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Murray Chass took the opportunity of Jorge Posada’s recent troubles with the Yankees to discuss his own problems with the New York Times. It’s a rare peak inside a newspaper that has kept its internal troubles largely out of the public eye while it, like all other newspapers, struggles through a difficult era in the business.
For nearly 40 years, Chass was one of the best — arguably the best — writers and reporters on baseball in the country. In 2003, he was award the J.G. Taylor Spink Award, the highest honor the Baseball Writers Association of America can give. It was richly deserved.
Let me say now that I don’t like Chass. I find him rude and abrasive, and every time I have contacted him on a professional matter I found him to be difficult and truculent.
But if I’d had a vote in the Spink Award, I would have voted for him. I’ve never ceased to read him, even when I think he’s wrong — and when you’ve written as long as Chass had, you’re simply going to be wrong about some things.
Chass, who left the Times three years ago, has been writing an online column that he stubbornly refuses to call a blog. He maintains that it’s simply an online version of the traditional column that he wrote for the Times. Good for him.
Two days ago, on May 18, he wrote a column on the Jorge Posada/Yankees front-office dispute to which I would take issue. But if anyone has, Chass had earned the right to give a contrarian opinion on this:
I am happy to offer my comments on the entire matter, in which the veteran Jorge Posada pulled himself out of the lineup for last Saturday’s game against Boston. Chances are they will be different from most of the comments that have been published or posted. They certainly come from a unique perspective.
Generally, I place myself among the Yankee Stadium fans who gave Posada a standing ovation when he went to bat as a pinch-hitter in Sunday’s game. The fans were more accurate, more understanding and more reasonable in their reaction to Posada than Yankees’ executives, named and unnamed, were in their public comments.
As if criticizing Posada wasn’t blockheaded enough, those Yankees’ executives exacerbated their blindness by taking Derek Jeter, Posada’s long-time teammate and friend, to the verbal woodshed and spanking him for publicly supporting Posada.
As outstanding a citizen as Jeter has been for his entire career, I think his bold support of Posada was his finest act as the team captain. Someone needed to support Posada; the Neanderthals in the front office didn’t.
I don’t see anything wrong with a 14-year veteran, who has been behind the plate for 1,573 games, asking out for a day. He earned the right to say “I can’t play today,” without being vilified by his bosses and the news media, just as a reporter earned the right, after 39 years and innumerable exclusive stories, to say “I can’t work today” without being accused of insubordination.
Times reporters apparently understood none of this, writing that Posada “simply quit on the team” and that when he apologized Sunday for what he had done Saturday he “sounded contrite and remorseful, as if good sense and a good night’s sleep had sharpened his perspective.
Chass argues that “Many players before Posada have found that switching from a position in the field to DH takes a toll on a player’s ability to hit.” I’m not sure I agree. I think what really happens when players are demoted from a position to DH is that they’re already in sharp decline, and since Posada is 39 now, I don’t know what the Yankees could be expected to do. He certainly can’t be the regular catcher any more, and if he’s hitting .165 as a DH, what are the team’s options? But I have to admit that Chass’s case for how the team and the press has treated Jorge makes is valid.
But Chass takes Posada’s case a little further and equates it with his own departure from the Times. Let’s let him tell it:
Some background will put my experience in perspective and explain why I understand Posada’s position last weekend.
At the time, the financially stricken Times was desperately trying to shed some of its most veteran, highest-paid reporters and columnists. The situation struck me as being similar to the Florida Marlins shedding their best, highest-paid players after they won the World Series in 1997.
In an effort to induce me to leave, [Times sports editor Tom] Jolly told me I would have to give up the baseball column I was writing and return to reporting, which had been my assignment from July 1969 until January 2004. He knew from previous conversations that I would not do that but figured I would instead leave the newspaper with the attractive buyout that was being offered.
Along the way, Jolly told me a series of blatant lies, but his most egregious act was his accusation that I was insubordinate.
On that day, March 31, [Times baseball editor Jay] Schreiber called me, as he had hundreds of times, presumably to ask me for help on a story but never said why he was calling. I told him I was not prepared to work because I had not decided what I was doing.
Instead of telling me what he needed, he ran to the sports editor and told him I refused to work. The accusation of insubordination followed in an e-mail later that day, as in “declining assignments represents insubordination.”
I was familiar with plenty of stories of reporters refusing assignments, most of them related by Schreiber, but none of them had ever been accused of insubordination.
I can relate a story from my own personal experience to corroborate Chass’s. I was let go by Jolly and the New York Times under circumstances almost precisely the same as Chass relates his were. In 2003, I had been hired to be a sports columnist by executive editor Howell Raines, for whom I had survived as a gopher and sometimes writer at the Birmingham News many years before. Raines hired several writers from Alabama, and we were collectively referred to in the media as “the Alabama mafia,” even though most of us not only didn’t socialize but didn’t even know each other.
When Raines resigned under pressure after the Jayson Blair scandal, Jolly — who Howell told me he had put in that position because of all the candidates, Jolly was the one who had “the fire in the belly” that he wanted in a sports editor — was distraught; he was so stricken that on one day, I recall, the couldn’t see anyone in his office for a couple of hours. He quickly cut his ties to people connected to Raines, of whom, of course, I was one.
The first step was having my column taken away and then being handed reporting assignments on subjects I had absolutely no background on. Horse racing, for instance, which I had never written about in my life. (“Watch out,” a Times editor whom I had known from the Voice, told me. “Writing about horse racing is a sign of impending death.”)
If I didn’t know it then, I knew it a week later when I was given another horse racing assignment. When a writer I did not know called to ask me a question about the Belmont Stakes, I told him that the subject bewildered me and I had no idea how to get him the information he wanted. The next thing I knew, I was called into Jolly’s office and accused of “insubordination.” That was the word that was used. Three weeks later, I was out.
I’m not equating my situation with Chass’s, who was a great deal more deserving of professional respect. Or, for that matter, with Dave Anderson, who was forced into semi-retirement four years later, or Ira Berkow, who had won a Pulitzer Prize as late as 2001 and retired in 2007 after 26 years of superb work. But I did give up a full-time column with the Wall Street Journal to go to the Times and had a family to support without the benefits of a full-time job, such as health care.
When Jolly let me go, he said I should consider it as an occasion to explore new opportunities.
That was only part of it, thanks to the efforts of Jolly and another editor named Bob Goetz, I was blackballed from writing for the New York Times — that was the term used by an editor at Sports Business Daily who had talked to both of them and by my long-time editor at the Times Book Review, Michael Anderson. From 1986 to before I was hired in 2003, I had written more than 120 stories for virtually every section of the paper, including, for Raines, several editorials. After that, no calls or e-mails to any of my old friends and editors (and you know who you are) were returned. (I did sneak in through the back door, so to speak, during the 2008 Olympics, getting on to the op-ed page through the gutsy efforts of an editor who has now left for Bloomberg.)
Now, as it turns out, Jolly is gone, too. “Controversial Times sports editor Bumped Upstairs” read the headline in the New York Post last December:
“New York Times sports editor Tom Jolly will see his controversial eight-year reign come to an end next month when he moves upstairs to a new job.”
While executive editor Bill Keller, said the Post, “sought to portray the new job of night news editor as a promotion, some insiders said it was a lateral move at best into a new job that is still not widely understood as the publisher merges its print and digital news operations. Many on the sports desk, however, may be inclined to say good riddance.”
Well, anyway, it’s an occasion to explore a new opportunity.
The main point, though, that Chass raises and which nobody else in the New York sports media really has — because, after all, if the New York Times doesn’t report on something like this, who does? — is the lingering bad taste over the way the Times rushed to judgment on the Duke case, which, as the Post relates, “Jolly has since said he regretted the way the Times handled the Duke story at the time.” Selena Roberts, a Times columnist from 2002-2007, was quoted by the Post as saying “There’s probably very mixed reaction to [Jolly] among the staff.” Since Roberts was responsible for much of the erroneous coverage of the Duke case, one wonders how the “staff” reacted to her departure, particularly when she was picked up and given a plum position with Sports Illustrated.
The real story of Jolly, Roberts, and the Times‘ disgraceful of the Duke lacrosse incident has never been told in proper detail, but I suspect that it’s a gleam in Murray Chass’s eye (Chass wrote a bit about this when he reviewed Roberts’ book on Alex Rodriguez in 2009) and that there are some former New York Times sports people who are sleeping uneasily that Chass is still out there.