series: "You say Jerry Reinsdorf, because his ballclub won the pennant, finally is becoming a prince of a human being. I cannot agree. He's still the power broker who squeezed the state for a stadium, built the only dud ballpark of the '90s, helped orchestrate the strike that almost sunk baseball and harmed his franchise with public-relations gaffes." The only sportswriter willing to "fry" Chicago's sports bosses, Peterson asserted, "happens to be the exact same one against whom the Jay The Joke website exists to carry out its negative publicity campaign. Go figure."
Is Mariotti the butt of a highly sophisticated swiftboating campaign? I scratched around for an answer.
The facts as I now understand them don't advance Peterson's conspiracy theory, but they don't flatter Mariotti's enemies either. I'll begin with jaythejoke.com. So far as I can tell, it was launched in April by a couple of young goofs, not a PR firm. The founder who allowed himself to be identified by Greenstein is Matt Lynch, a Northwestern grad student who lives near Wrigley Field. But Lynch says a buddy of his had the original idea. The buddy has a job in the entertainment industry on the west coast and wouldn't tell me his name on the record. He said his father is a major Chicago celebrity (and an occasional Mariotti antagonist), and he didn't want him implicated. So the son's lying low--where his own picture belongs on the Web site there's a picture of Mariotti labeled douchebag.
I reminded him that Mariotti--mocked on Jay the Joke for avoiding the Sox clubhouse--signs his name to every column he writes. To attack him anonymously was shameless and hypocritical. "That is a valid point," said the son. So come out, I said. "I don't think I'm personally ready to right now," he replied.
As for the Reinsdorf-MacPhail letter to Cruickshank--which asserted that, contrary to a Mariotti column a few days earlier, "baseball, under Commis-sioner Selig's leadership, has made tremendous strides on the issue of steroids"--the Sox posted it on their Web site, giving Jay the Joke easy access to it. No collusion there.
But consider the letter itself. Two days after it was written Selig's office issued a "fact sheet" touting the commissioner's record on steroids. Aside from the opening and closing paragraphs, which referred to Mariotti, the MacPhail-Reinsdorf letter was virtually word-for-word the fact sheet. Either Selig admired the letter so much he turned it into a press release or, much more likely, MacPhail and Reinsdorf got together to defend Selig in language furnished by Selig's office.
Full disclosure: the evidence that supports a collusion charge even implicates me. I share a lake house with a friend who owns a small piece of the White Sox and has written the Sun-Times to complain about Mariotti.
Nevertheless, I'm not a part of anyone's conspiracy, and I don't think Reinsdorf's comments on WBBM are proof that he's engineering one. I asked Scott Reifert, the Sox vice president for communications, what Reinsdorf meant. Reifert told me that complaining privately about Mariotti's "errors and inaccuracies . . . hasn't seemed to make much difference," so the Sox now intend to go public with their beefs.
At any rate, if Mariotti thinks everyone's conspiring against him, he's got a lot of evidence to point to. Having dropped hints the size of beach balls that he thinks the Sun-Times hasn't stuck up for him, he made the tactical decision--with the Cubs-White Sox series at Wrigley Field just ahead, along with the Western Open, the World Cup, and Wimbledon--to take one of his rare vacations. Editor in chief John Barron says the vacation will go on for "weeks and weeks and weeks."
Barron allows that "we're all prone to a bit of paranoia, Jay more so than others, perhaps," but he believes the Sox "have got a little bit of explaining to do, in that some of the stuff in the clubhouse, according to Jay and other witnesses, is perhaps a little beyond the pale. If you look at it as a 21st-century workplace situation, some of that stuff could be construed as, if not a hostile work environment, not a normal one. So we want to kick that around a little bit."
Barron is pleased that several weeks ago Reifert proposed a meeting with Sun-Times brass. It's been postponed a couple of times, but both sides seem determined to make it happen. "They've extended a little bit of an olive branch," says Barron. Yet he observes that "since [Reifert] made that overture, Reinsdorf has been quoted as saying Jay is a piece of garbage. I'm not sure how that helps to clear the air."
Reifert says the Sox also invited Mariotti by letter to either "come out and talk to our clubhouse" or sit down with Reifert in the presence of a lawyer ("He frequently leaves e-mails threatening litigation," Reifert explains). He says Mariotti didn't respond.
Mariotti had nothing to say to me that was on the record.