HIS HEROES HAVE ALWAYS BEEN SPORTSWRITERS

Jerome Holtzman of the Chicago Tribune covered his first Arizona spring training season 35 years ago. He has been covering baseball ever since.

He has been voted into baseball's Hall of Fame and will be installed this summer. It is the highest honor that a baseball writer can receive.

I wanted to know how it was possible to go through all the endless summers, reporting on baseball games every day without losing your mind.

Here is how the conversation went:
Q: Didn't you ever get bored with baseball?
A: The baseball job is the toughest on the paper. After you've covered for four or five years, you're no longer a fan in the regular sense. You're emotionally involved but you're no longer crushed when your team loses.

Q: Did it affect you in any way that the teams you have covered, the Cubs and White Sox, have had so many losing seasons?

A: (smiling) You don't die when your team dies. You have to live and tell the story of why and how they met their fate.

Q: What city do you pick as the best sports town? A: I'd say Chicago. The only town I'd match up with it is Boston. When my daughter went to the University of Massachusetts, I told her to visit Fenway Park because it was a cultural experience. Going to Fenway was like going to the Museum of Fine Arts. It's the same way in Chicago. I feel the same way about Wrigley Field and, to a lesser degree, about Comiskey Park.

Q: What makes a good sports city?
A: It's the people, it's the ballpark and the history of the teams. Some people think that the image of the city depends on the success of its teams. Well, Oakland won three straight championships in the Seventies and that didn't make Oakland any more desirable a city.

Q: Is the press box the best place to see a game?
A: No. In spring training, I sit behind home plate. It's a much better game down there. You can see the skip of the ball. You get a better judgment on the speed of the pitch and the degree of difficulty. You realize that when the professionals play, it's not a kid's game.

Q: What do you think about baseball movies?
A: They're too sentimental. They give a false picture of baseball at the major league level. It's a hard business. I remember after the earthquake that many people said they shouldn't play the rest of the series. Dave Parker, a player, said: "Well, you guys are working. Why shouldn't we?" And he was right, of course.

Q: You write a baseball column these days. How different is that for you than traveling all season long with a single club?

A: To tell you the truth, I miss the companionship. It was 35 guys together at home and on the road. It gets to be like a family. There's nothing to compare it with in journalism. The theatre critic doesn't go backstage after a play and ask an actor why he blew his lines. The city hall reporter doesn't have breakfast with the mayor every morning. The baseball-beat writer does all of these things and more.

Q: How has the job changed in your time?
A: When I first came on the beat, it was a seven-day-a-week job. There were no vacations except maybe a day or two at the all-star break. Now, the writers only work five days and get relief on the other two.

Q: Give me a brief reaction to the following big names in baseball? First, Harry Caray?

A: I traveled for years with Bob Elson, the White Sox broadcaster. He was a true sophisticate. When Elson saw the fans lined up, he would run the other way. When Harry Caray sees the fans, he charges right into their midst.

Q: Bill Veeck?
A: He was a delightful man with an impish sense of humor. The greatest stunt he ever pulled was sending the midget to bat. He understood that the game was entertainment and that the goal was to see that people had a good time at the ballpark.

Q: Ernie Banks?
A: He was the nicest guy I ever met in baseball. I never heard him say a bad word about anybody in the 35 years I've been around him.

Q: Don Zimmer?
A: He's hardheaded and much more sensitive to criticism than you might suppose.

Q: Yogi Berra?
A: He has a doctor's degree in baseball. He's living proof that you don't learn everything in the classroom.

Q: Tony La Russa?
A: Very serious. I knew him as a player. He agonizes over the line-up like no other manager.I think he thinks too much. Having a law degree does absolutely nothing for his ability as a manager. I think that if he'd been a lawyer, he would be an undistinguished one. But he's obviously a distinguished manager.

Q: What was the best Cubs team you ever covered?
A: That's easy. The 1969 Cubs were the best by far. The trouble with them was that Leo Durocher was too old to manage them. He was no longer the same manager he'd been with Brooklyn and New York. He had become a safety- first kind of guy and that hurt the club.

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