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Working the Game: An Interview with Paul Sullivan, Chicago Tribune Columnist

Our “Working The Game” segment today features our interview with Paul Sullivan, the long-time baseball columnist for the Chicago Tribune.

As the Tribune’s baseball writer, Sullivan covers the Cubs, White Soxchi-paul-sullivan and national news. From 1994-2013, he served as the Cubs beat writer for 14 seasons and the Sox beat writer for six seasons. A lifelong Chicagoan, he has also covered the Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks and University of Illinois beats during his 33 years at the Trib, and he served as columnist Mike Royko’s legman from 1985-87.

When did you become aware that you wanted to seriously pursue a career as a baseball writer?

After being transferred to the Tribune sports department in 1987.  I had been Mike Royko’s “legman” (reporter/researcher) for the previous two years and he decided I would be a better fit for Sports than Metro, where I started as a reporter. Actually I began as a copy clerk in 1981, then was city desk assistant for a few years before Royko hired me. Once I got in sports, my editors began giving me assignments at Wrigley Field and Comiskey Park, and I became the back-up to the beat writers for both teams. Also covered preps, Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, Illini hoops, etc., at different times, but ultimately landed in baseball.

What was the first baseball game you ever worked (if not exactly, then approximately), and how did you get the gig?

I wrote a piece for Metro on the last day of the Cubs’ 1983 season, sitting with fans in the right field bleachers. That’s where I (would normally sit), so it was familiar territory. I interviewed Bill Veeck and some other fans. The headline was “Cubs Fans Never Lose Hope.” Of course, the next year was ’84 (when the Cubs won the National League’s East Division), so I wrote some features for Metro on the season.

My first big baseball assignment was during the 1983 ALCS between the White Sox-Orioles when I was assigned by Metro to provide “color” from Comiskey Park for story someone else would write. I interviewed the Sox co-owner, Eddie Einhorn, who was upset at Tito Landrum’s game-winning home run and had some not-so-nice things to say about the Sox’s play. The editors decided to let me write a sidebar for sports, and Einhorn was upset that his harsh comments were played up after the loss, threatening to sue the Tribune for defamation of character. I met him again years later when I took over the Sox beat, and he’s a very nice guy who was just being a frustrated fan.

My first baseball assignment for the sports department was June 10, 1987 when Mets pitcher Dwight Gooden returned from cocaine problems. I interviewed fans at Wrigley who were heckling him and the Mets’ psychiatrist, Dr. Allen Lans, who said: “They’re not unruly. They’re not violent or crazy. It’s not like a soccer match in England.” That story convinced me it would be a fun beat to cover someday.

How did you get your break covering a beat for a team?

I was assigned to the White Sox beat on July 15, 1994, replacing veteran beat writer Alan Solomon, who moved Metro. Since I’d been the back-up baseball writer since 1989, it seemed like a long wait. My first game as the Sox beat writer was the night Albert Belle was busted for using a corked bat and the Indians (later revealed to be Jason Grimsley) sneaked into the umpires’ room, stole the bat and replaced it with a clean one. It was quite a caper, and I wrote follow-ups all week. The Sox looked like they were going to the World Series, but then the strike happened and the season was cancelled, so I moved to (being the) Bears’ feature writer that Fall and went back to baseball the next spring.

As a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, are you actually covering a team per se, or are you more of a baseball generalist?

I was reassigned from the Cubs’ beat in August of 2013 after two decades on the baseball beats (including 14 years on the Cubs) to write long form features on baseball and baseball-related subjects—Beth Murphy’s (spokesperson for the Wrigleyville Rooftops Association) fight with the Cubs, Ozzie Guillen’s (former manager of the Chicago White Sox) absence from baseball, etc.  It was an adjustment I wasn’t ready for, but survived. That job morphed into being the Tribune baseball writer the following spring after Phil Rogers left for MLB.com. I write columns and features on both teams, fill in for the beat writers on occasion and write a Sunday feature on a national topic or trend. I also do a graphic with one-sentence blurb on all 30 teams, instead of a power ranking, which I find boring and usually redundant. It’s a mix of stats and snark, so it’s not too serious.

On game day, what do you do to prepare for a game before you get to the ballpark?  When you wake up in the morning, what you do before you leave for the game?

I have a morning column for the web site that’s due around 9 a.m., so I wake up and have an hour or two to think of something, research and write it. I’m usually working on a few features at a time, so often I go to the ballpark to report and don’t actually write for print. I don’t do anything out of the norm to prepare for a game. Unless I have an assignment I like to go in with an empty notebook and find a story at the ballpark. Royko taught me not to plan the news, go find it instead. He came up with some of his best columns at 5 p.m., cranked it out and left by 7. I’ve never found there’s “nothing” to write about.

How long before a game do you arrive at the ballpark, and is it different at home versus on the road?

As a beat writer you’d get there about four hours before the game to set up and start working on blogs. As a columnist it varies, but usually by the time the clubhouse opens about 3 ½ hours beforehand. It’s the same access on the road. Back in the day you wouldn’t have to be there so early or write during the game. I recall watching the first few innings of Kerry Wood’s 20-strikeout game in the bleachers. Those days are history. The Internet changed the news cycle forever, and also there is less access clubhouse time so (these days) you can’t just stroll in and expect to talk to players.

What are the key things you do at the ballpark between the time you get there and the time the game starts?

Nothing. Set up your laptop. Go work the clubhouses and then go write something. It’s not exactly a science.

Once the actual game starts, what are you doing?  Are you working the entire time the game is going, and on what?

As a beat writer I was taking notes and keeping score while transcribing tape and writing my blogs and articles with occasional tweets. As a columnist I rarely keep score since I’m not describing the game itself but analyzing or giving an opinion.

What is your process once the game finishes? 

If the column needs an update, I work the postgame clubhouse after the game for the late edition. If not, I leave it alone.

What are the key differences in what you as a columnist do to prepare for a game, and your work process at the game, versus that of a beat writer?

I’m thinking big picture as a columnist and small details (roster moves, injuries) as a beat writer. The preparation is the same, but the mindset is different.

You’re unusual in that you cover both teams in Chicago.  How did you manage to swing that?  Do you spend more of your time on one franchise or the other?

Not that unusual for a baseball columnist. Jerome Holtzman covered both teams for decades. He taught me almost everything I know about this job, along with Dave Van Dyck. I probably spend more time on the Cubs since I live near the ballpark, but I do go to both ballparks a few games every homestand.

How many stories are you responsible for submitting on a daily basis, or perhaps in the course of a week?

No set amount. I do have space reserved for the Sunday notebook and graphic, and write 3-4 days a week when space is available, plus the morning blogs during the weekdays. The digital side is important to the Tribune, so I’ve been doing more of that this year.

Who typically comes up with the idea for the subject of a feature that you write?  Is it you, your editor, combination?

I come up with most of my own ideas, though the editors do assign me stories once in a while. Last summer they assigned me to a project where I travelled through the minors to see the Cubs’ top prospects, Kris Bryant, Jorge Soler, Javier Baez, Albert Almora, Addison Russell and Kyle Schwarber. I have a half-dozen other features I’m working on at any given time, some which turn into Sunday columns.

Do you get any vacation or free time during the season?

As a beat writer you’d get home weekends off, or about six days a month. As a columnist you don’t have set days off. I haven’t taken more than 3-4 days off in a row in-season for the last 20 years because of the beat, but I do have a vacation scheduled for All Star week.

What are the easier things, and what are the harder things, for you to do as a columnist during the season?

The easiest thing is the actual reporting and writing, which I’m used to at this point. The travel grind was hard, but now I’m embedded here in Chicago most of the time. Critiquing players or managers you like and respect is probably the most difficult part of the job as a beat writer or columnist. You hope they understand it’s your job, and fortunately most of them do. Criticizing a self-absorbed idiot is not difficult. I have met a few.

What are the most common pitfalls to avoid while working as a baseball columnist?  Are they remarkably different from those a beat writer might face?

Not sure. I guess I’m still learning the pitfalls on this job.  The only pitfall of being a beat writer is getting too close to the people you cover and then trying to be objective. You can’t fool Chicago fans, so don’t try to pretend someone is doing a good job when he sucks.

Beyond interviews and conversations, what are some of the top resources you use to keep informed about the players, the teams and the game of baseball itself?

I scan every box score on a daily basis. My favorite web sites to peruse, outside of the Chicago papers, are Deadspin, ESPN, Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference… I’m not really a stats freak, but I’m adapting. I write for a general audience, and there are plenty of sites for in-depth statistical analysis, so hopefully stat nerds don’t hold it against me.

When the team has a day off, how do you spend your time?  Do you get a day off too, or are you still working a full day?

Depends on what’s going on. Some off days are your busiest days. I don’t do anything unusual if I’m not writing. I like to run a few miles, eat lunch, hang out, go watch a game with family or friends. Just your typical Chicago sports fan, doing what we do.

When you’re traveling with the team, what is your favorite thing to do while on the road?

I’m a creature of habit and have places that I go to in every city, and bartenders that know what beer you drink even if you only see them once a year. I have old friends in many cities, so I get to see them. I don’t do touristy things, but I’ve gone to art museums in towns like Seattle and New York. I guess my favorite thing is going out after the game with the other writers. We abuse each other a lot in the press box, but can always have a beer or two afterwards. It’s the Stockholm syndrome perhaps.

How do you spend your time during the offseason?

Mostly relax with family and friends. I also cover for the beat writers, who get their much-deserved time off, and report from the GM meetings and Winter Meetings. When I’m really off I just do the normal stuff- watch football, hockey, basketball, etc.

After you’d become a baseball writer, what was the one big thing about the job that’s true but you totally did not expect going in?

That most athletes are regular people despite being famous, or semi-famous. The ones who are the jerks stand out. And players that you sparred with at times during their careers are usually much friendly afterwards. I almost always go to other clubhouses to say hello to players I covered in Chicago.

What baseball writers do you most admire, retired and/or currently active, and why?

I respect any beat writer who has lasted years, knowing what they’ve gone through, especially missing time with their families to cover baseball for 7 ½ months. I grew up reading Bob Verdi from the Tribune, the best game story writer I’ve ever read. Jerome Holtzman was my mentor, and also one of the greatest ever. I still miss him.

I’d hate to leave anyone out. Too many good ones. This is the golden age of baseball writing/tweeting/blogging.

If you were the King of Baseball Journalism and you could make any changes or improvements to the profession or to the process, what would they be?

More space in the paper, later deadlines, more clubhouse access time, better wireless in the press boxes. I would also ask that players stop spouting clichés and GMs to return their messages, but I know that’s a pipe dream.

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you would want people, such as ordinary fans, to know about your job?

It’s a great job. You all want to do it, I know. You tell me all the time. But it’s still a job, and writing on deadline is not as easy as it sounds. But yeah, I am damn lucky.

Chicago Broadcast Update: And the Hits Just Keep Coming?

This morning’s Chicago Tribune has a front page story on the potential for the Cubs moving their broadcast (i.e., over-the-air) games, currently on WGN-TV, to another station in the market beginning with 2015.  Possible other TV affiliates, according to the article, might include WPWR-TV (channel 50) and WCIU-TV (channel 26), the latter of which already carries eight overflow Cubs games on behalf of WGN-TV.

I don’t believe the article is breaking any news here, since last year the Cubs exercise their right to pull out of the current WGN-TV deal after the 2014 season, given the current rash of ever-escalating rights deal being signed by teams.  But given the events of the last few days, the paper saw fit to make hay on the story and resurrect to take advantage of exquisite timing.

That said, it is valid to bring up, and the article points out why: for a supposedly big market team that is the darling of so many fans across the country, let alone the city and the state, the Cubs make far less per game on TV rights than other teams of its size.  For example, the article points out that the Los Angeles Dodgers make about $2 million per game in TV rights on their new deal, while the Cubs make just $500,000 per game that runs on Comcast SportsNet, their RSN partner, and about half that for games running on WGN and WCIU, which makes up about half the schedule.

Read all about it here:

Chicago Cubs seeking new TV home, may leave WGN-TV