Wednesday, August 15, 2012

"Just saying"

I'll be at the table
when company comes.
Nobody'll dare
say to me,
"Eat in the kitchen,"

they'll see how beautiful I am
and be ashamed--

I, too, am America.
"I, Too" by Langston Hughes

Attendance Clause: Did ticket sales determine Tribune editorial placement as well?

Back around 2003, before I’d even taken a first stab at blogging, I’d already found a favorite foil: Dan McGrath.

At the time, McGrath was then about halfway into his decade-plus tenure running the Tribune’s star-crossed and unfailingly biased sports section. At the Cubbies Convention in January, Ron Santo predicted that the team would win 100 games. As everyone knew, Santo was many things, foremost among them a consummate Cubbies homer, so to take to the bank anything the team announcer and future Hall-of-Famer said was well, you know, cute, quaint, or perhaps heartening. But foremost: It’s a Ron Santo prediction about the Cubbies!

Santo, star-crossed no more.
Natch, McGrath took Santo’s prediction Ph.D. seriously, enough so to assign a story about “how it could happen” to beat writer Paul Sullivan, and it ran over the fold along with a heady, season-schedule graphic. Never mind that the North Siders had won 100 games just five times in the then-127 years of the franchise or that they’d hit the century mark just once in the past 94 seasons heading into 2003. The entire piece read with the hopefulness of … a Cubbies fan, not a responsible writer or objective editor.

While the Cubbies would win just 88 games in 2003, that flaccid number was enough to take the NL Central, where the team would take a 3-2 lead on the Florida Marlins before a colossal collapse that’s winceable even for a non-fan to recall some nine seasons later. And this McGrathian embarrassment--the 100-win prediction detail was no "goof" or back-page filler, mind you--was by no means the worst or most offensive of his 12-year tenure helming the most influential sports entity in the Chicago market.

Here it is, a decade later, and, somehow, McGrath is still an active media member—more visible than ever as a writer, in fact—surfacing at the rival Sun-Times, whose membership standards apparently are swaying by the day. [To be fair, I have found McGrath a much better writer, generally, than he is an editor. His writing across sports is solid, qualifying him right upon hire as the best writer on the Sun-Times staff.]

And once more, I am forced to scrape my jaw up off the ground after some of McGrath's more inane ramblings, which this time around includes a bonus treat—a completely voluntary and unnecessary reference to his tenure at the Tribune, by way of dissing the White Sox.

McGrath set the stage of his column nicely, with “curiosity” compelling him out to USCF to see the first-place White Sox (well, not exactly) take on the phenom of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Mike Trout (there, that's more like it).

Then, McGrath affixed a garrulous countenance and went full-on grump, excoriating White Sox fans for committing the act of a wave.

No argument there, Dan. “The Wave” is, indeed, sheer foolishness.

But McGrath posited his criticism in much the way his Tribune sports section did lo those years ago. Somehow, in McGrath’s mind, foolish acts of fan frolic—like The Wave—are only committed on the South Side.

Surely, this man is joking—or his fading memory escapes him.

The premise of his piece sets White Sox fans up as a straw man—they claim to be “all about baseball,” but really, they’re not. As McGrath posits:
OK, but in all the years I’ve been going to Wrigley Field, I’ve never seen the wave done. Not once. Just saying.
 To that, Dan, I'll retort, shocked: You must be joking.

I won’t even get into the reputation for sheer boobery and boozing at Wrigley Field, or the notion that Cubbies fans “don’t care” about the game. For the prices paid and inconveniences weathered, I’d sure hope every fan entering the gates there cares and pays plenty of attention.

But said fans pelt the field with garbage when things don't go their way. They throw opponent’s home run balls back onto the field. In spite of his own paper’s many, many, many attempts at misdirection, they have perpetrated a number of dangerous acts, including the assault of an opponents’ bullpen, tackling a Cubs pitcher on the mound, running unimpeded to the mound from the outfield, beer showering an opponent’s center fielder, and several other acts of fan interference. And there are assaults of other kinds, like the abomination of Horry Kow.

Most importantly of all, Dan: They do The Wave at Wrigley Field.

[The last "Field" link above was written by McGrath's Cubbies beat writer, Sullivan, in 2006. That was during McGrath's Tribune tenure as editor, so I guess Dan must have been off that day and failed to read the sports section at all to catch up on what he'd missed.]

Worse, McGrath not only attempts to take the piss out of the notion that White Sox fans are more “purist,” he resorts to referencing his insipid tenure manning Trib sports, saying that attendance (!) was the reason for his paper’s discrepancy in coverage between White Sox and Cubbies.

At least that's an answer, albeit a lousy one.

But still, let’s pretend that attendance, rather than wins (the South Siders averaged four more wins per season during McGrath’s Tribune tenure, while averaging 11,000 less fans per game) or any other factor should determine how a paper covers sports franchises. How disingenuous is it (modest, the former sports editor might call it) to assume that the relentless promotion of a Tribune company asset in the pages of the Tribune had nothing to do with the discrepancy in ballpark attendance?

In the 11 years leading up to the Tribune purchase of the Cubbies, North outdrew South by an average of just 2,272 fans per game (and not as a means of excuse, but in that time span Bud Selig reached an agreement to buy the White Sox and move them to Milwaukee, a deal the AL owners struck down, and the White Sox also were rumored to be off to both Seattle and Denver before Bill Veeck raced to the rescue in 1975). And in the 11 years before that—call it the last era of stability for Chicago baseball, a stretch unaffected by either franchise relocation or new ballpark construction—the White Sox outdrew the Cubbies by 2,486 fans per game.

So all evidence points to the White Sox and Cubbies essentially drawing equally prior to the Tribune ownership. But to complete the cyclical argument, McGrath’s admits attendance drove Tribune coverage of the competing baseball teams.

Photo research by Brian Dykes.
Funny, when I was in contact with Dan a decade ago, he didn’t use that fairly reasonable (yet) disingenuous argument. I wrote conscientious (if sarcastic) letters to Dan, from my stead less as sportswriter than as a Tribune subscriber. My hope, truly, was that coverage errors might be corrected and the strength of the paper would improve. The two most memorable responses from Dan? The first told me to “stick my letter where the sun don’t shine.” A second informed that I should “put away the crayons” I was apparently writing with.

Those aren’t bad retorts, I suppose—if you’re having an argument at a sports bar. When you are the man charged with outlining coverage between two competing and contentious teams in town, helming the most powerful media entity in Chicago, it’s inappropriate to say the least.

Not to mention this delicious factoid, dug out by my friend Jeff McMahon and the dean of Tribune watchdogging: During the 2005 and 2006 regular seasons, during which the White Sox won and defended a World Series title (to the tune of a 90-win season), the Tribune published nearly 1,400 more stories mentioning the Cubbies than the White Sox. That’s just about two articles per day—and assuming more coverage in-season, we can estimate the true number in-season to be more like three or four more Cubbies articles per day than White Sox over both summers.

I guess we can just chalk that up to the 5,700 more fans per game your paper helped put into the seats over those two seasons, eh, Dan?

McGrath's tenure at the Tribune, senselessly referenced even today, amid writing at a competitor that was otherwise worthy of highlight, represented a wave of its own: A wave of bias. And that wave, years past McGrath and Tribune ownership of the Cubbies, refracts even today.

1 comment:

  1. You read 'em so we don't have to.
    Thank you for your service!