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But Mariotti’s detractors did not get their wish. In late July, he was given a contract extension at the Sun-Times through 2009 - hammered out in negotiations during the columnist’s abrupt vacation - while keeping his regular gig on the popular show Around the Horn on ESPN.
Mariotti, 47, would seem to be living the dream of every kid in J-school: a widely read column, a measure of national celebrity, a combined salary north of $500,000, and the power to make sports gods squirm. Or scream, as in Ozzie’s case.
So who needs friends, right?
“Take your shots at me,” Mariotti says of his colleagues, leaning back in his chair and raising his palms to the air. “All you’re doing is making me more famous.”
Humility, it seems, has never been Mariotti’s strong suit. But since when did that become a sin in journalism? He is scarcely the first Chicago columnist with a cocky swagger and a punch-in-the-nose style. The late, beloved Mike Royko, after all, had a mean streak the length of Milwaukee Avenue.
So what else is at work here?
Mariotti glances sideways, making sure no one is eavesdropping on his lunch conversation, and lowers his voice. “I don’t play by jock rules,” he says. “I’m not part of their frat house, not part of the clique.”
“I can’t imagine how it is to be him,” says Rick Morrissey. “Having so many people angry at you. Being so angry yourself.”
As Mariotti tells it, his status as a pariah speaks volumes about the clubby world of sports reporting - who fits in, who doesn’t - and the adoring way pro athletes and coaches are treated, and protected, at least if they’re winning. To be certain, anyone who thinks Guillen’s homophobic slur was an anomaly among sports figures - or some kind of a translation malfunction, as his absurd initial explanation had it - has not spent much time in a locker room. Sports heroes do get to play by different rules.
In his 15 years in Chicago, Mariotti - who lives in the north suburbs with his wife and two daughters - has proved himself one of the most prolific sports columnists in America. He writes a dizzying number of columns, upwards of 300 a year. He is so fiercely driven he will sometimes rip up a column between editions and start over. His columns can infuriate, but also sparkle, like fireworks with cinders that fall and burn wherever they land. It’s certainly no fun to be the object of Mariotti’s ire. But he can be a pleasure to read.
Along with his sharp tongue, however, Mariotti apparently has a thin skin. He is known for firing off blistering phone messages and vitriolic e-mails to writers he believes have wronged him. He publicly lambastes other Chicago sportswriters as “housemen,” doing the bidding of the teams they cover. This will not make a fellow popular in the press box.
In the view of his critics, Mariotti,s true sin is in violating “The Code.” He doesn’t go down to the Sox locker room. He stopped going, he says, because he was threatened and harassed. He does visit other clubhouses.
He rattles off a list of threats and crude acts of humiliation at Sox park, from an angry Carl Everett screaming and confronting him in a hallway outside the clubhouse, to Guillen rushing over to Mariotti, as the journalist was doing a live on-field set for ESPN, shouting for Mariotti to get off the field. Mariotti says the ill will from Guillen goes back to his playing days. The columnist has claimed in print that Guillen, after a Sox loss to Baltimore in 1996, crept up stark naked behind him and began thrusting his hips in a suggestive manner. (Guillen denies through a team spokesman that the incident occurred.) “In any other setting, he’d be thrown in jail for lewdness,” says Mariotti. “But in sports, well, it’s just “Ozzie being Ozzie.” Nobody in any other line of work would be expected to put up with that kind of treatment. Look, this isn’t about fear. It’s about dignity. I’m just not going to subject myself to that.”
But many other sportswriters and athletes believe that writers must “face the music” after they have bruised the egos of stars. It’s said to be the manly thing to do.
T. J. Simers, a Los Angeles Times columnist and a former colleague of Mariotti’s on Around the Horn, says, “Athletes thrive on intimidation. If you’re not able to stand in front of them and take it, they won’t respect you.” Simers speaks from experience. He proudly recalls the time an angry Jim McMahon, playing with the San Diego Chargers in the late eighties, blew his nose on Simers’s shoulder.
Mariotti doesn’t think taking snot from players is any kind of badge of honor. “I’ll meet with Ozzie anytime he wants,” says Mariotti. “We can sit down here like you and I are doing. We can talk. But I’m not going to do it in that zoo of his clubhouse with his PR people and 50 television cameras zooming in on us, just so that he can go off on me.”
In Mariotti’s view, it is the job of a columnist to step back and write opinions, not to schmooze with the players or the coaches. Keeping a certain distance from the performers, he insists, allows him to be more fearless and honest, at times brutally honest. He is a critic, not a beat writer. “If Roger Ebert criticizes a movie, is he obligated to run out and face down the producer?” Mariotti asks.
He argues that there is a price to be paid for access. Sports figures, like politicians, do not usually become friendly with journalists unless they are looking for favorable treatment. Mariotti himself says he’s been guilty in the past of getting too chummy. He became close enough pals with former Bears coach Dave Wannstedt to go out for beers and talk shop. He was also tight with Sammy Sosa. But when things went south for the Bears, and when Sosa was discovered to be using a corked bat, Mariotti wrote columns that lit into people who thought he was a friend. “They thought I stabbed them in the back,” he says. “And you know what? Maybe they were right.”
Mariotti has rankled colleagues from the beginning of his career. “They’ll tell you that I didn’t pay my dues,” he says. “They’ll say, Who the hell are you?” He doesn’t even look the part of the stereotypical guy in the press box. Print journalists have never been the most stylish cats, and sportswriters tend to look even more rumpled. But at lunch at Keefer’s, Mariotti is urban hip: jeans, sandals, and a black T-shirt, shades pushed up over short-cropped hair that looks as if it’s been coifed in a high-priced salon.