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HOW THE NEW YORK TIMES IS ENABLING CORRUPTION IN CHICAGO SPORTS
When reclusive owner Jerry Reinsdorf chatted up the media last weekend, a reporter from The Athletic was among those obeying his order to avoid hard questions, reflecting poorly on the site’s owner
Hope springs eternal, or something like that, on Opening Day of the Major League Baseball season, when every team begins in first place. Of course, within hours, half the clubs fall out of the lead and might not sniff it again. This is commonplace in Chicago, where two teams have won a combined two World Series — as many as the Houston Astros will win in 12 months if they repeat this fall — in a collective 219 seasons of trying.
TWO HUNDRED AND NINETEEN, or the approximate number of days when the sun doesn’t come out in a given year.
How is this undying futility allowed to fester? Let me provide the latest sorry story as it relates to the soft, obedient, tip-toeing hometown media, who don’t apply the scrutinous pressure that holds owners accountable in places such as Boston and Philadelphia. There, franchises aren’t allowed to lose for one season, much less hundreds. When the famously reclusive, haplessly problematic chairman of two underperforming Chicago sports teams emerges from his cave and actually stops to talk with reporters, you do not giggle away the rarest of opportunities. You pelt Jerry Reinsdorf with a laundry list of pressing questions that have begged answers for weeks and months and years.
Those subjects include scandals that have gone disturbingly undercovered in that city and, therefore, nationally: An ex-head trainer is suing Reinsdorf and the White Sox because, he says, he was fired because he’s gay; and an autistic batboy won a settlement after accusing Omar Vizquel, then a fast-tracking manager with the team’s Double-A affiliate, of crude sexual-harassment acts inside the Birmingham Barons’ clubhouse — a story originally covered up by Chris Getz, the White Sox’s assistant general manager for player development.
And when Reinsdorf stands there with media members and says he’ll refuse to talk about anything controversial, as he did last weekend in Arizona, you ask anyway — and continue to ask, all day if necessary — even if he walks away, summons security or has his media-relations staffers engage you in a harangue.
Alas, the Chicago media fanboys once again let Reinsdorf control them and impede their responsibility to the most important people in any sports equation: the paying customers, the viewers at home, the diehards who for some reason support a team in a crappy ballpark on the wrong side of town. The fans always have wanted answers from ownership — I know this from 17 turbulent, abusive, threat-filled years of delivering hard commentary about the White Sox and NBA Bulls at the Sun-Times — but the media refuse to denounce or even examine Reinsdorf these days. They treat him like some eccentric grandpa instead of challenging him as an influential, multi-tentacled figure in Chicago, MLB and the media world. They appear to be afraid of him, protecting paychecks instead of serving millions in America’s third-largest market. They don’t care that sports in the 21st century is an $800 billion industry, reliant more than ever on the dollars and eyeballs of those fans, and that the job of independent media not directly affiliated with teams is to hold truth to power.
One would think The Athletic, owned and operated by the New York Times and unconnected to Reinsdorf, has nothing to lose and journalistic respect to gain by scrutinizing him and firing away in such a circumstance. He isn’t Donald Trump, but in the context of how he has wronged and cheated Chicago sports fans, a valid comparison can be made — and there’s zero chance the Times or Washington Post or most media outlets would allow Trump to wiggle away. But that’s exactly what The Athletic’s Jon Greenberg did, neglecting to ask follow-ups, shaming his employer and his profession by casually writing about the lack of tough questions and mentioning how “someone did the opposite and asked him for a prediction for the 2023 White Sox.” Then he allowed Reinsdorf to “convivially” ramble on about a 1987 baseball prediction gone awry.
And that was the end of the only Reinsdorf availability for maybe — I don’t know, he’s 87 — the rest of his life.
Here is what Greenberg and the co-convivialists should have asked:
What is the status of Brian Ball’s wrongful termination lawsuit? Because no one bothers to ask the chairman, I contacted Ball’s attorney, John Winters, who says the fired trainer isn’t settling like the autistic batboy and aggressively intends to win the case next month after the White Sox failed to have it dismissed.
Why did Getz try to cover up the Vizquel allegations, referring to the team’s parting with the manager as amicable and calling him “a positive influence” who “created a good environment” for the players? And why does Reinsdorf’s baseball team continue to swim in family-unfriendly sleaze — between the Ball case, the Vizquel case and the homophobic slur once fired by then-manager Ozzie Guillen, still employed as the team’s potty-mouthed studio analyst?
Does Reinsdorf actively spy on people? Why are his name and photo listed among principals fronting Global Security Innovative Strategies? What exactly is the mission of this curious operation, based in Washington, D.C.? From the firm’s site: “GSIS leverages its extensive private sector, homeland and public security, public sector and international expertise to provide comprehensive solutions for its clients. These solutions range from investigations, end-to-end security assessments, design and implementation to government relations support and business advisory services such as due-diligence, new market entrance and business intelligence.” Does this mean he has spied on me and other people he doesn’t like? Or worse?
Not far from his 88th birthday, will he consider selling the White Sox as valuations of MLB franchises fall far behind NFL teams and even NBA teams? His team is worth $2.05 billion, per Forbes, but hasn’t made a profit since 2019, losing a reported $53 million last year. And if he doesn’t sell, will his family inherit the franchise — including son Michael, who hasn’t done well running the Bulls in recent seasons?
Why keep the team if MLB’s massive spenders are creating a wider disparity between haves and have-nots? Wasn’t Reinsdorf one of four owners who voted against Steve Cohen’s ownership bid of the New York Mets? How does he feel about Cohen pushing his team payroll toward $500 million this season?
Did he consider softening the mean grudges still festering around the greatest and most compelling sports dynasty of our time, the 1990s Bulls, and throw a 25th-anniversary celebration at the United Center? Or did he fear Michael Jordan, Phil Jackson and Scottie Pippen wouldn’t show up? Or make him look bad, as Jordan did in “The Last Dance” docuseries?
What does he think about Jordan selling his majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets? Does it prove Jordan actually was a worse owner than Reinsdorf? Or is it a side note to the real truth: Reinsdorf has won only one championship, in four-plus decades of two-team futility, without Jordan? And that Jordan — after Reinsdorf lowballed him by never re-doing an obsolete eight-year, $24 million contract — still has a net worth of $2.2 billion, in the proximity of Reinsdorf, after making just $90 million during his playing career?
Why does he always get in the way of a great thing? He wreckingballed the Jordan Bulls, so he wouldn’t have to keep supporting massive payrolls, when they could have won another championship or two. With the White Sox primed for glory, why did he sabotage it by hiring a seventy-something Tony La Russa, who failed and almost dropped dead in the process?
With the Bears apparently headed to Arlington Heights, should he abandon the 35th Street ballmall — which was obsolete shortly after it was built, in part because he rejected HOK’s Camden Yards blueprints and didn’t have a classic skyline as a backdrop — and try a re-boot with a lakefront ballpark at the Soldier Field site? Think San Francisco. Would he consider paying for at least part of the project?
Did he really fire his hillbilly-homer announcer, Hawk Harrelson, in 2018? “I didn’t retire. I got retired,” Harrelson said this week on the “Foul Territory” podcast. “I got fired, is what it boils down to. I’m sure they will deny that, but what led up to that and everything else is going to be interesting.” Didn’t Reinsdorf hire La Russa in 2020 because he regretted letting the Hawkeroo, then the general manager, fire La Russa in 1986? Now, it turns out he dumped Harrelson, too? And why is everything always so chaotic inside his franchises, recalling the daily strife engulfing the six-championship Bulls, who were rescued repeatedly by Jordan?
And why did the White Sox have a strained negotiation with Harrelson’s booth successor, the acclaimed Jason Benetti? Shouldn’t Reinsdorf feel very fortunate to have a popular, younger announcer at a time when MLB teams are stuck with boring voices? Why did Benetti speak negatively of the talks?
I could go on. Needless to say, The Athletic — like other Chicago media, with the exception of WGN-TV’s work on the Ball case — has done no extensive reporting on the Ball and Vizquel stories. Some of The Athletic’s best content involves investigations of aggrieved figures in sports. Why completely blow off the Reinsdorfian disgraces? Why does Greenberg, who runs the local shop as an editor, turn his head to serious news stories?
The local newspapers gave up long ago. The Sun-Times is a long-shrunken nonprofit that takes survival donations from power hitters, such as the Pritzker Traubert Foundation — as in the family of Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, who is tied to Reinsdorf in the community and might run for the U.S. presidency someday. The Tribune is run by a New York hedge fund that doesn’t practice hard-driven journalism and won’t touch Reinsdorf or anyone who could make trouble for the chief hedger, Heath Freeman. The two sports radio stations have been in the Jerry-rigged bag forever. When The Athletic opened a Chicago bureau in 2016, I assumed the coverage might be tougher.
Somehow, it’s softer. As I consider a book about Reinsdorf’s life and sports reign, I recently sent a lengthy list of questions to the White Sox’s media relations department. I wasn’t expecting much, considering I fell out of favor with the chairman three decades ago, when his assistant called one day and said I never should contact him again. Life goes on. And things had started so well in the early ‘90s, when he invited me for a come-to-papa chat — his pal, Dennis Gilbert, also was present — at the team’s spring facility, then in Sarasota. Damned if it didn’t feel like a Mafia meeting.
My questions for the book cut deeply. Some were extremely personal and scandalous. The vice president of communications, Scott Reifert, gave the list to Reinsdorf and later e-mailed back: His boss was declining to participate.
But at least I gave him the chance to say no. That’s more than can be said for the amateur on the New York Times payroll.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.