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Wednesday, June 19

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News Wed Jun 04 2008

'Civil War' in Sun-Times' Sports Dept.?

Even though we have two long-standing, nationally-recognized newspapers in Chicago (a rarity these days),the presence of a good ol’ fashioned newspaper war is virtually non existent. Despite the competitive nature of the local mainstream press, there hasn’t really been the makings of a good newspaper war in this town since… I dunno, the local papers battled for the best Al Capone headline?

Oh, there have been skirmishes, such as in 1984 when Rupert Murdoch bought the Sun-Times, causing legendary columnist Mike Royko to flee to the Tribune and lob verbal hand grenades on an almost-daily basis. And every now and then the Sun-Times tries to tweak the Trib on new owner Sam Zell’s threats to change the name of Wrigley Field, but the Tribune response is basically to ignore the taunts. Heck, the Trib even scored points by having one of their own win the Sun-Times’ anti-Sam Zell song contest.

But other than the recent Red Eye vs. (now defunct) Red Streak battle, it’s been pretty quiet. I mean, the battle for control of the self-absorbed hipster market isn’t that compelling.

But we just might have the makings of a good newspaper battle here. And the weird thing is, it’s taking place within the walls of only one newspaper.

As any regular reader of the Sun-Times knows, columnist Jay Mariotti is no fan of the White Sox management and in particular field manager Ozzie Guillen, with whom he’s had a long-standing war of words. Their verbal battle last season, with Guillen calling Mariotti a coward and questioning his …well, let’s just say sexual preference, was probably the only highlight of a dismal season.

This year is no different. Just this week, Mariotti declared it was officially time for Guillen to go after the Oz Man lashed out at his players and even General Manager Kenny Williams over the team’s lack of production at the plate in recent games (nevermind they were and are in first place) and at Guillen’s penchant for profanity. The Sun-Times’ columnist claimed he was a lone voice in the wilderness in criticizing Guillen. “As you may have noticed through the years,” Mariotti wrote, “I am the Blizzard's only critic in the Chicago media, mostly because my soft colleagues either fear Guillen's wrath, enjoy how he rips me, work for one of (owner Jerry) Reinsdorf-controlled broadcast outlets or are afraid of getting on the chairman's bad side.”

Perhaps he didn’t realize it (or maybe he did), but Mariotti stepped on the toes of not only the beat writers at the Trib – but his own collegues at the Sun-Times, one of whom stepped back.

Columnist Chris De Luca took issue with Mariotti’s assessment, so much so that he lashed back with his own, not-so-thinly veiled swipe at his sports section cohort in a column in Wednesday’s edition.

“The same critics who avoid ever stepping into the White Sox' clubhouse are calling the Chicago media soft for not skewering manager Ozzie Guillen. They want Guillen fired yesterday. Sounds tough, but the rhetoric comes up a little, well, soft.”

That reference to critics who avoid the clubhouse was a direct shot off the bow of the Good Ship Mariotti and alluded to his well-known refusal to enter the White Sox locker room after (he claimed in a Chicago Magazine interview) he was threatened and harassed. And De Luca’s subtle emphasis on the word “soft” at the end of that sentence? Well, we’ll let you draw your own conclusion about whether that meant anything specific.

De Luca didn’t stop there, ripping Mariotti further for suggesting the White Sox fire Guillen while not offering any alternative.

“Come up with one name. … You can't fire one manager without having another lined up. Especially when it's the first week of June and your team is spending its 44th day in first place. … Does he use salty language? Come to think of it, he does. A little secret: That's the way they talk in the big leagues. … His outbursts might scare outsiders, but they don't rattle any players in that clubhouse.”

Short of calling Mariotti an out-of-touch prima donna, De Luca tried his best to dismantle every point of the star columnist’s argument. And to an impartial observer, it looks like he did.

This isn’t the first time Mariotti has bumped heads with one of his own. There reportedly is no love lost between he and fellow columnist Rick Telender and their feud has also reached the point of column inches in their own paper (and near blows, according to the Chicago Magazine article). One can only wonder what choice words between Mariotti and De Luca didn’t make the paper. You have to guess there will be some sort of re-rebuttal by Mariotti in the coming days.

There’s a newspaper war in Chicago. And the guys in the Sun-Times sports section have the best seats.

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