Trib Board: Just a Bunch of Regular Guys/BAT Out of Hell/WMAQ Plugs In | Media | Chicago Reader

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Trib Board: Just a Bunch of Regular Guys/BAT Out of Hell/WMAQ Plugs In

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Trib Board: Just a Bunch of Regular Guys

Not that you'd want to, but briefly remember the Chicago Cubs campaign of 1994. The only star, Ryne Sandberg, quit in midyear. The other big name, Mark Grace, played out his contract. The team struck bottom like an anviled corpse and was sleeping peacefully with the fishes on August 12 when everybody's season went under. The Cubs wound up 16 and a half games out of first, and they'd lost their last four games.

Here's what makes baseball owners so mad. Banjo hitters with .230 averages and sieves for gloves get paid a million dollars for their small part in fiascos like that. Meanwhile, the captain of industry who puts the team together and leads it to catastrophe virtually gives his talents away. For his performance in assembling and inspiring last year's Cubs--not to mention adding his organization's solidarity to the owners' front that led to the debacle of a canceled season, millions of fans with poisoned loyalties, and eventual repudiation in the courts--last year's acting Cubs CEO, Stanton Cook, received a trifling $375,000.

Cook, former chief executive officer of the Tribune Company and a Tribune director since 1972, is standing for reelection to the board next month. The proxy statement that describes him as "retired" acknowledges that "the Company paid Mr. Cook $375,000 for consulting services in 1994 relating to the Chicago Cubs."

It's surprising that the Cubs didn't make a lot more of this paltry figure. Fans can relate to modest six-figure incomes. Regular-guy moguls get those. It's the kind of situation Walter Jacobson likes to go undercover and root around in--a regular guy trying to run a big-league baseball team on only $375,000 a year. "I'm cold and I'm hungry," we can hear Jacobson moaning. "I think I'll go up to the press box and mooch."

It seems from this proxy statement that the Tribune's board of directors is strong on regular guys. In addition to Cook, it's got James O'Connor, CEO of Commonwealth Edison, and Andrew McKenna, CEO of the Schwarz Paper Company. Both are also directors of the First National Bank of Chicago, where some people who sit in the bleachers at Wrigley Field have bank accounts.

It's got Arnold Weber, chancellor of Northwestern University, where people you know have taken classes, and Newton Minow, a former partner at Sidley & Austin, which handles the Tribune's legal work but also sticks up for the little guy. Weber, Minow, and McKenna all sit on the board of directors of the Aon Corporation, a huge insurance holding company that offers coverage to the little man as well as the big. Aon's CEO is Patrick Ryan, who owns 20 percent of the Bears with McKenna and is a trustee at Northwestern.

Another Tribune director is the former secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld. The Defense Department is a cross section of America.

The Tribune Company board of directors has been meticulously assembled to flaunt the firm's deep roots in Middle America. They're all friends, all teammates, with them it's all for one and one for all. Yet for some reason these folks could never drum those million-dollar banjo hitters out of the court of public opinion. The public never caught on.

BAT Out of Hell

"Forget the BAT," whispered temptation. As good taste hissed, "Those greedy bastards don't deserve a hallowed tradition."

But the fans count on it, Hot Type reminded them.

"They're greedy too!" temptation cried. "They want the moon. Good ball at family prices. If it weren't for the fans' rapacity, the greedy owners could raise ticket prices sky-high and pay the greedy players every penny they want."

Good taste added, "Every empty seat in Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park represents a fan hoarding dollar bills in his hot, tight fist."

Hot Type knew they were right. And part of this column wanted to grip the coveted BAT and fling it into the dark, swirling waters of the Chicago River. But hadn't the national pastime suffered enough already?

The BAT's not for the owners, we protested. It's not for the players. It's not even for the fans. This is for the sportswriters. And they're not greedy. Unless you speak of the press-box buffet.

As faithful readers know, the impulse for the Golden BAT 14 years ago was far from generous. Virtually an open sneer, the coveted BAT--for Baseball Aptitude Test or Baseball Achievement Test or Baseball Acumen Test (like a crisp April breeze whipping the foul-pole bunting, the acronym never stayed put for long)--each spring acknowledged that scribe least unsuccessful in forecasting the pennant races of the year before. The less-coveted Whiffle BAT recognized the prognosticator with the most egg on his face.

But the '94 races ended unceremoniously in mid-August, condemning the BAT to limbo. On one hand, there were no Final Standings to square with the pundits' cocky predictions of April previous. On the other, this column felt an unfamiliar sympathy for the baseball writers, who found themselves on the labor beat and had to start buying their own dinners.

They deserve the BAT. It's theirs. Hot Type asks only that they tolerate another material change in the once-gleaming cudgel. Debased from gold to cupronickel in 1992 to acknowledge a new era of moral and material scarcity, the BAT henceforth shall be made of molten lead filings. (As a sop, it'll be 2 percent bigger.)

Yet another factor keeping the BAT alive is the Streak. Nearly as impressive as Cal Ripken's, the BAT for the last two years running was copped by the Sun-Times's Toni Ginnetti. Should her entry in the Annals be abridged because intransigence squelched an institution?

Hot Type decided to call her on the telephone and let her decide the BAT's fate.

"I was thinking about that when the season sort of ended," she admitted. "I don't think I did that badly. Maybe I should say, if I don't win it shouldn't count."

She convinced us to surrender not an inch more to the nihilists. So we proceeded. We compared the prognostications of Chicago's sporting seers a year ago with the standings when the '94 season collapsed on August 12.

The season was a nightmare from start to finish. Those hadn't been pennant races. They weren't even conference races. The major leagues had been subdivided into something called divisions, and there were "wild card" berths in the picture too. The Bigs had turned themselves into a monstrosity that the strike mercifully struck dead.

Nevertheless the sportswriters had made their calls. So how did they do?

Ginnetti again shone. She picked four of the eight teams in playoff positions on August 12, and a fifth choice of hers finished a half game out. But that team was Houston, in something called the NL Central, and if Houston had put its nose ahead of Cincinnati at the wire the Tribune's Bernie Lincicome would have named six of the playoff teams instead of five.

A great, great, historic effort by Lincicome.

The Whiffle BAT was copped by the Sun-Times's Jay Mariotti, who named a single playoff team.

To Lincicome then, the new, jumbo size Lead Slug BAT. But in deference to these exceptional times, this year we've declared an honorary cochampion. The James Earl Jones of the hard court, the sonorous preacher of the pines, Lacy Banks early and often predicted the return of Michael Jordan. His belief seldom wavered, and Hot Type believes his prayers helped make it so.

Because Banks was right, and because if he'd been wrong the farcical prelude to the '95 roundball season could not have been so easily ignored, he's earned a share of baseball's purest honor.

WMAQ Plugs In

Congratulations to WMAQ AM for putting itself in the enviable if ethically awkward position of airing a testimonial recorded by the president, the governor, and the mayor.

"First with news and first with newsmakers," boasts the promo, and now we hear the cascading voices of Bill Clinton, Jim Edgar, and Rich Daley. Clinton's saying that his weekly radio address can be heard live on WMAQ, and Daley's putting in a good word for CNN, which WMAQ carries. So far so good--opportunistically speaking. Clinton's kudo was culled from a speech, operations manager Chris Witting told me, and Daley's from a press conference.

That leaves Edgar. "When I'm making news in Springfield, you'll hear it on all-news 67, WMAQ," the governor contributes.

"He was in to do a Reporters show," Witting explained, "and we just said, "Governor, would you be willing to read this? We'll put it on our promo with the president and the mayor.' He said, yeah, sure, and he read it. It was not really planned. But the light bulb went on, and we said, gee, we ought to write a line. Lucky for us he was willing to do it."

Lucky? Now that Edgar's been so obliging, who's obligated back?

"There's certainly no dark side to this," Witting maintained. Really? No reason for Edgar to expect anything in return? "I don't think so," Witting said. "We're as hard on the governor as we are on all the various politicians. Bill Cameron, our political editor, is a very tough reporter and a great journalist."

OK. Looks aren't everything.

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