These are truly dark days for sportswriters covering the Chicago Cubs.
The sacking of Don Zimmer, a popular manager, is a comparatively minor source of the discontent. More and more, the total environment for the writers keeps evolving for the worse.
There was a time when covering the Cubs was one of the most pleasurable occupations imaginable. All the home games were played in daylight and the seats were generally only half-filled.
If a writer wanted to move down into the stands and sit with the scouts behind home plate, there was no problem. If he so desired, he could move around the park, sitting behind first or third base, or even move into the bleachers to sit with the Bleacher Bums.
That began to change when the Chicago Tribune Company bought the club a few years back. This is a company that cares no more about baseball than it does about newspapering in the classic sense. Each day it publishes a monolith of a paper that seems bent on boring its readers to death.
The Tribune covers a lot of things because its owners have vast amounts of money. But they cover it in such a heavy-handed manner that there are no memorable stories. It has become a paper so tedious that it is no longer a necessity to read it every day of the week.
What the Tribune Company is really about is money. Lots of it.
The owners bought the Cubs so that they would have free programming for WGN-TV, their super station. Then they ran roughshod over the neighbors in the Wrigley Field area to force the Chicago City Council into allowing them to put up lights for night games.
Night baseball came to Wrigley a couple of years ago. So did the yuppies. Now the place is packed virtually every day. Even reserve seats are sold for the bleachers.
It was when they put bleacher seats on a reserve-seat basis that Bill Veeck, the man who planted the ivy on the outfield walls with his own hands, decided to desert the Cubs. The year before the reserve-ticket plan went into effect, Veeck bought a bleacher seat for every single home game.
"This isn't baseball," Veeck said. "The Robber Barons have taken over. I think I'll take a walk." The Cubs' management never even missed him. Why would they? None of them are baseball people and they hardly knew who he was or what he stood for. Veeck was replaced by half a dozen young men from the Chicago Commodities Market whose only problem was finding a spot to park their BMWs where there was no interference that might affect their car phones.
Take the matter of what is now happening to the baseball writers in the press box. Last Friday (May 24) a ban on smoking was imposed under the orders of Don Grenesko, the Cubs' president.
The press box was once an exclusively male bastion whose front-row seats were occupied by men who spent the entire game chomping and puffing on cigars.
In recent years, however, there has been an influx of women sportswriters. They do not know much about baseball, but feminine names on baseball stories seem to please the men who own newspapers.
They know nothing about the game and I have yet to see an acceptable story written by one of them. I don't expect I ever will.
One thing the female sportswriters know and understand, however, is that they do not like cigar smoke. So they wheedled and cajoled President Grenesko and finally prevailed upon him to issue an order that cigar smoking in the press box be brought to a halt.
How much of a change do you think this created in working conditions for the writers? Cigar smoking has been almost a rite of passage there in Wrigley Field since the turn of the century.
Jerome Holtzman of the Tribune and Joe Mooshil of the Associated Press have been exchanging cigars on a regular basis for more than thirty years.
Suddenly, last Friday, that came to an end. The female sportswriters had triumphed. What a hollow victory.
There had been an appeal to Grenesko, of course. But it did no good.
Grenesko cited health. That's a dodge that everyone uses these days. He said that Wrigley Field was now considered to be just like an office building and that you can't smoke in office buildings in downtown Chicago anymore.
The writers pointed out that Wrigley Field could hardly be considered an office building if it was also a place where they sold thousands of bottles of beer each day.
"Do they sell beer in the Tribune Tower?" Grenesko was asked.
Grenesko held to his resolve. The pressure from the two women sportswriters who cover games on a fairly regular basis was too much for his banker's mentality to deal with.
The fact that Grenesko has a job running the Cubs' baseball team is a mystery by and in itself.
His previous jobs were as a vice president of corporate finance with a private company and then as a commercial banker with the Northern Trust Company.
Grenesko became treasurer of the Tribune Company in 1981 and was transferred to the Cubs in 1985. For Grenesko, becoming president of the Cubs was not a lifelong dream fulfilled. This is just another step on a financial career ladder.
Too many major league clubs are now being run by the Greneskos of the world. They see everything as part of the balance sheet.
When Grenesko wanted to make more money, he went out and spent $33 million for three new players during the last off-season.
They hired the heavy-hitting George Bell for $2.1 million a year. Danny Jackson, a pitcher, was paid $2.6 million. Dave Smith, a relief pitcher, was given a salary of $1.9 million. None of the three has been performing up to his capabilities. Smith hurt his arm and went on the disabled list.
It is not unusual for the highest-paid players to lag in performance. Studies show there has been a noticeable tendency among the highest-paid players with long-term contracts to play it safe in all but the final years of their contracts.
This is the situation that prevails with the Cubs. They have a know-nothing as president, namely Grenesko, who overspends in the free-agent market.
When the Cubs don't leap into first place, Grenesko orders General Manager Jim Frey to fire Don Zimmer, his old high school buddy.
Zimmer didn't fit in with the new Cub image anyway. He has big jowls and a big belly and he is also bald.
Grenesko brought in a new Cub manager from the minor leagues. He is perfect for the job. Jim Essian is only forty and he is very trim. He will also work for very little money.
One of the things that was annoying about Zimmer was that he kept demanding that he be given a signed contract. This is something Grenesko apparently thinks should be granted only to loafing superstars.
Zimmer, understandably bitter at the quick hook, explained his firing by saying that he had been treated just like "a Tribune employee." That means Zimmer was tossed out onto Waveland Avenue to fend for himself. It was the same way the Tribune parent company kicked out its printers a few years back, forcing them to march up and down Michigan Avenue in the snow and biting wind like an army of starving Kurds.
How, you might ask, was Zimmer supposed to rally his troops?
What was he supposed to say to Andre Dawson, who makes $3.3 million? Or to Ryne Sandberg, Greg Maddux, Rick Sutcliffe or Shawon Dunston, all of whom make better than $2 million? How is a manager supposed to deal with millionaire players when they are in slumps?
Do you pay somebody two or three million dollars and let him set on the bench? Do you hire someone to shoot him so you can collect the insurance? We are, after all, talking about Chicago. These things, I am sure, can still be arranged.
There is a traditional method that has been employed by baseball men through the ages. You sit back and do nothing. You figure that, in time, good batters will begin to hit at their true level of capability. Good pitchers will pitch at their true level of capability, too. But the Greneskos of this world can't understand these things. They equate it with the panicky steps required of the stock market. If a stock doesn't work, you make a quick and desperate move.
But that doesn't mean they can get rid of a $3 million ballplayer. All it means is that they can fire a manager who didn't have a real contract anyway. Or ban cigar smoking.
Female sportswriters know nothing about the game and I have yet to see an acceptable story written by one of them.
The female writers do not like cigar smoke.
Don Zimmer has big jowls and a big belly and he is also bald.