Friday, September 25, 2009

15 years, 15 characters

It's been 15 years since I jumped on my '82 Yamaha Seca 650 and rode in a cold, steady late-September rain from Minneapolis to Chicago, eager to begin my new life writing about Bears and Cubs and Bulls and White Sox and Blackhawks.

I haven't ridden a motorcycle for more than a decade now and I no longer am an everyday newspaper hack. But I do still live in Chicago, I do still cover some events and I do still have memories in abundance - of great games, great athletes, great individual performances, great plays, great series and, mostly, the hundreds of great characters I've covered.

In celebration of my 15 years in a city where the sports news never sleeps, here are my 15 most memorable Chicago sports characters:

15. KEVIN O'NEILL ... I didn't know the f-word could be used in so many creative ways until I attended one of his Northwestern basketball practices. He had the Wildcats going in the right direction until his players mutineed and the team had an 0-16 Big Ten season in 2000. He then left to be an NBA assistant, once telling me he preferred the pros to the colleges because the recruiting process was borderline criminal: "I hated always having to lie to some teenager's mother." Well, look who's back recruiting kids again: O'Neill is now at USC, where he replaced another ex-Chicago "coaching legend," Tim Floyd.

14. A.J. PIERZYNSKI ... As Ozzie Guillen has said of the White Sox irritant: "If you play against him, you hate him. If you play with him, you hate him a little less." The catcher is an arrogant agitator. He also happens to be one of the smartest ballplayers I've ever covered - no wonder bizarre-but-big plays seem to follow him wherever he goes.

13. DUSTY BAKER ... After he was introduced as Cubs manager in 2003, Baker had separate sessions with beat writers, broadcast media and newspaper columnists. I participated in the latter. When one of my colleagues asked Baker about his reputation for being a strong motivator who was strategically weak, Dusty responded: "Hey, I'm the strategizingest dude around." Well, he wasn't, part of the reason he lasted only four years in Cubbieland. But the managing job he did in 2003 was among the best I've seen. Taking over a flat-lined franchise, Baker quickly got players to believe in themselves and each other ... and he became the only Chicago manager in 86 years to win a postseason series. Yes, it all started falling apart the following year, when he became an enabler and excuse-maker for his players. But I fondly remember the many conversations I had with Dusty, a sensitive, intelligent man who loves winning ballgames but knows that other things in life matter more.

12. CURTIS ENIS ... The only time in my career I ever was a victim of an anti-Semetic slur, it came from this putz, who in three years went from No. 1 Pick to Big Zero.

11. JEREMY ROENICK ... Not long after I came to Chicago in September 1994, the NHL locked out its players in a labor dispute. As AP's lead hockey writer at the time, I covered the mess. Roenick, then the Blackhawks' player representative (as well as their star forward), became one of my best sources for news. Sometimes, he'd call me to see what I was hearing from the owners' side. We weren't friends because that would have been walking an ethical tightrope, but we respected each other professionally. As a player, J.R. always gave an honest effort and I enjoyed watching him play. The Blackhawks went into the toilet after trading him for career underachiever Alex Zhamnov, and they're just now pulling themselves out of the bowl.

10. DAVE WANNSTEDT ... The most imitated man in Chicago during the 1990s. Even as I write this, I can hear him talking about an injured Bear: "Aaaap ... he has a knee ... he'll be foyne." Amputation was as likely to follow as a return to health. In 1996, he declared that "all the pieces are in place." Within days, the Bears were in pieces; by '98, Wanny was gone (but not forgotten).

9. SCOTT SKILES ... Probably the most honest coach I've encountered - yes, even more than Ozzie Guillen. Skiles, who helped lead the Bulls back to prominence in the post-Jordan era, was more direct than Ozzie and not as self-important. Asked what 7-footer Eddy Curry needed to do to be a better rebounder, Skiles simply said: "Jump." You can't get better economy of words than that.

8. MIKE BROWN ... It's a shame that injuries curtailed his career, because he was a great safety for the Bears. As he was one of the most intelligent athletes I've covered, I'm not surprised he was always around the football. He ended consecutive victories in 2001 - the Smoke & Mirrors Season - with overtime interception touchdowns. I'll also remember Brown's many candid pronouncements about his team's shortcomings. Just last year, he said everybody needed to stop thinking the defense was as good as its reputation. He was right about that - and most other things.

7. MICHAEL BARRETT ... He began the 2004 season having to replace catcher Damian Miller, who was very popular with the pitching staff, and ended it by going hitless in his last 20 at-bats as the Cubs choked away a playoff spot. In 2005, his pitching staff was decimated by injuries to Mark Prior, Kerry Wood and others. In 2006, Barrett sucker-punched Pierzynski, launching a brawl and getting suspended. In 2007, he was cold-cocked by Carlos Zambrano and sent packing shortly thereafter. A real unique guy. About 363 days a year, Barrett was the most reasonable fellow around; those other two days ... watch out! His temper would take over and he'd go ballistic. For some reason I never discovered, Barrett always liked me, calling me by name and engaging me in conversations that had nothing to do with sports. Truly, a character I'll never forget.

6. CADE McNOWN ... The first-round QB who didn't last long around these parts was one of the biggest jerks ever to don a Chicago sports uniform. At least some others I've covered - the Albert Belles, Ted Washingtons and Ben Wallaces - accomplished a few things. McNown was a lazy, do-nothing yahoo with a sense of entitlement. He was despised by his teammates and was too stupid to figure out why. A fitting symbol of the post-McMahon, pre-Cutler years in which the Bears stumbled pathetically through the Quarterback Wilderness.

5. ROD BECK ... His arm was shot. His body was ravaged by years of hard living. (I was in on the postgame interview when he uttered his immortal line: "My weight isn't a problem; I've never seen anyone on the disabled list with pulled fat.") Somehow, The Shooter compiled 51 saves for the slightly-better-than-mediocre 1998 Cubs, who needed an extra game to capture the NL wild-card spot. Sammy Sosa carried the Cubs statistically and Kerry Wood was a revelation, but it was Beck's heart and will - and the duct tape holding it all together - that made the playoffs possible. Years later, I caught up with Beck in Des Moines, where he was living in a trailer behind the ballpark and throwing 80 mph fastballs for the Cubs' Triple-A team while trying to make a comeback. Fans would swing by after games and he'd share a brewski and some baseball talk with them. When I heard that he died in the summer of 2007, I held my own personal moment of silence.

4. SAMMY SOSA ... Probably the most insecure egomaniac I've covered. This wasn't Michael Jordan motivating himself at perceived slights; Sosa was a guy who truly felt slighted whenever anybody refused to kiss his ring. When I first arrived in Chicago, Sammy could beat opponents by stealing bases, hitting home runs and throwing out baserunners. In 1998, when he started consuming "Flintstone Vitamins," he became a bulked-up slugger. His legacy will be tarnished forever, but the man did put together one of the great five-year stretches of run-production ever from 1998-2002. As great as his longball race with Mark McGwire was in '98, Sosa had the finest single season I've seen three years later, when his 160 RBIs were nearly 100 more than any teammate. He singlehandedly kept that bad team in the race into September. Though he tried to come across as a macho guy, at his core he was desperate for attention and acceptance. He corked his bat, he ingested God-knows-what, he helped get four managers fired and he had few friends in the clubhouse - all part of his fall from Cubbieland sports hero to tragic pariah. If there's been a harder, faster fall in Chicago sports history, I sure didn't witness it. One more thing I'll never forget about him: He gave one of the best answers to any question I've ever asked at a press conference. In spring training 2001, when I asked if he thought his desire for a new contract might alienate average fans, Sammy said: "You cannot compare an average person with a professional athlete. It's a big, big, big difference. A lot of people want to complain, but if they really had my shoe, they probably would be doing the same thing that I do, maybe worse."

3. JOHN SHOOP ... As Bears offensive coordinator under Dick Jauron, Shoop was in so far over his head, he had to stand on his tippy-toes to see the ground. His offenses were simple and ill-conceived and his attempts to explain himself were painful. After every 13-3 or 20-9 loss, he'd stand in the middle of the locker room holding a yellow legal pad. He'd stare down at his scribblings, reading word-for-word everything he thought went wrong. When a reporter would ask a question, he'd search the legal pad for the answer. If he couldn't find it - and he usually couldn't - he'd stammer through a few nonsensical comments. When the TV cameras came on, Shoop was the very definition of a deer in headlight. Absolutely hated by the fans, Shoop was the single most vilified assistant coach I've covered in three decades in this business. Though I often poked fun at him in my columns - "Shoop happens" was a favorite phrase - I actually felt sorry for the man. It wasn't fair of the Bears to put an unprepared 32-year-old in charge of an NFL offense.

2. DENNIS RODMAN ... The classic example of a guy who turned himself into a cartoon character - Hey Everybody, I'm The Worm! - partly because he was a nut, partly because he was a self-marketing genius. Do Jordan, Scottie Pippen and the Bulls win their last three NBA titles without Rodman pulling down every rebound and defending the opponent's best post player? We'll never know. What I do know is that Tex Winter and Phil Jackson used to rave about Rodman's basketball smarts. On the court, he usually was a great teammate, doing the dirty work so M.J. and Pip didn't have to. Off the court, Worm was all about drama and shock value. He'd show up late to games, say outrageous things, hang with Madonna, gamble millions in Vegas, you name it. I used to joke that he'd really shock the world if he washed the dye out of his hair, wore a tailored three-piece suit, ditched the jewelry and acted "normal." Early in the 1996-97 season, I had a long one-on-one interview with Rodman, who was trying to promote his vapid MTV reality show. When we sat down, he reached out and shook my hand, enveloping it in both of his massive mitts. He then removed the sunglasses he had worn for the TV interviews he had just conducted. He was completely at ease during our half-hour chat, making eye-contact, calling me "bro" and "dude," giggling as he talked about his own wackiness. At one point, he said: "People would like to see Michael doing something crazy, not always having to be Mr. Perfect, Mr. All-American. People would like to see me and Michael Jordan walking down a nude beach together." I laughed and asked: "Hand-in-hand?" Without missing a beat, Worm had the perfect response: "Nah, Michael would never go for that."

1. OZZIE GUILLEN ... Every reporter digs athletes, coaches and managers who will say absolutely anything about any subject at any time. I've never covered anybody else quite like Ozzie. I rarely wrote about the White Sox during my first few years in Chicago; as one of two AP sportswriters in town, I was assigned to the Cubs. So I didn't get to know Guillen when he was the South Side shortstop. From the moment he was hired as Sox skipper after the 2003 season, however, I realized things would be quite different from the way they were under low-key Jerry Manuel. Sure enough, while Guillen protects his ballplayers like a pitbull if he thinks they're being unfairly attacked, Ozzie rips them with great gusto when he thinks they deserve it. "Ozzie's throwing us under the bus again" quickly became one of the most-uttered phrases in the White Sox clubhouse. No matter what he does or says, though, Guillen always seems to win the fight. He took some heat after calling sportswriting nemesis Jay Mariotti a "faggot," but hundreds of gays promptly stuck up for Ozzie and said they weren't offended at all. When he grew tired of a player's attitude, he'd arrange to have that player shipped elsewhere; far more times than not, the White Sox ended up being better for it. Late in the 2005 season, I sensed that Ozzie was feeling unloved by the fans. I pulled him aside and asked him one question and he went on a 15-minute, emotional, arm-waving, expletive-filled diatribe; he threatened to quit - but only after the White Sox won the World Series. That probably is the most-referenced interview of my career, having been mentioned in several books, magazines and newspapers. Just a little while back, a national TV announcer brought up Ozzie's threat of four years ago.

All I know is that I sure am glad he decided to stick around. The day Guillen leaves (or, more likely, gets fired for something he'll have said), the Chicago sports landscape will be a lot more boring.

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