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THE ATHLETIC WANTED TO DO A PROFILE ABOUT ME — UNTIL IT DIDN’T
All journalists should agree to role reversal as interview subjects, and, in my case, the sports site chose not to publish a finished story — leaving me to recall a crazy, corrupt Chicago media scene
I’ve known Bob Kravitz forever, nearly dying with him in Albertville when we hitchhiked a ride in a snowstorm with a brake-challenged Europunk blasting Def Leppard. So I was honored when he wanted to profile me for The Athletic. We met in Chicago, a few months ago, but before booking dinner for two at Gibson’s, I paused … and put the reservation under his name so I wasn’t poisoned or abducted.
Think I’m joking?
I’ve always had a caustic effect on people in that city, where a cozy sports community wasn’t fond of my raw critiques and fellow media didn’t appreciate how I dominated the scene and appeared on a daily ESPN debate show called “Around The Horn.’’ But much to my astonishment, when we sidled up to the bar at the Gold Coast steakhouse, a friendly server comped our drinks and said he loves reading my column.
How nice of him, considering I’d left the city 13 years earlier. When Kravitz mentioned another sports columnist, still there, the bartender said nothing. I don’t think he knew the name.
That’s how the experience began, one writer interviewing another about life and the profession. I viewed this as a lab experiment, one that every journalist should undergo to see how it feels being on the other side, as the subject and not the writer. I’ve spoken to many college and high school classes about my multimedia career, mostly reveling in the bedtime stories. I tell them about seeing the planet through the prism of 14 Olympic Games, experiencing the magnificence and misery of the Michael Jordan era, covering every major sports event and prominent athlete as a columnist since age 25, and spending some 1,700 days inside one of ESPN’s framed debate boxes doing what people do online every day: act like you know more than the next muppet.
I’ve sat mesmerized as Steph Curry performed his post-practice clinic, then told me he’ll never be satisfied until he makes every shot. I’ve stood in a parking lot an entire summer waiting for Jordan to come out of a gym, where he’d yell at me, then give me another story about why he was returning to the NBA. I’ve defended a grieving mother whose son dropped dead on Northwestern’s football practice field, when it was too hot to be practicing, and she couldn’t understand why the university was hassling her in settlement talks. I had two private sitdowns with Kobe Bryant, who said he’d been so ready to leave the Lakers for the Bulls that he and his wife sought real estate in the Chicago suburbs. I conducted an inning-by-inning dialogue with Mark Cuban, who was in the Wrigley Field bleachers downing beers with a pal while pondering whether to try and buy the Cubs, which, unfortunately, never happened. Was Sammy Sosa fessing up about steroids when he told me about the “creatine shakes’’ he was drinking? I’ve been fortunate — even that day in the Italian Alps when the rental car began to slide toward a cliff without a guardrail.
But this interview, with Kravitz for a major site, wasn’t about fairy tales. It was largely about a life decision I made in August 2008, when I peacefully triggered an opt-out clause in my Chicago Sun-Times contract with almost $1 million left on it and relocated to Los Angeles — a decision I’ve not once regretted. A year before my 50th birthday, after 2 1/2 decades as a fervent author of columns on nearly every continent, I left the newspaper — completely on my own terms and of my own volition — because the operation and its crap website had no discernible future. Quality of life was more important than being guaranteed a handsome salary, which, in my collective media pursuits, was approaching high six figures. My health and contentment are infinitely better now because of it, and I might live to 85 instead of dropping dead at 55.
All these years since, am I happy with my decision? Damned right, I told him, as sure as it’s 78 and sunny as I write this, after a Super Bowl that showed off every reason to live in southern California. I especially thank my blessings when I’m playing tennis on a hillside, where every clanked overhead is soothed by sweeping ocean views. I’m too competitive to have endured the demise of the print industry through the 2010s, and the numbers don’t lie. The day I left, Sun-Times circulation was more than 330,000. By September 2021, according to data from the Alliance for Audited Media, print circulation had plunged to 59,638, with a bland, low-impact website. Seems I was right, with a dart on the bullseye. I take no glee in being prescient; it’s no fault of the city's skilled journalists that both Chicago newspapers are on death row, with the Sun-Times relinquishing its independence under the b.s. guise of “non-profit journalism’’ funded by philanthropic backing. It’s code for agreeing to compromise hard-hitting coverage to serve the investors’ interests. With bailout money from prominent local and national names — such as the Pritzker Traubert Foundation — the Sun-Times becomes a subsidiary of Chicago Public Media and waves a white flag in any serious scrutiny of, say, Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker and the Pritzker family, America’s ninth-wealthiest.
Journalism, this is not. This is called selling out to stay afloat. While charitable donations buy some time, they don’t buy back lost readership. What I realized, in talking to Kravitz, is that I presided over the death of print and the fruition of digital.
Seventeen years at the unstable Sun-Times led me to ultimately conclude that local newspapers were dead, which didn't endear me to an industry that generally — and fatally — resisted the necessary transition to digital. Months after leaving, in a moment that still gives me chills, I stood on a Wrigleyville rooftop with my sportswriting idol and former National Sports Daily boss, Frank Deford — a pop fly from where a “Sports With An Attitude’’ billboard once heralded my Chicago arrival — and explained for an HBO “Real Sports’’ segment why the Sun-Times print copy he clutched was obsolete.
“Jay, what am I going to do at breakfast? Since I'm a child, I get up in the morning, eat breakfast …’’ he said, shaking the newspaper.
“Keep that around for Frank Deford then,’’ I told him. “Eighty to ninety percent of your mission has to be the Internet. … There's always going to be a place for that, but it's got to be minimal in the future.’’
Frank passed away in 2017, not long after I met with two millennial dreamers, Alex Mather and Adam Hansmann, at the Four Seasons hotel in San Francisco. They were launching a digital sports project, The Athletic, and they probably were more interested in the venture capitalists sitting at nearby tables than my suggestion: Hire the best 100 sportswriting reads in America. They wound up hiring 450 creatives of all sorts, to cover nearly every imaginable beat in North America and the United Kingdom, and, over the next few years, I thought they'd overshot their wad after layoffs and subscription slowdowns.
But they pulled it off, heavens to Deford, selling The Athletic to the New York Times last month for $550 million in cash. Mather had to eat some crud, having cut a deal with a traditional newspaper company after once vowing to let papers “continuously bleed until we are the last ones standing.’’ In the end, The Athletic isn't going away, unlike thousands of newspapers, and the tech dudes cashed out as wealthy men.
I never did join The Athletic. Kravitz did, after many years in Denver and Indianapolis, where he broke a small, insignificant story known as Deflategate. We shared a history of heart issues, stents and all, but the difference is, I escaped the industry and my doctors say I’m healthier than ever. He stayed in the racket and continued to battle ailments, like so many writers in a demanding craft. I’ve always loved to write but, honestly, the romance waned when I was flying around the world to every sports event, arriving at a TV studio somewhere the next day, doing radio shows when they fit in, abandoning all work/life balance. I burned out.
Life is so much better without the sellouts and crooks, I told him, the crackpots and phonies. I had to fight too many political battles, with the newspaper’s editors and the likes of power-bloated sports owner Jerry Reinsdorf, just in order to maintain my point of view. I held my ground, trying to serve the readers first, as I will to my grave. I didn’t get in this business to engage in rah-rah public relations and promotional fluff. Too often, my big bosses caved to the tyranny game of Reinsdorf, who owns the White Sox and Bulls and, um, didn’t like me much. He has controlled those franchises since the early-to-mid '80s — spanning a collective 77 seasons — and he has won only one championship without Jordan. It was my job to scrutinize him and other team owners, or so I thought, and Reinsdorf responded by devoting too much time toward unsuccessfully trying to screw me via back channels — he was Wile E. Coyote; I was the Road Runner — while expecting suck-up relationships from the likes of basketball writer Sam Smith.
I told Kravitz that the media lost me, forever, when they didn’t follow through and complete coverage of the only legal case of my life. Kravitz did, learning I’d prevailed in a civil proceeding — as the entire case was expunged — because he actually picked up the cellphone and called my attorney, something no one else had done amid a reckless, irresponsible spree worthy of a dozen lawsuits if I wasn’t a public figure.
After the Sun-Times, I quickly joined an ambitious digital project at AOL Sports as a national columnist with an international travel budget. That project, like many in a crashing business, was doomed. Later, I tried a gig in San Francisco with a quick toe-dip at the long-ailing Examiner, where I took a generous offer as columnist and sports director at an operation pledged to digital growth and survival. Before I knew it, our hustling free-lancers weren't being paid for work — and when I inquired, the accounting person looked at me like I had three heads. It was fun to cover the first NBA title of Curry and the Warriors and Super Bowl 50 in the Bay Area, a week when we saw Dave Matthews at a pier concert and attended Jim Brown’s birthday party before chronicling the championship of Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. But while Mather and Hansmann were plotting the industry’s future down the street, the Examiner was running out of money for its grand sports initiative.
I’d loved the clout and wonderment of newspapers since I was a kid, walking every Sunday to a drug store in Pittsburgh to collect editions of the Pittsburgh Press, Cleveland Plain Dealer, the New York papers and the Sporting News. But I WAS right about their demise. Papers as we'd known them were dead to rights — except legacy giants dedicated to editorial excellence and digital evolution (New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal) and a few local shops that caught up to some degree. I worked for six newspapers from college through Chicago. Three have died (The National, Rocky Mountain News, Cincinnati Post) and three are day-to-day (Sun-Times, Denver Post, Detroit News).
I always fought the good fight, but I was surrounded by corruption and dysfunction in Chicago. In the process of reporting, Kravitz asked around about me and said he’d had complimentary feedback while encountering others who wished a pox on me. So I put together a chronology of my Sun-Times years and sent it to him. A part of me views my Chicago run as a comedy skit, but, in the end, it's a chilling retrospective — from 1994 through today — on why the newspaper industry death-spiraled. Sure, it could be a job for a filmmaker. Adam McKay?
A seance with Alfred Hitchcock, maybe?
February 1994 — The newsroom salutes me for holding my own in a 1-versus-11 battle against a Chicago Tribune battalion at the Lillehammer Olympics in Norway, which featured the Tonya Harding vs. Nancy Kerrigan skating fiasco. They throw a little afternoon party for me.
March 1, 1994 — The Sun-Times is sold to Hollinger Inc. for $180 million in cash. An Associated Press story quotes Charles Nicodemus, chairman of the Sun-Times unit of the Chicago Newspaper Guild: “It’s too early to know much, but Hollinger is controlled by Conrad Black, and Conrad Black does not have a good reputation among many labor union officials.’’
Summer 1994 — Editors inform me of an edict: Every column of mine that mentions Reinsdorf must be sent to the paper’s executive editor, Mark Nadler, to his home at night. It’s perfectly OK to zing Tribune Co., owner of the Cubs, but Reinsdorf is being protected by my editors? With a labor impasse looming in Major League Baseball, I’m criticizing the owners regularly in print and on my radio show. Black fiercely hates unions — like Reinsdorf, who is leading labor warfare against the MLB Players Association. The Hollinger men quickly curry his favor, as I rail on Reinsdorf and commissioner Bud Selig amid an approaching cancellation of the World Series. I’m also knocking him for building an already obsolete ballpark with public money, while not at all embracing the ongoing Jordan-playing-baseball story in my columns.
July 1994 -- Courting Reinsdorf to obtain broadcast rights to the Bulls and White Sox, my bosses at sports station AM 1000 let morning host Steve Dahl — Mr. Sox, Mr. Disco Demolition Night — purposely backlog commercials that cut significantly into the starting time of our shows. On the day Ryne Sandberg retires from baseball, our A-list Cubs guests must wait on hold while Dahl eats a sandwich on the air. I tell him to get his ass out of the studio, and he launches Mariotti Demolition Month.
Aug. 12, 1994 — An MLB work stoppage begins, thwarting a possible White Sox championship run.
Sept. 14, 1994 — The World Series is canceled. I continue to blame the owners.
Nov. 14, 1994 — Out of nowhere, only months after the newsroom had saluted me, I’m informed by phone on a Monday after returning from a Bears game in Miami that I'm out of a Sun-Times job. This comes three days after AM 1000 fired me as a daytime host, with station manager Larry Wert — who would go on to a substantial career as a network TV executive — telling me it had “nothing to do with (my) performance.’’ Now hear this: If you don’t like my work as a columnist and talk host, say so. I’ll leave with a handshake. But why so much sneaking around, blindsiding and backstabbing? Something reeks. I’m not leaving.
Winter 1994 — The Chicago Newspaper Guild and my lawyer quickly restore my column, helped by research indicating I am owed hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime pay as the lone full-time sports columnist at the time — remember Lillehammer? As for radio, I soon join a Chicago-based national network, One-On-One Sports, for a lengthy run with no political meddling. I resume writing, but I become a newsroom symbol of the union’s battle against the new owners.
Dec. 10, 1995 — Hollinger hires Nigel Wade, from London's Daily Telegraph, as Sun-Times editor-in-chief. I continue a busy schedule of columns. A subsequent Chicago Reader story describes Wade as a leader who “abhors the Chicago Newspaper Guild.'' One day, sports editor Bill Adee tells me, “You’re not Nigel’s cup of tea.’’ It's obvious the Hollinger boys despise the Guild and still don't like me. Wade isn't my cup of tea, either — born in New Zealand, he knows nothing about Chicago or me.
May 1996 — Wade summons me to his office and asks if I’m “anti-Semitic.’’ I say no and that I'm offended by his question.
April 1997 — A Sun-Times colleague, Rick Telander, wants to “go outside’’ at halftime of a Bulls road playoff game against Washington. I have no idea why he’s upset. I do not go outside; I calm him down as the sitting U.S. vice president walks past and notices the climate change. “Hey, Rick, there’s Al Gore!’’ I say.
1997-1999 — The Sun-Times continues to win the battle for sports readership. In this period, the Tribune's sports editor, John Cherwa, criticizes his staff for lacking our energy. At the time, I’m writing five or six columns a week if necessary, and Tribune newcomer Skip Bayless tries to keep up when he arrives in 1998. My pace is necessary because the Chicago sports scene is a daily buzzsaw and, sometimes, our other columnists prefer to stay on a prescribed schedule instead of reacting to the news. I credit Adee, a cool head who understands we are winning, for maximizing a strong, productive staff and keeping the peace. Until …
Bears season, 1999 — As staff turmoil froths — the copy desk is openly ripping writers — I stop in and see Wade. I simply want better morale and tell him I’m committed more than ever to dueling the Tribune. Bad idea. When it’s obvious he’s not agreeing with anything I’m saying, I get up and try to leave, but he blocks me with a forearm shiver. Fortunately, I’d opened his office door, and people working in the newsroom see what happened. Once again, the Guild takes on the case.
April 20, 2000 — Wade resigns from the Sun-Times, saying he'll seek a "new direction'' after 37 years in journalism. He is replaced by Michael Cooke, a British-born former rugby player and wannabe Navy sailor, a veteran of Canadian newspapers with a Fleet Street tabloid background. When asked about his role models, Cooke told Toronto Life, “They’ll punch you in the balls to win.’’ The Reader writes that week: “Nigel Wade abhors the Chicago Newspaper Guild, but there’s no reason to think any other Hollinger editor would prove any friendlier.’’ Soon enough, months later, Cooke yells at me when I tell him about an episode in the Soldier Field press box — a staff writer, knowing I was dealing with cancer in my family, had chirped “cancer, cancer’’ before a writer sitting between us told him to zip it. Apparently, I am being punched in the balls.
Sept. 10, 2001 — I break the story of Jordan returning to basketball with the Washington Wizards. The next morning, with America under terroristic siege, I start to ponder the meaning of life like everyone else. Do I want to continue working at this hellhole newspaper?
Early 2002 — ESPN executive Jim Cohen contacts me and asks if I want to do a new TV debate show.
November 2002 — "Around The Horn’’ launches. The show struggles, at first. But I’m a regular panelist committed to success. I show up every day in a makeshift Sun-Times newsroom studio — because ATH creators Cohen, Bill Wolff and Erik Rydholm and ESPN programming boss Mark Shapiro want me on every day. In due time, our show survives growing pains and becomes a late-afternoon hit with sizable ratings, despite a flood of early criticism from sports media wannabes.
January 2004 — I’m hired for another AM 1000 show by program director Bob Snyder, who says he wants me only so he can piss off Reinsdorf, whose mostly irrelevant White Sox are on the station’s air. Snyder says he’ll be fired in short order for doing so and, sure enough, he's fired.
Summer 2004 — Before a Sox game in Minneapolis, the team’s hillbilly homer play-by-play man, Hawk Harrelson, rams into my chair from behind in the press-box lounge as I’m writing. At first, I think it’s a mistake, but he’s grinning as he looks back at me. I approach him and warn him not to do it again. After the game, Hawkeroo taunts me across the press box as writers work on deadline, and a Minnesota reporter tells him to shut up. The next day, AM 1000 program director Len Weiner orders me not to mention the episode on the air.
Dec. 26, 2004 — Despite my ratings romp over the competing sports station, I am fired again by AM 1000. I had refused to sign a document presented by Weiner, promising not to criticize the White Sox or Bulls. Because of my ratings success, the station owes me incentive escalators — so, I’m paid for not doing shows. The station has ceded to Reinsdorf, yet he takes his teams’ broadcast rights to the other Chicago sports station anyway.
January 2005 — Cooke leaves to become editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News. He doesn’t last a year, amid much mocking in the New York Post, which breathlessly reports how he lost “control of the newsroom’’ and carried on a fetish for women’s shoes.
Feb. 6, 2005 — I break up a loud argument between two Sun-Times football writers, Mike Mulligan and Brad Biggs, after Super Bowl XXXIX in a Jacksonville hotel lobby.
October 2005 — The editors kill my column during the World Series. At U.S. Cellular Field, Houston Astros’ wives and significant others had been harassed by White Sox fans. Manager Ozzie Guillen publicly apologizes the next day in Houston. I write about it, but the column never sees the light of day. When I ask why, there’s no response. The Sox win the Series, as the sports world yawns.
December 2005 — Cooke announces his resignation at the Daily News, and the New York Times reports he is returning to Chicago as vice president for editorial of the Sun-Times News Group.
March 2006 — Joe Cowley begins his first season covering the White Sox for the Sun-Times. In the same role at a sister newspaper, the Daily Southtown, he'd chided me and Bayless in print for not being clubhouse regulars. We are columnists, covering the entirety of sports, not baseball beat writers. A Sox plant, obviously. He is doing dirty work for the team, and Cowley further reveals himself as a honk when he gives one of his favorites, A.J. Pierzynski, a dubious 10th-place vote in American League MVP balloting. It's a wretched conflict of interest, yet sports editor Stu Courtney shrugs when I inquire.
June 2006 — While I'm on a long road trip covering U.S. Open golf in New York and the NBA Finals in Dallas, Guillen calls me “a f—ing fag’’ for not being in his clubhouse. Add it to a list of incidents through time, such as when Guillen ordered me to “get the f— off our field’’ as I was being interviewed live by Dan Patrick on an ESPN set, and when Tony Phillips repeatedly called me “a mother f—er’’ as the team's public-relations people refused to intervene before I called Phillips “a mother f—er’’ myself. On the drive home, I was blamed for the Phillips incident by a reporter on WSCR, then the team's flagship station. The Guillen story mushrooms nationally, and I appear on ESPN and other networks — would you believe, Tucker Carlson? — to explain Guillen’s behavior through the years. The Sun-Times exploits the coverage irresponsibly for days, and the only editor who contacts me is Courtney, who wants a statement for a news story. In the hallway, an editor tells me, “You’re embarrassing yourself’’ on the TV appearances. Actually, I’m embarrassing the editors, the White Sox and Guillen — all of whom, I’ve come to realize, are in cahoots. I appear on WSCR and say the Sun-Times is in bed with the White Sox and Reinsdorf. I am threatened with a firing. I am not fired. Cubs, Bears, other local teams — there are no such issues for me, just the White Sox. On TV, host Donny Deutsch mocks Guillen, noting that a news columnist critical of the U.S. President isn't required to report to the White House after a critical piece. I might add: Does a food critic show up at a pilloried restaurant so the cook can throw meat sauce at him? Does a film critic knock on Quentin Tarantino's front door? Call it arrogance on my part, but I’m above all of this. Besides, I’ve always found that the best stories usually are outside clubhouses, outside the box. It's my column. Call if you want a word with me, or we'll hash it out over lunch. That way, we keep it professional and private.
Winter 2006 — Our thriving TV show moves to a high-tech studio inside the ESPN Zone restaurant on Ohio Street. It's fun to see sports fans, some traveling long distances, crowding around and watching each day. The program is a joy, yet the Sun-Times isn't handling prosperity well, unable to embrace a national TV hit with years of nonstop ratings spikes. One night, someone covered the walls of our newsroom studio in sheets of paper with large “X’’s drawn in magic marker. A friend says the internal sniping is a byproduct of the show’s success, silly but true, yet I soon volunteer another element to my workload to help the paper's shoddy website — “Mariotti 24/7,’’ a prominently positioned box where I respond to breaking news. My web traffic is high, often second only to Roger Ebert’s movie reviews, sometimes first. Still, there are complaints in the newsroom about “Mariotti 24/7.’’ At times, I grow so confounded, I vent and plead for the sports editor to do something, anything.
Jan. 3, 2007 — Because I know the importance of Notre Dame in the Chicago area, though the Fighting Irish are just 9-3, I jump on a plane to New Orleans for a meaningless Sugar Bowl game. Rather, I stumble onto the plane, feeling nauseous and dazed in the O'Hare terminal. “Are you having a heart problem?’’ asks a woman in the next seat. Yes, I am. And fool that I am, my only thought upon arrival is somehow filing a game column off TV from my airport-area hotel room. I finally call for an ambulance. A stent is inserted at a nearby hospital, and the Tribune all but has me on my death bed. What kind of Sun-Times jerk leaks this to the opposition? Seems that’s a multiple-choice question. In a week or so, I'm back on “Around The Horn.’’ Later in the month, the Bears somehow reach Super Bowl XLI with Rex Grossman at quarterback, and, as I board a flight to Miami, a fan says, “I didn't know you had a heart.’’ Good one!
Summer 2007 — I receive a large envelope in the office mail from a Massachusetts address. Inside are photos of a prominent Chicago sports figure, celebrating Christmas with a family. An attached letter claims the sports figure is living a double life. Is it a hoax? Maybe. But for the same reason the media would investigate the infidelity of Tiger Woods, it's our responsibility to at least look into the potential fraud of a local celebrity who touts himself in the media as a family man. I ask newsroom editor Don Hayner if a news-side reporter might be interested in helping. He responds with a question for me: "What is our purpose?'' Oh, I forgot, we're supposed to protect the local sports franchises.
Sept. 9, 2007 — I break up another argument — this time, Mulligan is engaged with football writer Mark Potash — outside an elevator after a Bears game in San Diego. Is it in my job description to constantly play peacemaker? Where are the editors?
December 2007 — Black is sentenced to 6 1/2 years in prison for scheming to bilk millions of dollars from Hollinger Inc. and shareholders — and the Sun-Times. He is ratted out by his former associate and friend, Radler, who pleads guilty and accepts a 29-month prison sentence.
June 2008 — I appear on “Chicago Tonight,’’ a news affairs show on the PBS affiliate, after being told I’d be talking about two big events I’d just covered: Woods limping around Torrey Pines to win the U.S. Open, and the Boston Celtics (then coached by Chicago-area native Doc Rivers) winning the NBA championship. After addressing those topics, I’m greeted on a taped segment by … Telander, sounding like a bitter sports fan, ripping me for some odd reason. I'm asked to respond by the host. I have to stay reasonably cool — if I don't, I'll be in the headline, not him, as I'm the one on a national TV program — and this becomes standard operating procedure on the couple of occasions when fools act up in other towns. All of which officially is venturing into wacko territory.
July 2008 — My Los Angeles-based agent, Michael Price, is my conduit to ESPN. I'd prefer to write at a less psychotic outlet, I tell him, but he begins extension talks with Cooke, who's aware our television show now is approaching 900,000-plus viewers on some days with the Sun-Times logo behind me. I'm offered an extension, and I'm inclined not to sign it, concerned about the newspaper's bleak future. As I’ve done for years, I implore editors to construct a better website that allows us to compete deep into the digital future. I sign through gritted teeth, but I add that we’ll see how everything goes at the Summer Olympics in Beijing. It’s clear the editors want it both ways — they need me to sell a dying product, yet they want to appease my haters in the community by perpetuating this endless drama.
August 2008 — I join Greg Couch, a strong teammate and tireless worker, in China against the usual Tribune legions — and our stories aren't posted online for several hours at a time. We have no chance to compete in a changing media world. Why are we here? Finally, I decide to resign after the Games. I've had enough of the futility, infighting and lack of foresight. Life is too short. On the flight home, I write an amicable letter to the new publisher, a man I don't know. When a Tribune business writer gets wind and makes calls, Cooke is caught off-guard and asks if it's a joke. Nope, the joke is on him. Next day, I’m trashed to hell on the Sun-Times’ front page, with a hit job from Ebert, who calls me “a rat.’’ Was this not my life, my career, my call, my opt-out clause?
September 2008 — I meet with Adee, who'd left for the Tribune years earlier, and another top Tribune editor at the Park Hyatt hotel bar. We never could be a fit, in that I'd mocked the competition as “the Tribsters’’ during the company's dismal ownership of the Cubs. I go digital, joining AOL Sports. I continue as an “Around The Horn’’ regular. Might the Sun-Times miss that daily national promotional splash?
January 2009 — With an extraordinary amount of junk swirling about me on joker websites — many of us at ESPN are scorched as clickbait — I am pleased to see my “Around The Horn’’ boss stick up for me and deal in truths. A writer for the Real Clear website asks Erik Rydholm: “On a scale of one to 10 — one being Lou Gehrig; 10 being Terrell Owens — how much of a prima donna is Mariotti?’’ Replies Rydholm: “For me, honestly, Jay is on the Gehrig side of the scale — let's go with a 3 or a 4. He has never been divisive on our show. He's never taken our team apart. Our group is so low maintenance. Jay has received plenty of criticism. But he works as hard as anyone and always has a provocative take. Whether you agree with it or not, he usually says something that he has thought out and is worth arguing about. I'm a Chicagoan and have read him for years. And while sometimes I felt like his columns could be a bit harsh on guys I wanted to see succeed, I read him. Heck, I bought the paper for him. On ATH, we ask him for his point of view on 10 issues a day, and he delivers good ones. We try to hold him accountable, and he's not above having fun with that. For me, he's been great.’’
February 2009 — Cooke flees the Sun-Times and the United States of America for Canada, where he joins the Toronto Star.
March 31, 2009 — Bleeding red ink and facing whopping bills for back taxes, Sun-Times Media Group files for bankruptcy. The paper shrinks into something unrecognizable amid bailout attempts by local investors.
Winter 2011 — AOL gives up on what had been a fun ride, licensing its Fanhouse brand to the Sporting News, the beginning of the end of another poorly-run content ship. I was told this would happen weeks earlier, when I was asked on a Thursday to write a column for Monday, only to be told Friday that I was being offered a significant settlement on a multi-year extension. I could have stayed according to my contractual terms, but I was tiring of the b.s. — so I accepted the money and chilled. The sports media industry was on the skids, anyway. I'll never forget being ordered to take a red-eye flight to northern Virginia, where I was asked by an AOL security guy/former FBI agent why my editor hadn't filled out company travel forms for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. Uh, you wasted my time and your money on something that could have been asked over the phone? They were trying to get rid of my boss, and I refused to cooperate.
Spring 2012 — Guillen tells Time magazine that he admires Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, the absolute worst comment he could make as new manager of the Miami Marlins, whose taxpayer-funded ballpark is in Little Havana. Says Guillen: “I love Fidel Castro. I respect Fidel Castro. You know why? A lot of people have wanted to kill Fidel Castro for the last 60 years, but that motherf----r is still here.’’ Guillen also confesses a longtime drinking problem, telling CBSSports.com, “I go to the hotel bar, get drunk, sleep, I don't do anything else. I get drunk because I'm happy we win or I get drunk because I'm very sad and disturbed because we lose. Same routine, it never changes. It's been the same routine for 25, 28 years. It doesn't change. … I've got to be here early, and I go to sleep so drunk that I have to recover in time to go to the park.’’ A friendly book about Guillen, “Ozzie's School of Management’’ — by a Chicago columnist ignorant of his conflict of interest — has the shelf life of a frozen daiquiri on South Beach. After Guillen is fired by the Marlins, his career is saved by Reinsdorf, who owns 50 percent of NBC Sports Chicago and puts this loon behind a live mike on Sox pre- and post-game shows.
Summer 2017 — The Sun-Times, now renting humble offices near a Goodwill donation store after decades as a downtown fixture, is sold to a group of labor unions and local investors led by an ex-alderman … for $1. Or, $549,999,999 less than The Athletic's sale price. How’s “Around The Horn’’ doing? Viewership has fallen substantially since my departure — in part because of media fragmentation, in larger part because the show has lost continuity as lineups change wildly from day to day, with panelists unwilling to debate as much as smile and stay in safety zones apart from ESPN’s sin bin. The host wears the same black leather jacket almost every day, as if channeling John Travolta, which makes it awkward when panelists try to make serious points about the world beyond sports.
Autumn 2017 — I’m offered a position as a sports columnist at a gambling site. I happen to think gambling sites will poison what is left of sports journalism. I reject the offer.
Winter 2020 — I’m offered a position as a sports columnist at a web operation. I reject the offer.
If only Frank Deford had talked to Conrad Black and the boys about journalism. My problem was, they were in bed with people I was trying to cover and scrutinize as a columnist and TV commentator. Cooke once stopped me in the hallway with another Black/Radler footman, John Cruickshank, and rebuked me for not knowing “anything about sports business.’’ I’d questioned in print why Reinsdorf, in the country’s No. 3 market, had a payroll in the bottom half of MLB’s franchises at the time. Weeks later, I saw them in a hallway and asked if they still thought I didn’t understand sports business.
“Oh, Jerry didn’t buy a table at our event,’’ Cruickshank said.
Oh, make me hurl. People named Cooke and Cruick were leading an operation in which prison-bound bosses were cooking the books. Yet they also considered me a necessary Sun-Times evil — they’d hand me contract extensions while holding their noses — because I attracted readers and sold papers. That didn’t stop Reinsdorf and his teams from dirty-pool tactics. When the dismal, post-Jordan Bulls finally signed coach Scott Skiles to a well-deserved extension — after I’d called out Reinsdorf for being stingy — a night editor phoned me with new contract figures that our beat writer, Lacy J. Banks, had obtained from Skiles’ agent. The figures were published in our main story and I also placed them in my column, a common practice. Next day, attorneys demanded a series of retractions — but only from within MY COLUMN, not the main news story — though the numbers from Skiles’ agent were almost identical to Reinsdorf’s interpretation after their contentious negotiation. The editors gave in, hanging me out to dry.
Then came the twilight zone. The paper began publishing comments under columns and stories, which was great — until the security chief, Mike Weaver, grew concerned about threats toward me. I didn’t want this to escalate to death threats — the website system wasn’t sophisticated enough to flag them — and Weaver informed the managing editor. A newsroom mole (wonder who?) told the Tribune that I didn’t want any comments under my columns. It was another lie, but sure enough, the Tribune ran a story about my supposed reluctance and encouraged readers to send comments about me for its website. Yes, the competition wanted to publish comments about the rival columnist. That day, I personally won what was left of a newspaper war.
After my heart flare-up, I began to examine life priorities. Walking on the Great Wall in China, sweating through a t-shirt and having difficulty catching my breath, I had an epiphany of sorts. During the Games, I was ordered to write two pieces of pre-race fiction — one in which Michael Phelps won a gold medal, another in which he lost — to meet a deadline that routinely was moved for White Sox or Cubs games. So, yeah, I didn’t trust the place.
It’s a shame everyone couldn’t appreciate our success and chose to sabotage what was working so well. In a sense, it reminded me of how Reinsdorf and Jerry Krause refused to thank their blessings during the Jordan era, preferring to let everyone squabble before the Bulls dynasty was dismantled.
Leaving the Sun-Times continues to be the best decision of my life, I told Kravitz. I’ve never been better. I’ve never written better. I live a quick walk from the beach in L.A. and feel sorry for an industry in which many people seem unhappy and unfulfilled, wondering every day about a Plan B in life. It makes me feel lucky to have spent decades in media’s heyday. What I like about writing columns for Substack is the independence, an organic culture conducive to good writing, the absence of editorial interference from people with agendas, a diverse readership extending beyond the sports and gambling crowd. It’s just me and the reader, me and whatever I want to write about.
After a day and night in Chicago, Kravitz asked more questions and I provided more answers. He finished the story. The editing process began. Months passed. Then the New York Times bought The Athletic. “After the Super Bowl,’’ Kravitz said when I asked about a publication target date.
Hours after the Rams beat the Bengals down the freeway at SoFi Stadium, he emailed me and said the story wouldn’t be appearing. He couldn’t betray his editor’s confidence and explain specifically, but my first thought — and perhaps his — was an obvious one:
Who had it killed?
I’m surprised how little I care. In truth, I was quite impressed by the professionalism of the experience, from Kravitz and his immediate editor, knowing how rogue sites have lied about me because they needed me for traffic. If this was a journalism lab experiment, I’m glad I participated.
Yet it made me realize, again, why I’m better off far from the madness. A tennis court in the sunshine awaits.
Jay Mariotti, called “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.