By Michael Miner
Alert readers might wonder why Hot Type waits until April to present the coveted BAT award, when the winner was established in October.
A thoughtful response to this perceptive question, which I've never actually been asked, requires that the BAT be traced to its distant origins. The roots of the hallowed BAT do not lie in the ancient impulse to honor. They lie in the ancient impulse to snicker. I happen to regret this history--in these eyes the doughty sportswriter is an earnest yeoman who simply failed to find a legitimate line of work. But a certain Hot Type predecessor subscribed to a darker view of the species. He invented the BAT in 1981 as an occasion to mock these scribes who think they know so much--presuming to forecast each major league season before it begins when they actually have no more of a clue than we fans do.
Why not April? Why allow a champion who owes his triumph to dumb luck to strut and preen all winter? Better to put him through months of agony. If the anecdotal evidence I'm making up on the spot is reliable, more than one laureate presumptive has awakened screaming from a January nightmare in which the BAT was capriciously denied him, leaving life, career, self-image in a shambles.
Normally the BAT (for Baseball Acumen Test) recognizes "least unsatisfactory" or "closest to pretty good" performance in the larger context of mediocrity, but once in a great while a scrivener truly excels. The winner of the 1997 BAT is such a champion, the Tribune's electrifying Bernie Lincicome. Two years ago we hailed Lincicome for a "great, great historic effort" in naming five of the eight '94 playoff teams (not that there were any playoff teams that miserable year, but at least those teams were in playoff positions when the season was canceled). Last spring he outdid himself, identifying seven of the eight teams that would wind up in the postseason.
Lincicome picked Atlanta winning in the NL East, Saint Louis in the NL Central, Cleveland in the division, and Texas in the AL West. His pick in the AL East was Baltimore, which wound up the American League wild card, and his choice for wild card was New York, which won the division. Lincicome predicted Los Angeles would take the NL West; instead the Dodgers finished second behind San Diego but made the playoffs as the league's wild card. The only playoff team he missed was the Padres.
His laughable series prediction was Cleveland over Los Angeles, but no matter. Nobody guessed a year ago that the Yankees would wind up pennant winners, let alone world champions. Only two other writers--the Tribune's Bob Verdi, who made them his wild card, and Paul Sullivan, who picked them to lead the AL East, even put the Yankees in the playoffs.
Verdi correctly named five of the eight teams that survived the season; so did the Sun-Times's Dave van Dyck (the defending BAT champion) and Toni Ginnetti, the '93 and '94 BAT honoree who's quietly proved herself the most reliable baseball prognosticator at either paper.
Like any essential institution, the BAT holds a mirror to society. Originally the Golden BAT, it became the Cupronickel BAT in 1992, when times got hard in America, and the Molten Lead BAT in 1995, to protest the debasement of our national pastime by expansion, realignment, and strike. Likewise the consolation prize, given to the hapless scribe who predicted the past season with the accuracy of a blind pigeon, has evolved from the Lead BAT to the Cracked BAT to the Whiffle BAT.
Such are the vicissitudes of punditry that Lincicome sandwiched his triumphs of '95 and '97 around the Whiffle BAT in '96. This year Hot Type breaks with precedent to give him yet another Whiffle. For the first time, the grand prize and the booby prize go to the same sportswriter in the same year.
Lincicome managed this unlikely double by picking Houston to become the National League wild-card team while finishing third in the NL Central. This is of course impossible. The rest of us could be excused if we were confounded by the preposterous new playoff setup, but sportswriters are supposed to know how it works.
On April 1 America's funny pages played a fast one on their readers. The creators of some four dozen strips and panels swapped assignments. The prank was dreamed up by Rick Kirkman and Jerry Scott of Baby Blues and promoted by the syndicates as the Great April Fool's Day Comic Switcheroonie.
To give you an idea, Dilbert was drawn by Bil Keane of Family Circus, which was drawn by Dilbert's Scott Adams. Characters from each comic showed up in the other. Greg Evans of Luann drew Hi and Lois, while that strip's Chance Browne was drawing Jump Start and Bizarro's Dan Piraro was drawing Luann. A spokesman for King Features, which syndicates Baby Blues, told me the only cartoonists Kirkman and Scott asked to join in who didn't were Charles Schulz, Garry Trudeau, and Cathy Guisewite.
According to King Features, only two major papers in the entire country decided not to get in on the fun. The New York Post was one, and you already know the other. If you read the April 1 Tribune, which carried more than a dozen switcheroonies, and the same day's Sun-Times, which ran none, you may have wondered why Chicago's tabloid woke up with a pickle in its mouth.
"We thought it was a fun idea," said deputy Sun-Times features editor John Barron, "however an idea that works best in a one-newspaper town where everybody's in on the joke. We looked at about eight strips that, as it turned out, were affected. We were suddenly seeing comics that our readers are not used to showing up in the paper. It was a confusing situation."
Confusing? Maybe a little, but nothing to compare with programming a VCR. Actually the joke would work best in a two-newspaper city. In a one-paper town too many strips would be taken over by characters from strips the paper didn't carry and nobody knew. Tribune readers who spotted Nancy and Garfield April 1 recognized them from the Sun-Times. If Dilbert had shown up the way he was supposed to in the Sun-Times, he'd have been paying a surprise visit from the Tribune.
Which may be why he didn't appear. Sun-Times editor Nigel Wade nixed the switcheroonie, and his paper ran alternate strips. Barron insists Wade's decision had nothing to do with an unwillingness to acknowledge the competition. "It was just sort of darned confusing," Barron said. I'm trying to accept this explanation, but it's an effort.
This week Crain's Chicago Business made itself look silly--or worse. It carried an article that began like this: "Chicago landlords overwhelmingly support electrical deregulation--and many of them can't wait to unplug Commonwealth Edison Co."
What these Chicago landlords support happens to be what Crain's supports on its editorial page. So Crain's should have been careful not to let its editorial bias seem to contaminate its reporting.
But the article continued: "Loyalty to ComEd slipped over the last year, according to a survey for Crain's Chicago Business by the Building Owners and Managers Assn. of Chicago (BOMA)." BOMA is hardly a nonpartisan surveyor. The stated mission of its energy subcommittee is to "bring about, as soon as possible, legislative and regulatory changes which will permit BOMA/Chicago members [to have] unlimited freedom of choice in the selection and purchase of electricity."
BOMA's survey was a survey of its own members. And as Crain's reported, 84 percent of them support immediate deregulation. Crain's asking BOMA to do a survey of landlords was roughly comparable to the Tribune asking the Republican Party to do its political polling and poll only Republicans.
Editor David Snyder explained to me that, despite the way the article was worded, Crain's didn't actually commission a survey. "They did the survey and gave us rights to use it, but we didn't pay them any money," he said. "And they are the key voice for downtown building owners."
In other words, BOMA asked its members what they thought, and Crain's published the results. Despite the way its story was written, Crain's essentially reprinted a press release.
Barry Bearak, New York Times: "She and her husband abruptly left the children, their other relatives and their home in Cincinnati, the two of them bound for California and some curious new path through the thickets of the soul."
Pam Belluck, New York Times: "Last September, she and her husband...left the children, other relatives and their Cincinnati home, bound for California and some curious new path through the thickets of the soul."
It is feared that Bearak and Belluck belong to a cult of journalists who think alike, write alike, and believe the devil resides in a gorse hedge.
Signs of this cult are everywhere. Andrew Patner, Sun-Times: "The black-tie swells...watched much of the show in dim silence. But two rows behind me, a little girl didn't miss one of Marceau's tricks. Her laughter filled the house. As yours will."
Sid Smith, Tribune: "Just as I wondered if Marceau has any contemporary relevance, I glanced over my shoulder at a giggling young girl behind me, a youngster about 10, I'd guess, the age I was when I laughed at the same routine three decades ago."
"All neighborhood libraries to be shuttered," announced a headline in the April 1 edition of Inside, a north-side neighborhood weekly. According to the article by "Reid Less," the Sulzer Regional Library would become a casino and the John Merlo Library in Lakeview an Urban Outfitters; however, neighborhood groups had invited the Irish Republican Army and the Palestine Liberation Organization to step in and help overthrow the library board.
Obviously the story was true--hadn't the branch on Southport already closed? After listening to patrons rail at them for two days, Sulzer librarians were not amused. "We catch all the flak," said one. Even less amused was a woman who called Ron Roenigk, publisher of Inside. She said the article had made her so angry she took it to church, showed it to her pastor, and then read it during the service to the congregation.
Allen Ginsberg made two historic visits to Chicago. In 1959 he came here to read "Howl" and raise money for the literary magazine Big Table, which was founded by University of Chicago students determined to publish William Burroughs's Naked Lunch. During the 1968 Democratic Convention, Ginsberg demonstrated against the Vietnam war. When he died last weekend the Sun-Times ran a headline on page one and inside carried an obituary from the Washington Post, a staff-written sidebar on the '59 visit, an excerpt from "Howl," and a photograph of Ginsberg speaking at a rally in Lincoln Park.
The Tribune ran an AP obit inside, along with a couple of pictures taken in New York and San Francisco. Chicago was never mentioned. Journalists who can't remember the past are condemned to produce mediocre journalism.
Lisel Mueller of Libertyville wins the Pulitzer Prize for poetry. Sun-Times, front page; Tribune, Metro section.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Uncredited photo of Bernie Lincicome.