Jay Mariotti was having lunch in Keefer's Kaffe on Kinzie, a ham-and-cheese on panini and a bottled water. Behind him, a big-screen TV flashed images of the White Sox game. He ignored the game. The Sun-Times sports columnist was on vacation, a sudden departure that would stretch to five weeks and spark rumors that he was leaving the newspaper. Or being canned.
As anybody in a Chicago newsroom or pro clubhouse could tell you, Mariotti's departure would have been met with cheers from many of his colleagues, not to mention the sports figures he bludgeons. And he knows it.
"You'll be hard-pressed to find anybody in this city who likes me," said Mariotti. The contempt for Mariotti among writers and sports figures became the talk of the town last June, of course, when Sox manager Ozzie Guillen called the columnist a "fag" during a locker-room tirade. Astonishingly, it was Mariotti who was then put on the defensive.
"Wouldn't you think the headlines would have been 'Gay Groups Outraged'?" asks Mariotti. Why did I become the news? Isn't this a little warped?"
For the slur, Major League Baseball ordered Guillen to attend sensitivity training, which drew mostly chuckles from his fans, while his gay hairdresser was trotted out to say that Ozzie really wasn't a bigot. Oh, and the hairdresser disliked Mariotti, too.
Mariotti, meanwhile, was ripped by sportswriters coast to coast, from the Washington Post to the Los Angeles Times, for his aversion to visiting the Sox clubhouse. Rivals at the Chicago Tribune knocked him, gleefully publicizing a blog called Jaythejoke.com. And he didn't escape criticism on the pages of his own Sun-Times, where columnist Rick Telander – he and Mariotti have feuded for years, in some cases verging on fisticuffs – took a written jab at him. Even the Reader piled on, calling Mariotti "a humorless loner."
When Mariotti suddenly disappeared from the newspaper following the Guillen fracas, it fueled talk that he was leaving the Sun-Times, willingly or not. After all, Mariotti has long battled with his bosses, claiming the paper has been too willing to listen to the complaints of Jerry Reinsdorf, chairman of the Sox and Bulls, and too meek in its support for its own columnist. In late June, Mariotti went public with his beef, telling WSCR radio that his paper had failed to support him adequately after the Guillen slur.
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.
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."