(page 3 of 3)
He grew up in suburban Pittsburgh, the son of a man who was an acclaimed high-school sports star. But when Mariotti was going through high school, nearly 30 years ago, and football was the macho king of steel mill country, he chose to play soccer and tennis. An only child, and a precocious one, he started first grade a year early and never looked back, eventually graduating at 16 from Trinity High School in 1976. On the college paper at Ohio University, where he served as sports editor, Mariotti was known as serious, demanding, hardworking - and abrasive. Even in those days, he could rub people the wrong way. “His exterior was a little gruff,” recalls John Enrietto, now the sports editor at the Butler (Pa.) Eagle.
Straight out of Ohio University, Mariotti took a job at the Detroit News. He was given a plum assignment as media columnist and, he says, promptly “made some enemies for life.” At 25, he took a job as a columnist at the Cincinnati Post. Soon he was lured to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver to be a featured star. It didn’t take long for him to cause a stir.
“He hadn’t been in Denver for six months,” recalls Rick Morrissey, the Tribune columnist who was then in Denver himself, “and he was calling John Elway a greedy punk.” Morrissey adds: “That’s how he works. He attacks. That’s his m.o. I can’t imagine how it is to be him. Having so many people angry at you. Being so angry yourself.”
In Denver, Mariotti could dish it out. But he didn’t always like to take it. When a radio host criticized him, he sent the man a venomous letter. Today Mariotti describes the letter as “nasty and sophomoric, something I regret.”
Mariotti left Denver after the Sports Illustrated legend Frank DeFord started The National Sports Daily, a talent-rich but ill-fated daily sports newspaper. He worked as a columnist in Detroit for The National before being moved to New York. The paper folded in 1991 - just as the Sun-Times was shopping for a big new star.
When Mariotti arrived in Chicago, giant sketches of his confident mug were plastered on billboards and delivery trucks. “Sports With An Attitude,” boasted the ads, scrawled in graffiti style. He was an instant celebrity in perhaps the most sophisticated sports town in the nation, and he was just 32 years old.
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.
It is hardly surprising that some of the journeymen in Chicago saw Mariotti as a spoiled, mouthy kid. After all, he had never even covered a beat. Reporters who have been through the boot camp of beat reporting - covering game after game, begging for scraps from players and coaches, swallowing your pride around arrogant stars who can ruin your career by simply ignoring you - could be forgiven for being a little galled by the meteoric ascension of a smirking young lad like Mariotti.
But he wasn’t about to change his style, a sharp-as-a-knife approach that he believes newspapers must deliver, certainly now in the age of the Internet and round-the-clock cable sports debaters and a market of 20-somethings who have better things to do than read a newspaper, dude. He’s called ex-Sox player Frank Thomas “The Big Skirt” and referred to ex-Cubs pitcher LaTroy Hawkins as “LaToya.” But he’s apparently really gotten under the skin of Jerry Reinsdorf. “His secretary called me once at the Sun-Times and said, ‘Mr. Reinsdorf says I am never to speak to him again,’” says Mariotti.
Stung by what it considers Mariotti’s relentless and unfair criticism, the White Sox management has taken a bare-knuckles approach to the columnist. Scott Reifert, the club’s vice president for communication, acknowledges that the club monitors Mariotti’s critiques and fires back. Reifert, in fact, writes a blog linked to the team’s homepage that frequently blasts Mariotti.
When Mariotti was axed from his role on WMVP radio two years ago, during a period when the station was negotiating to become the Sox flagship station, he blamed Reinsdorf and still does. At the time, the Sox insisted the club brass had played no role in Mariotti’s departure. The radio station, likewise, said Mariotti’s digs at Reinsdorf had played no part in the move. But the Tribune’s Ed Sherman expressed skepticism in his media column, noting that Mariotti’s radio ratings had been soaring. The lofty numbers, Sherman wrote, appeared to “support Mariotti’s contention that he was let go because of his repeated attacks on White Sox and Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf.”
Reinsdorf declined to be interviewed for this article. But the editor of the Sun-Times, John Barron, acknowledges that Reinsdorf is known to call the newspaper on occasion and complain vociferously about Mariotti’s columns. “Sometimes he’s got a point, sometimes he doesn’t,” says Barron. “We’ll air it out.”
Mariotti complains that the intersecting pattern of sports and media ownership in Chicago makes it difficult for writers to cover the teams objectively. The Tribune Company owns the Cubs, as well as WGN TV and radio (and, for that matter, Chicago magazine). With Reinsdorf in charge of two of the major teams, the Bulls and the Sox, the city’s sports media business has the appearance of centralized power.
"I’ll meet with Ozzie [Guillen] anytime he wants,” says Mariotti.
“But I’m not going to do it in that zoo of a clubhouse.”
"I’ve always loved the city,” Mariotti wrote in an e-mail after inking his new deal with the Sun-Times, “but I’m not too fond of the sports media climate, which is soft, political, clubby, and too often governed by the sports franchises themselves’ sometimes without the writers and broadcasters even realizing it.”
The city’s media outlets, meanwhile, scoff at the notion that they force writers to kowtow to the interests of owners. Barron says Mariotti’s freewheeling column is proof of that. “He’s free to have at the Sox, have at the Bulls, have at the Cubs.” Barron praises the columnist, but it’s hard to miss the tone of exasperation that creeps into the editor’s voice. “For 15 years, the Sun-Times has let Jay write whatever he wants. If that’s not support, I don’t know what is.”
Around the country, Mariotti’s notoriety owes mostly to his work on ESPN, where he’s the most contrary and pugnacious guy on the panel. His television fame probably irks some colleagues back home, too. “Jealousy is not unheard of in this business,” says Vince Doria, the vice president and director of news at ESPN.
Mariotti says he’s relieved to be back writing for the Sun-Times - upon his return he reeled off columns on seven consecutive days. And he is enjoying having the last laugh. “I feel I’ll be here as long as I want to,” he says.
He still doesn’t expect to win any popularity contests. But in his hometown, the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently ran at least one letter that stuck up for him. Under the headline “Mariotti often treated unfairly by fans, media,” the letter praised the columnist’s “courage of conviction.” It ended: “How do I know all this” I’m Jay’s father.” It was signed, “Geno Mariotti.”
Geno Mariotti is 74 years old, a retired executive for Sears. His son didn’t know he was going to write the letter. If he had known, Jay says, he would have tried to talk his father out of it. But after a summer blizzard of stinging criticism, the columnist adds: “It’s nice to know your family’s got your back.”