An ode to the sports stringer

Forty-four years old with a wife, a mortgage, three children, a dog, a cat and a hamster is a lot different than 22 years old when I had none of those things.

Twenty two years ago this month I was in my final semester at the University of Wisconsin, writing general-interest columns and covering sports for the campus Daily Cardinal. Two members of our staff went on to much greater things than me. Our news editor was Mark Saxenmeyer, who is currently an award-winning reporter for WFLD-TV Fox News here in Chicago, and one of my younger sports writing colleagues was an up-and-coming kid from Newton, Mass. named Andy Katz. He’s all things college basketball for ESPN now days. I’m sure in February 1988 I was watching the Calgary Olympics, featuring Badger hockey stars Tony Granato and Mike Richter.

I am reminded of my own humble sports writing beginnings after reading the Hot Dog Vendor Guy blog produced by new Sun-Times sports stringer Eli Kaberon. His profile describes himself as a Columbia College journalism major, a Wrigley Field seat vendor, and, oh, he’s 22. As a Sox fan, I’ve never heard of a seat vendor. Is the world that much different on the North Side?

In his Scenes from the beat entry, Kaberon (right) writes about his experiences as a rookie writer for the Sun-Times. Was I that “green” when I started in this business in 1989?

One thing Kaberon learned quickly is that it’s a luxury to expect a press table at every high school sporting event. If there is one, you don’t have sit at it anyway. I prefer the top level of the lower bleachers where you can usually use a wall or railing as a backrest. After a fall season of football and volleyball and basketball during the winter, I go with the $7 folding sports chair from Wal-mart during baseball and softball season. But I guess when I was 22, I could still sit in the bleachers for spring sports without my butt hurting after a while. On average, I see more than 40 basketball games each winter. It’s a pretty good living.

Unlike Kaberon, I no longer notice the cheerleaders at games and certainly haven’t thought about the music — or “tight songs,” according to Kaberon — played at high school basketball games. I always prefer the pep band, but they are not always there. I did like that “Final Countdown” song by Europe, but I assume it is no longer popular.

Kaberon is the latest in a new generation of stringers in the Chicago area. They are the unsung, unheralded members of a newspaper’s sports staff, but sadly they are a dying breed in an era of tight space and even tighter budgets. I read daily newspapers from across the country whenever I can get my hands on one, and I’ve been amazed at how little space is devoted to high school sports in other cities. Chicagoans, by far, love their high school sports more than any other citizens I know. Stringers help fill that insatiable appetite when full-timers can’t get to games. To the casual fan, they are free-lance writers. To the IRS, they are self-employed contractors.

I’ve worked full-time, toiled as a stringer for a good portion of my career and got lucky by gaining another full-time opportunity. Former Sun-Times stringer Scott Powers (left) became a one-man reporter-photographer and is in his first year with the new Internet powerhouse known as ESPNChicago.com.

Some full-time sports writers continue as preps stringers although they have sought other employment, such as the Daily Herald’s Stan Goff and the Sun-Times’ Joe Trost (right). Goff is an editor for a dental trade publication and Trost is a P.R. director for ComEd. The Elgin Courier News’ Gene Chamberlain was laid off, but continues to work as a stringer for the Courier News and Sporting News.

Former Sun-Times stringer Sean Duncan now runs Prep Baseball Report. The Aurora Beacon-News’ Tami McQueen, Tribster Bob Skolnik and Daily Herald’s Rusty Silber continue to write for the love of the game. Skolnik and Silber contribute to the new CSLinsider.com.

It’s hard to find good stringers. The lack of money drives many out of the business. Some complain about the lack of pay — usually $50 a story — but isn’t this something you would be willing to do for free if you love it? Daily Herald stringers Jeff Newton, Larry Weindruch, Howard Schlossberg, Michael Eaken and Kevin McGavin have other jobs. Weindruch works for a sporting good trade organization, Schlossberg is a journalism professor at Columbia College and often brings his students to games to give them an assignment, and Eaken works for Time-Life in the city. Because of the Daily Herald’s late deadlines, their stringers don’t face deadline pressure. In most cases, if a basketball game ends at 9:30 p.m., the story is due by 10 p.m. At the Herald, I believe they have until 11 p.m. Their stringers can go home and write!

The best stringers own their own laptops and produce stories under deadline. The Tribune has four good ones in Mike Helfgot, Phil English, Steve Reaven and Jack McCarthy. McCarthy was my first editor back in 1980s in the days when you could smoke and cuss on deadline in the newsroom. I was scared. I thought, “Wow. Is that my future?” Now with a kid in high school and another in junior high, McCarthy doesn’t smoke anymore and the only time I’ve heard him cuss is when his laptop does not work. All of us swear at our laptop when it is not working.

How good are the Tribune stringers? In recent budget cutbacks, the Trib bought out or laid off its entire high school sports writing department except for Colleen Kane. The rest of the staff consists of stringers.

The most loyal stringers are at the Sun-Times where writers such as Dick Quagliano, Craig Lynch and Dan Ruane have worked for over 30 years. Phil Brozynski, Patrick Z. McGavin and Quagliano are whizzes under deadline, although gymnastics specialist Quagliano types on a Blackberry instead of a laptop. Brozynski is a former Pioneer Press editor, now in P.R. at Benedictine University. McGavin is my real-life avatar, leading my dream life as a fellow cinephile. He not only writes about high school sports, but has written for film publications such as Hollywood Reporter. He blogs about film and covers the festival circuit at Cannes, Toronto, Sundance and Telluride. His favorite movie of 2009 was “Summer Hours” with Juliette Binoche. Mine was “The Cove,” so far. I’m still catching up on some releases. Patrick Z. and Kevin are the only brothers-stringers combo I know of in Chicagoland. Lynch is the Chicago market’s only blind stringer and has been profiled on TV and in print. Other Sun-Times vets include Clyde Travis, fellow Daily Cardinalista Seth Schwartz and Randy Whalen.

Pioneer Press is lucky to have a published author as one of its stringers. Mike Cameron (left) is a better writer than many full-timers and his book, “Public Bonehead, Private Hero: The Real Legacy of Baseball’s Fred Merkle,” is due to be released in the next few weeks by Sporting Chance Press.

At newspapers, the sports department is many times referred as the “Toy Department.” Covering and writing about sports is fun. But the grind can wear down good people like Mike Walsh of the Southtown and Jeff Clarkson and Kathy Rudolph of the Daily Herald. They toiled as stringers for many years, but are now out of the business. Walsh was a stringer for several years, was hired full-time at the Southtown, only to be laid off a few months later when the paper merged with the Star weeklies. A few years ago, I tried to get a hold of Clarkson when I heard about his poor health. I called a few papers he was associated with, but I received no leads as to his whereabouts. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I once heard that Clarkson had covered a sporting event, suffered a heart attack and then tried to leave the hospital because he had a deadline to meet.

To borrow from one of my favorite Ford Westerns, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” I believe Clarkson really did try to leave the hospital, after all, we’ve all got deadlines to meet.

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