Thursday, July 16, 2009

Friendly Confines

Published in CJR Online

Behind the News — July 16, 2009
The Chicago Tribune, the Cubs, and Me
TribCo is selling the Chicago Cubs. Steve Daley was there when they bought in

By Steve Daley

The week I went to work as a sports columnist for the Chicago Tribune in 1981 was the week the Tribune Co. bought the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Hello.

That era is about to end, or so it appears, with reports that moguls from Ameritrade and their millionaire “Go, Cubs, Go” amigos will acquire the storied franchise and Wrigley Field from what’s left of the Tribune Co. for $900 million or so.

Consider this: Tribune Co. bought the Cubs, Wrigley Field, the ivy, the post-season curse, the bleachers, a national fan base, and the broadcast operations from the Wrigley family of chewing-gum renown for about $21 million.

$21 million. $900 million. Makes you wonder how over the same period of time the same company managed to commit suicide with its newspapers.

In 1981 the stunning news felt like a dicey proposition for opinionated pay-rollers such as myself. The fact that the folks who ran the sports department at the Tribune didn’t seem to have any more advance warning of the Cubs’ sale than the newest employee—me—wasn’t much comfort.

Certainly the prospect of savaging the Cubs was a columnist’s delight. But having the Tribune Co. money guys—synergy gurus and lawyers from Notre Dame—poring over my column for blasphemy and heresy was a daunting image.

So I had no sooner acquired a press credential and figured out how to get to Clark and Addison Sts. from my apartment than I began to wonder what all the suits on the upper floors of the Tribune Tower on N. Michigan Ave. were thinking of my deathless prose.

The expectation was that I would write columns about this enterprise in a manner that would engage readers and maintain the paper’s editorial independence. But how do you keep telling people that the boss’s most celebrated asset couldn’t be driven off the lot?

The thing is, the 1981 Cubs were awful, and they were part of a longstanding tradition of awful. The 1982 Cubs were no better. They finished nineteen games out of the first place in the National League East and they repeated that soul-destroying performance in 1983.

As the new guy, I suspect my batting average for paranoia was higher than most. I knew some readers—maybe a lot of readers—were skeptical of the arrangement. Rabid fans of the Chicago White Sox saw Tribune collusion in every Cubs story and the boys and girls at the Chicago Sun-Times seemed to relish our discomfort, as they should have.

You didn’t hear much from the team. In 1981, the affable Joey Amalfitano managed the team, to no real avail. He was replaced the following year by Lee Elia, a product of the Philadelphia baseball organization and a man best known for a legendary tape-recorded rave-out in 1983 about the lives and ambitions of the Cub fans who showed up in the bleachers for day baseball.

At spring training in Arizona in 1982, what would now be called senior management of the Tribune Co. sought to ease the minds of its paid typists.

In those days, Stanton R. Cook was Chairman of the Board of the Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune, and president of the Chicago Cubs.

Stan—“Call me Stan”—was a tall, silver-haired, hand-shaking Midwesterner who could have played himself in the movie. He had more titles than the guy who runs North Korea but was much nicer.

That spring, in the friendly confines of HoHoKam Park, Cook assured the scribblers, one at the time, that he understood the concept of “church and state” and that there would be no interference when we suggested in his newspaper that maybe Wayne Nordhagen wasn’t the answer in left field.

From my end, Cook and his minions kept that promise. And by 1984, manager Jim Frey and general manager Dallas Green had performed baseball alchemy, putting the Cubs in the post-season for the first time since the Japanese surrendered on board the USS Missouri in 1945.

They lost in the playoffs, of course, but it was a great summer in Chicago. And it was left to Green, the bumptious “baseball guy from Philly,” to explain to me my sensitive relationship with the Tribune Co. suits.

“They don’t give a damn what you write,” Green snarled at me one afternoon. “Bet they don’t even read it.”

Years later, I suspect he was right.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Winners and Losers

In February, in a story that did not get much attention, a talented Israeli tennis player named Shahar Peer was denied a visa to enter Dubai and play in the ATP Dubai Tennis Championships.

The government of Dubai, those well-moneyed moderates in the United Arab Emirates much loved by the U.S., never got around to a coherent explanation of their decision, save the fact they suggested that Peer night have a "security problem" if she played tennis in their cute little country.

The American tennis establishment and the sanctioning organizations collapsed into irate letter-writing and rhetorical chin-pulling over the insult. There was even a fine of $300,000 levied against Dubai tennis poohbahs. But Peer kept quiet, the press was disinterested and most everyone seemed to think it was a situation that required a good leaving alone.

A number of American players characterized the denial of the visa as "unfortunate," but Venus Williams apparently spoke for many of the players when she said she wasn't interested in "rocking the boat."

Andy Roddick stayed home.

The defending champion in the $2.2 million Dubai event, Roddick saw the situation with a moral and ethical clarity that seemed to escape, well, just about everyone else. He had just won a tournament in Memphis and he did not make the trip to Dubai.

"I think a big part if it is I didn't really agree with what went on over there," Roddick said at the time.

Roddick, an affable 26-year-old with no history of political activism, was alone in his protest. The two best male players in the world, Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal, had timely injuries and nothing to say. Tennis professionals from all over the world - not just the U.S. - did nothing in support of Peer.

There were some moments. The cable Tennis Channel chose not to cover the event and the Wall Street Journal dropped its partial sponsorship. But commerce prevailed. Venus Williams won the women's event. Novak Djokovic of Serbia won the men's title.

Roddick sought no credit or praise for his protest of the egregious harm done to Peer (a woman he had never met at the time). Nor did he earn much praise or attention for his clear-eyed and singular courage.

You can draw your own conclusions as to what would have happened if, say, the Dubai government had decided that Venus Williams had "a security problem" and could not enter the country. The "what ifs" run off into geopolitics, but the story is long gone.

On Sunday, Andy Roddick, the boat-rocker, lost an epic five-set Wimbledon men's final to Roger Federer. The fifth set was 16-14, if you're counting.

The Swiss wizard now has 15 Gtand Slam titles and Roddick has just one, the 2003 U.S. Open. But from where I sit, nobody in tennis had a better year than Andy Roddick.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Let Franken be Franken


Let Franken Be Franken!

By Steve Daley

Washington doesn’t need any more hard-working pols. When Al finally gets to town, let’s please . . .

When Al Franken is finally installed as the junior senator from Minnesota, we need him to be Al Franken.

Waiting out the recounts and court fights that have kept Franken back home since November, the former Saturday Night Live star has done a good imitation of your typical 21st-century US senator.

He’s been dull.

Duller than a quorum call. Duller than a Harry Reid/Mitch McConnell photo op. Few interviews, no barbed commentary about Republicans, no declarations in that foghorn of a voice.

There are reasons why. The notion of Senator Al Franken (D-Funny) probably scares both the White House and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee.

They want his crucial Senate vote, and it’s fine with them if Franken is mistaken inside the Beltway for Mark Dayton, Rudy Boschwitz, Rod Grams, or any of his predecessors from the Land of Sky-Blue Waters.

Franken told the St. Paul newspaper that once he’s sworn in, he’ll be “putting [his] head down and getting to work.”

That’s not what we need. We need some laughs. We need some characters.

Let’s face it: The United States Senate is a place where Utah’s Orrin Hatch is considered witty. Where being colorful means starting a second family at 55. Where wild and crazy means not having a 6 am tennis game three mornings a week.

Let’s take a partial roll call.

Mike Enzi of Wyoming. Ben Cardin of Maryland. Daniel Akaka of Hawaii. Claire McCaskill of Missouri. Bob Corker of Tennessee. Susan Collins of Maine. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin. Roger Wicker of Mississippi.

These are distinguished public servants, but they could walk up to a door with an electric eye and chances are the door wouldn’t open.

We need a senator who might do some impersonations. In his SNL days, Franken nailed a pair of senatorial Pauls—Paul Tsongas of Massachusetts and Paul Simon of Illinois. He aped Pat Robertson, Lyndon LaRouche, and Henry Kissinger.

We need a politician who might plant a camera on his pith helmet and report live from the scene, as Franken did on SNL.

We could use a senator who’d say things like “What do Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Phil Gramm, Dick Armey, and George Will have in common? Answer: They’ve all been married one less time than Rush Limbaugh.”

We need a man who would publish a book called Rush Limbaugh Is a Big Fat Idiot and preface it with a mock New York Times review allegedly written by former Reagan foreign-policy adviser Jeane Kirkpatrick.

Extending the joke, Franken offered his own fake letter to the editor bemoaning the fact that his “former lover” had been assigned to review the book.

“As anyone who was familiar with the Manhattan eighties’ club scene knows,” Franken wrote, “Ms. Kirkpatrick and I endured a somewhat stormy and all too public affair during her tenure as our country’s UN ambassador. . . . Come on! Be fair. Next time get someone who isn’t my former lover to review my book.”

At the 1994 White House Correspondents Dinner, Franken told the audience he had discussed the merits of an Al Gore joke with Tipper Gore. He shared the joke:

“Vice President Gore continued to show his commitment to the environment by announcing today that he is going to change the policy on the stick up his butt. Instead of replacing the stick every day with a new stick, the Vice President will keep the same stick up his butt for the rest of the administration. Evidently, this will save an entire rain forest.”

Here’s another possibility: For much of his comedic career, Franken had a sidekick. His name was Tom Davis, and he had grown up with Franken in Minneapolis, where they began writing comedy.

Davis was a pioneering writer on SNL, but as a performer he was about as funny as Dutch elm disease. Remember Franken and Davis as the lunkhead gorilla handlers in Eddie Murphy’s Trading Places?

Suppose Franken had a sidekick in the Senate. A Barney Rubble, a Sancho Panza, a Joe Biden, an Ed McMahon, a Vinny Cerrato. A walk-around guy to set up the one-liners, get the bottled water, clear the press away from the Senate elevators.

Match that, Arlen Specter.

The world of entertainment has not been a historic proving ground for the Senate.

Senator Fred Thompson, the truck-drivin’ man from Tennessee, did walk among us for a time. It was after his movie roles in The Hunt for Red October and Curly Sue, though he had started out as minority counsel to the Senate Watergate Committee in the 1970s.

Back when spittoons were still in fashion, a Hollywood hoofer named George Murphy (Broadway Melody of 1940) made his way to the Senate from California, serving a solo term between former JFK spokesman Pierre Salinger and John V. Tunney, described as the lightweight son of onetime heavyweight champ Gene Tunney.

Jesse Helms of North Carolina came to us from radio, and Wilbert Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel of Texas also got his start in radio, offering up old-timey music with the Light Crust Doughboys.

Pappy served eight years in the Senate after being governor, famously defeating Lyndon Johnson by 1,300 votes in 1941. A man before his time, Pappy argued that Texas needed its own army and navy to guard the Mexican border.

“Pass the Biscuits, Pappy” wasn’t much of a senator, but his platform—the Ten Commandments—was good enough to get him elected.

Yes, there was a time when Senator Huey Long raced around Washington under the watchful eye of the Louisiana troopers he brought with him, when committee chairmen were pickled by sundown, when being defined as a character had nothing to do with airport lavatories.

But we know how this ends. Senator Al Franken will go all fair and balanced.

He’ll learn to love those dusty markups on the agriculture committee. He’ll come to believe that every meeting in Washington is “productive” and that every Senate colleague is worthy of placement on Mount Rushmore.

But do we want another distinguished member who will yield the floor? What this town needs is some of that old SNL attitude—the kind that says: “Live from Capitol Hill—it’s Al Franken!”

This article first appeared in the June 2009 issue of The Washingtonian.