An Interview with Rick Morrissey

An Interview with Rick Morrissey

An Interview with Rick Morrissey

“I feel like I’m rooting for the story with the Cubs, though I’m not sure what the best story is. I guess it’s if they finally win it all, but then again, there’s so much material if they keep losing. I’m sure Cubs fans would want to string me up for saying this, but it’s a great story and I’m not totally sure I want it to go away.”

“My thing is to mix it up…I think you have to be versatile enough as a columnist to make it interesting. I want people to pick up the paper or get on the website and say ‘I wonder what he wrote about.’ And when they look at it they don’t know where it’s going.”

“I write four columns a week – that’s four opinions – and it takes me awhile to think about what I believe – it doesn’t always come out of me right away. What bothers me about a blog is that it asks you to react to news, and I’m thinking ‘I don’t know what I think at this point’.”

Rick Morrissey: Interviewed on Sept. 7, 2007

Position: columnist, Chicago Tribune

Born: 1960, Chicago.

Education: Northwestern, BJ, 1982.

Career: Star publications, south suburban Chicago 1982-84; Fort Wayne Journal Gazette, Ind. 84-87, Charlotte Observer 87, Rocky Mountain News 87-97, Chicago Tribune 1997 –

Personal: Married, three children

Favorite restaurant (home): Café Salsa, Couintryside “great margaritas”

Favorite restaurant road: McCormick and Schmick’s, Seattle, ‘fresh seafood”

Favorite hotel: New York Hilton “Central Park nearby for jogging”

Rick Morrissey, excerpted from the Chicago Tribune, Sept. 5, 2007:

Nobody enjoys getting booed. As ballplayers always say, how would you like to get booed at work? To which I reply, I get booed every day, but I’m hoping my teenagers eventually will grow out of it.

In the wake of Carlos Zambrano’s why-must-they-boo/where’s-the-love sermon Monday, let me try to explain the mind-set of Cubs fans to Cubs players, some of whom still don’t seem to get it.

Start with this basic truth, fellas: The fans want it more than you do.

You players will disagree with that statement, probably all the way to your graves. But it’s not meant as a knock or as an indictment of your desire as competitors. Cubs fans are so thirsty for a World Series title that when they talk, sand comes out their mouths.

So how can you blame them when scorpions spill out with the sand once in a while? Booing is the natural outgrowth of 98 straight seasons without a championship.

Unless you’re a player who grew up in Chicago and rooted for the Cubs in the face of overwhelming evidence that you were a goof for doing so, you can’t possibly know the feeling of dryness on the North Side.

Let’s face it, a multimillion-dollar contract takes away a lot of the sting of not winning. Whatever your emotional investment is in the Cubs, it can’t be bigger than your paycheck. Cubs fans have no such soft landing place, no escape. They can’t go anywhere else. Oh, they can move out of town, but their Cubs afflictions are hitched to their cars.

Q. How can you, as a sportswriter who gets paid to watch games, know what Cubs fans are feeling?

A. Good question. First of all, you have to understand the history here, and the history is horrendous. It’s kind of an affliction handed down through generations. I grew up in this area and I know how rabid people are, and yeah, I watch the games, I watch them closely. When you’re in the middle of this you see and hear the pain people are going through – this year it’s almost an exquisite pain. Hope is being dangled in front of the fans – the Cubs are tied for first in a mediocre division, but people don’t care if it’s mediocre. They feel like they’re competing for the playoffs and beyond. Next year will the 100th anniversary of the last time they won the World Series. It’s around us all the time – it’s just so apparent how much people want this – you really have to be in the middle of it to get it. I get e-mails from Cubs fans all over the country.

Q. What’s it like to have the Cubs to write about whenever you need a column?

A. It’s great. If you go on our website, Chicagosports.com, and go to the bottom you’ll see the most e-mailed stories. During the season it’s almost always the Cubs, and a lot of time the top three stories are the Cubs. For a columnist it’s a great story. It has everything you could want – all that history and cosmic baggage they carry around with them. I wrote a Kerry Wood column last week after they came back and won in dramatic fashion, and one of my colleagues turned to me and said ‘this might be the game you look back on where they turned it around’. I said ‘you know what – I’m sticking with my Wood column because I know what’s going to happen’. Sure enough, they gave up four in the ninth inning yesterday and lost.

Q. If it happened for the White Sox can’t it happen for the Cubs?

A. That ratcheted up their expectations and the urgency of it. When the White Sox won in 2005, for me professionally, it was the best thing I’ve covered. They hadn’t won since 1917. I remember sitting there in Houston after the game thinking about all the great columnists who wrote for the Trib over the years who never got to experience this. I was thinking ‘I’m in a unique position here of chronicling history’. I feel like I’m rooting for the story with the Cubs, though I’m not sure what the best story is. I guess it’s if they finally win it all, but then again, there’s so much material if they keep losing. I’m sure Cubs fans would want to string me up for saying this, but it’s a great story and I’m not totally sure I want it to go away.

Q. Some Boston writers felt that way in 2004.

A. The difference is that Red Sox fans have tasted success – they’ve had a number of good teams. That’s not the history here. There have been some good teams but they haven’t knocked on the door too much – it’s really been kind of dry here.

Q. Is Cubs ownership the problem?

A. I work for the Tribune Company which has owned the Cubs since 1981. The company has taken hits left and right over that time, from me as well. But what about the 70 years before that? It’s easy to bash the Tribune Company, but the art of losing was perfected long before the Tribune came along.

Q. You seem to have a sensitive moral gauge – is that necessary for a columnist?

A. I don’t think it’s necessary. There are successful columnists who would prefer not to write about this stuff and will do so only when absolutely necessary. My feeling is that so much is going on now in college and pro sports, in overall bad behavior….maybe it’s part of being a father. I have three kids who are a little bit older now and when they were younger maybe they rooted for Vick or Sosa and then they have these questions for you and you say ‘this kind of sucks.’ We’ve had a lot of problems like Tank Johnson being in trouble. There were times when I felt I went a little bit overboard and questioned myself. The problem is that if you call one person out then you hear ‘why aren’t you indignant about these other cases?’”

Q. What do readers want?

A. My thing is to mix it up. If you’re hitting people over the head every day with a hammer I think they tune you out. The flip side is if you write the same kind of stuff every day – feature columns on players or shtick – I don’t think it works. I think you have to be versatile enough as a columnist to make it interesting. I want people to pick up the paper or get on the website and say ‘I wonder what he wrote about.’ And when they look at it they don’t know where it’s going.

Q. Is it tough to pick a topic?

A. Not too bad here – there’s so much going on. There’s a point where you could have written two or three Vick columns and you say ‘enough – I’m not going back there five days later when he pleads guilty – let’s move on’. If I’m sick of it I’m not going to make my readers sick of it too.

Q. Before we started you said you wanted to talk about something.

A. I worry about the writing. I think the sports department is the best place to find great writing – a place where you can spread your wings a bit. I don’t know if I’m right about this, but I’m a little concerned about the whole blogging thing. I did it for almost a year – I got sick last year, with cancer, so I stopped and picked it up again. I write four columns a week – that’s four opinions – and it takes me awhile to think about what I believe – it doesn’t always come out of me right away. What bothers me about a blog is that it asks you to react to news, and I’m thinking ‘I don’t know what I think at this point’. The second thing was that I didn’t take as much time with it. I take pride in writing and going over it and trying out new things. Blogging strikes me as a little too thoughtless and too quick to judgment and lacking in good writing. So I worry about the immediacy of the Internet and it’s effect on quality writing. If the whole thing is how many hits you get, I wonder if you’re getting hits because they like your writing or you have something outrageous to say. That’s a great unknown to me. Maybe I’m worrying about something needlessly – maybe it’s going to be even better. It does concern me a bit. I hope great writing will be allowed forever.

Q. Who do you admire?

A. A bunch of them. Mike Downey (Chicago Tribune). Gary Shelton (St. Petersburg Times). Sally Jenkins and Mike Wilbon (Washington Post). Rick Telander (Chicago Sun-Times). Ray Ratto (SF Chronicle) is hilarious. Art Thiel (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) is great. Bill Plaschke (LA Times) is everybody’s All-American. TJ Simers (LA Times) is different than anybody out there. Bob Kravitz (Indianapolis Star) is excellent. Steve Hummer (Atlanta Journal-Constitution). Mike Rosenberg (Detroit Free Press) is really good. Gene Wojciechowski (espn.com). There’s a lot of good writing going on out there.

Q. Who were your influences?

A. This will make Downey feel really old. When I was just out of college he was at the Detroit Free Press. I was starting at a string of suburban papers Downey had worked at – he was an idol of the young people going through there. We looked at his clips – he was really fresh and had a lot of fun with sports. I read Bob Verdi a lot here in Chicago. There was an incredible wordsmith at the Sun-Times, John Schulian. His book, ‘Writers Fighters’ is unbelievable. If you ever want to feel unworthy read that.

Q. Can we ask about your cancer?

A. I had colon cancer. I was at the Masters in 2006 and I was jogging and got unbelievable fatigued. There were a couple of other symptoms. I was concerned because my dad died at a young age of a heart attack. I went in and they found cancer. It was shocking to say the least. I had surgery, chemo and radiation. I took a month off after surgery. The interesting thing was how the work, writing a column, was really cathartic. It was just good to be able to do something. I was able to keep up my schedule for the most part. Some people thought I was pushing myself too hard and other people thought it was great I was plugging along. It was neither of those things. Working took my mind off of it and gave me something to do and something I really like to do.

So far so good. The checkups seem to be good.

Q. Did you share your illness with your readers?

A. I did. I wrote about it twice, when I cam back after surgery, and then I wrote about it again. Gene Wojciechowski gave me a hard time – he was kidding me that I’ve been milking my cancer for columns. That’s sad. Let the record show I’ve only mentioned it twice.

Q. Do you think readers care about you as a person?

A. Yes. The reason I know this is e-mails. There’s a connection there. I think people pick up the newspaper and if they pick it up for years you’re a small part of their existence. They read you. They may be offended by what you’ve written or they may love it.

So I don’t have any doubt about that, which may sound egotistical. The e-mails you get hit home. Sometimes you may be flippant about things and they might think something was overboard, but you hear from people. I’m talking about people who care and feel they know you. When I was diagnosed and wrote about it I got hundreds of e-mails. There really was no reason to do that unless they feel they get to know you from a column. I’m not afraid to put in part of my personal life. Usually I use it for humor. Sometimes it’s just universal things people might relate to.

Q. Such as exploiting a pet?

A. Yes. I’m cheap and I’ll do whatever is necessary to further my own column writing.

Rick Morrissey, excerpted from the Chicago Tribune, August 22, 2007:

I like my dog, a basset hound, a lot. He’s probably 10 pounds overweight, sleeps most of the time, barks at the mail carrier, waters fire hydrants and, given the chance, buries things for safekeeping. He’s a big lump of a cliché.

So when I read and heard about some of the dogfighting atrocities Michael Vick is associated with, it turned my stomach.

(SMG thanks Rick Morrissey for his cooperation)

September 5, 2007

Nobody enjoys getting booed. As ballplayers always say, how would you like to get booed at work? To which I reply, I get booed every day, but I’m hoping my teenagers eventually will grow out of it.

In the wake of Carlos Zambrano’s why-must-they-boo/where’s-the-love sermon Monday, let me try to explain the mind-set of Cubs fans to Cubs players, some of whom still don’t seem to get it.

Start with this basic truth, fellas: The fans want it more than you do.

You players will disagree with that statement, probably all the way to your graves. But it’s not meant as a knock or as an indictment of your desire as competitors. Cubs fans are so thirsty for a World Series title that when they talk, sand comes out their mouths.

So how can you blame them when scorpions spill out with the sand once in a while? Booing is the natural outgrowth of 98 straight seasons without a championship.

Unless you’re a player who grew up in Chicago and rooted for the Cubs in the face of overwhelming evidence that you were a goof for doing so, you can’t possibly know the feeling of dryness on the North Side.

Let’s face it, a multimillion-dollar contract takes away a lot of the sting of not winning. Whatever your emotional investment is in the Cubs, it can’t be bigger than your paycheck. Cubs fans have no such soft landing place, no escape. They can’t go anywhere else. Oh, they can move out of town, but their Cubs afflictions are hitched to their cars.

Right now the fans see a mediocre division and a golden opportunity to get to the playoffs. They look in their rearview mirrors and see those 98 seasons of aridity. They see the end of their communal rope. They want to win now.

The fans know you players are trying. But they’re sick of rooting for effort. They’ve seen decades of both effort and lack of effort. They’re sick of tapping their toes, checking their watches and waiting for next year.

They want results now.

Over the years, the tone of the booing has changed. It used to say, “The Cubs are bad and always will be bad. This is our lot in life, and we’re periodically going to express our distaste between gulps of beer.” Now it says, “The losing has gone on for far too long, and we’re deathly tired of it. We want to win the World Series. And if you players aren’t with us, you’re against us.”

And here you thought “boo” meant “boo.”

It’s a love that’s no longer patient.

Yes, they were booing Zambrano for stupid baserunning against the Dodgers. Yes, they were booing him for all the walks. But at the heart of those deep, guttural boos was complete frustration over the ace’s inexplicable troubles at a time when the team needs him most. This sad-sack division is there for the taking. Zambrano apologized Tuesday. Great. Now start winning some games, Carlos.

A feeling of euphoria and desperation is in the air at Wrigley, and certainly you players can feel it. There is early Oscar buzz for the fans’ theatrical ups and downs during games. And those were August games. Critical mass figures to be reached in September. No one is quite sure what to expect. Group psychosis?

If it involves losing, expect booing.

Contrary to what you might think, the boos are educated and sophisticated. Cubs fans are very much aware that the last six World Series have been won by the Cardinals, the White Sox, the Red Sox, the Marlins, the Angels and the Diamondbacks. In other words, not by the Yankees. They know that in baseball today, anybody can win it all.

It’s why you might be able to detect some urgency in those boos.

Despite what Zambrano said Monday, the fans are with you players through thick and thin—they continue to pack the park. The problem is that they have been served a steady diet of thin. In a way, you’re getting the business end of 98 years of aggravation. Is that fair to you mercenaries? Probably not, but neither is almost a century without results. They know you didn’t play for the 1951 club that finished 34 1/2 games out of first place or for the 1962 team that won only 59 games.

Yet you get booed anyway.

Deal with it.

Booing for booing’s sake doesn’t mean a whole lot. That’s not the case here. Surely you can see that there is substance to the boos at Wrigley. They don’t point to fickle fans. They point to fans who have had enough. These boos are what happens when fans fill a ballpark for 20 years with little to show for it, other than scar tissue.

The losing has become old, very old. If you want the booing to stop, do something about it. Win, for example.

rmorrissey@tribune.com

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