Mike Downey is no stranger to Chicago.
He's been away since 1981, but the city and its sports teams never left his radar screen. During journalistic stops in Detroit and Los Angeles he followed from afar the Bears' lone Super Bowl championship, the Bulls' six titles and, well, the city's two baseball teams. Now Downey returns home to write the Chicago Tribune's famed "In the Wake of the News" sports column.
A native of south suburban Steger and a graduate of Bloom High School in Chicago Heights, Downey began his newspaper career at 14, writing for Star Publications in the south suburbs. He covered sports for the Chicago Daily News and wrote both sports and feature stories for the Chicago Sun-Times before leaving in 1981 to become a sports columnist for the Detroit Free Press. In 1985 he moved to the Los Angeles Times where he wrote columns for the sports and Metro sections. Along the way he picked up numerous local and national writing awards.
His first column for the Tribune will appear Jan. 19.
ChicagoSports.com sat down with Downey recently to talk about sports, journalism and coming home.
ChicagoSports.com: You grew up in the Chicago area and started your career here but you've been away for awhile, first in Detroit and then L.A. So for those readers in Chicago who don't know you, what are your Chicago sports credentials?
Downey: I think people from Chicagoland can sense that someone's an outsider or doesn't really care about how the teams prosper here or what's become of them. These were my teams as a kid, but I also lived here as an adult and followed these teams professionally. I know their history. I'm concerned as a Chicago person about them doing well. So while I've been out of state I haven't been out of touch. I've been following Chicago teams from afar, but following them still.
CS.com: You say people in the city can sniff out a phony whether that person be a columnist or an athlete. Is that a concern?
Downey: I don't think there's anything that's happened in Chicago sports since I've been gone that I'm not aware of. I'm not an expert anymore than the next good fan sitting next to me in a bar. I know how Chicago's teams have been doing and not just Michael Jordan's basketball teams and Jim McMahon's football teams. I can tell you who's starting for the Cubs and who's starting for the White Sox and who the players are on the Blackhawks. I know these teams. I'm not some Los Angeles guy coming in to check out Chicago. I'm a Chicago guy.
CS.com: Cubs or Sox fan?
Downey: Only marginally a Sox fan I would say because I'm from the South Suburbs. So I probably saw 10 or 15 games at Comiskey Park before I even knew there was a North Side. As a kid I thought there was the South Side of Chicago and then Wisconsin. I knew the Cubs were in between somewhere. As I got older I became infatuated by the Cubs, not like most Chicagoans but people from around the country. So by the time 1984 rolled along -- and I was in Detroit where the Tigers were about to win the World Series -- I couldn't keep one eye off the Cubs who looked as if they were going to play the Tigers in the '84 World Series. And I said, "I've been waiting all my life for the Cubs or White Sox to be in the World Series." I'm still waiting.
CS.com: Are you worried about the town's lack of winners? Does that make your job more difficult?
Downey: No, it's a down time. It seems that Chicago's teams in every major professional sport other than the Fire in soccer are unlikely to win a championship anytime soon. But that's what the Anaheim Angels thought. And the teams that have won in so many sports of the last few years, particularly baseball, came out of the blue. We've seen the Florida Marlins, the Arizona Diamondbacks and the Anaheim Angels win the World Series over the last, say, six years, so when you hear every year it's the Yankees, Yankees, Yankees, that's just plain not true. Why couldn't the White Sox or the Cubs win the World Series next year? It seems preposterous on the face of it, but that's what you would've said about the Marlins, Diamondbacks and Angels.
CS.com: Well, a lot of people would answer that its just because they are the White Sox and the Cubs.
Downey: You certainly do get that ingrained in your system after a while. When I moved to Detroit, fans there asked me what the difference was between Chicago and Detroit? I felt that Detroit fans were unreasonably optimistic about how their teams were going to do and Chicago fans were almost a little too pessimistic about how are we going to blow this? And within a few years of that, not only did the Pistons win the NBA championship and the Red Wings got to be very good, but the Bears came along and won Super Bowl XX and the White Sox and the Cubs both made the playoffs. When you're in the playoffs, you're so close to being a championship team. You know I see the Cubs make a move and get Fred McGriff and I'm one of those guys who think, "OK, that might be the last piece of the puzzle." Or the White Sox signing David Wells two years ago and that looked like a great move to me. They went out and got Todd Ritchie a year later and I say, "OK, that might be..." (Laughs) Well, something tells me that move didn't work out. So I look at them this year, they went out and got a relief pitcher and maybe that's the one thing that'll put them over the top this year.
CS.com: No one expected the Angels, especially Angels fans, to win anything. The Angels, in their shorter history, have been just as doomed as the Cubs and Sox.
Downey: Worse. They had never been to a World Series. At least the Cubs and White Sox have been to a World Series. The Angels couldn't say that.
CS.com: In football, teams can turn it around relatively easy, and last year Bears fans were pretty optimistic. Their team went 13-3 and looked like they were on the way up.
Downey: There's a catch in football that there isn't in baseball, though. In football, they give you a tougher schedule if you did well the previous year. Two years ago the Bears played a soft schedule because they were coming off a poor season and they went out and kicked some butt around the NFL. So this year when everyone expected them to kick butt, they played a tougher schedule and plus the injuries that took them out of it. So now the Bears feel like times are bad but just last year everyone was celebrating.
CS.com: Backing up a bit, what's the difference between the L.A. and Chicago fan?
Downey: Not so life and death in L.A. The Chicago fan isn't obsessed by any means, but I think the Chicago fan is a little bit more manic about how the games are going to come out, a little more concerned with staying to the end. Then again, besides the fact that so many people in L.A. are from Chicago, whenever an L.A. fan gets stereotyped as someone who's too soft or doesn't care enough ,just tell them that there are fans who are now bashing Phil Jackson and the L.A. Lakers. And I said, "Yeah, what have they done lately?" They've only won the last three championships and Phil Jackson's won what now, nine championships? But there are still letters to the editor that Phil Jackson can't coach and that the Lakers are overrated. And it made me wonder, now exactly how many championships do you have to win to get beyond that? So the L.A. fan can be pretty tough sometimes. I just don't think by and large they're as interested and obsessed with it as some Chicagoans are.
CS.com: You had retired from writing your column and were living in L.A. Why leave warm L.A. to come to cold Chicago?
Downey: Well, warm L.A. also has earthquakes and mudslides and Santa Ana winds, so the climate thing gets to be pretty funny for me. Sure it's cold here but I had been thinking about moving to exotic places like Paris, London and New York and San Francisco, all of which are cold, so the weather doesn't concern me.
Professionally, I did this job for a number of years at other newspapers and so I was eager to try some other things. One of them was to write a news column and I did that for three years at one of the largest newspapers in the world. I got that out of my system, at least for the time being, and had promised myself because I had been working steady since I was 14 years old that by the time that I got to this point in my life I was going to retire. An athlete puts in 20 years and he can retire and no one cares. A soldier and a police officer can do the same thing, so why not a newspaper person? But then when the Tribune called me this time, I began to think that some unfinished business for me was that the Chicago Tribune sports column was--to me in my business--one of the great jobs in the world. I just couldn't pass it up.
CS.com: Not many sports writers move on to writing news columns or gain that world view. You've covered a number of Olympics and have written a lot on sports other than the so-called big three. How important is that to you as a writer to have that awareness?
Downey: It's useful. You not only wind up with contacts all over the world but it's a reminder that there are people in the Tribune's reading audience who are not as concerned with Eddy Curry of the Bulls or why the Blackhawks traded Tony Amonte as they are about Wimbledon or Ryder Cup golf or the Athens 2004 Olympics, things that I've cared about a lot all my life. Somewhere in a suburb right now is someone who doesn't care how last night's Bulls game came out but is very interested in Serena Williams or is extremely interested how the opening golf event in Kapalua is going. I was at the Tour de France when Greg Lemond became the first American to win and I think I got a greater reader reaction from an event that took place in France on bicycles than I had from a lot of the stories, maybe most of the stories, I wrote about the Dodgers. That was very revealing to me.
CS.com: There will be some people who will bash these sports by saying, "No one cares about these things." For example, last summer's World Cup where the American team made the quarterfinals was largely ignored by major sports sections under the justification that no one cares about it. And any major mention of it, it was usually bashed. Is there too much emphasis on the NBA, the NFL and baseball in sports sections?
Downey: Possibly. I spent five weeks in Italy at the 1990 World Cup and covered every inch of that country covering games. To me it was just one of the great events of my life. I found out that some people back home in my office were saying, "Well, who cares about this World Cup soccer event?" And I'm laughing because it's the biggest sporting event in the world. They would come back at me and say, "Nobody I know watches soccer." And I would tell them, "Then get out more." Just because you live in a neighborhood that isn't a bunch of soccer fans. In L.A. and in Chicago, too, you have multi-cultural communities that care about nothing but soccer. You take Chicago, which has the largest Polish population in the world outside of Warsaw itself, these people care about soccer. They don't even care necessarily if Poland is good in the World Cup, but they'll be interested in how Hungary is doing, how the Czech Republic is doing, how anyone, how Brazil versus Germany is going to come out. A lot of people here, their families didn't grow up with baseball, basketball, football. And in sports departments, sometimes the people who occupy sports departments grew up only caring about those games and they have to get over it.
CS.com: You use humor a lot in your columns and use it eloquently, not just as cheap shots, but to make a larger point.
Downey: There are funnier guys than me in sports writing today. People who genuinely make me laugh like Scott Ostler and Norman Chad and Bernie Lincicome when he was with the Tribune and now in Denver is truly one of the wittiest guys in the business. There are guys who are perhaps more opinionated or even tougher, if that's the right word, like Jay Mariotti at the Sun-Times, who's one of those people, and Mike Lupica in New York, who's a good friend of mine. And you've got eloquent guys like Mitch Albom in Detroit, who replaced me there. I'd like to strike a balance of all that. It would be like being a hitter to me who wasn't going to lead the league in home runs and wasn't going to hit .350 or something. But if I could maybe hit some gappers now and then and try to be Mark Grace--I can't be Sosa or something-- and maybe I can play every day. I'd settle for that.
CS.com: How important is it to laugh at yourself rather than take a cheap shot at a player or owner?
Downey: I like to take cheap shots at sportswriters more than anyone else. It's a pretty funny profession. We follow athletes around and chronicle their exploits. Too many sports writers take themselves way too seriously. The only thing I would stand up for my profession for is sometimes the public says, "Well, who told you guys you were experts?" Well, I never claimed to be one. I'm not an expert. I'm just an observer who's seen a lot of games and been to an awful lot of events. I'm just trying to give people my take on it. They can take it or leave it. I don't know that I have any special insight or knowledge that will impress anyone. I'm must hoping to entertain a little bit and once in a while, I might say something that someone can tell somebody else that Downey had a pretty good line today and I'll settle for that.
CS.com: The reader is important to you. Is the purpose of the sports column a dialogue between you and the reader?
Downey: I don't care much for what the athletes think about it. I care solely what the readers think about it. They pay my salary, they buy the paper, they take out the ads. These people support sportswriters. All the reader has to do in return is understand that I'm not always going to be in agreement with him or her. Someone will write in and say, well, "How come you don't write more about swimming?" The answer isn't any bias against swimming, it's just I can't get around to everything. I'm sure someone out there will assume I'm a fan of one team more than another when it's not the case that I have some certain bias against a person or team or sports. I'd like to believe I'm as objective as anybody out there. I hated Eddie Murray as much as any human being whoever played baseball and my Hall of Fame ballot came a few weeks ago and I put my X right by Eddie Murray. I know a good player when I see one.
CS.com: Speaking of which, what about Ryne Sandberg?
Downey: Ryne Sandberg I voted for. I realize that's a hot-button topic in Chicago right now. I didn't automatically X him off; I studied the stats in his case and had presumed while I was watching Ryne Sandberg that I was watching a Hall-of-Famer. But I did want to do some comparative checking on that and sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. To me he was a Hall-of-Famer, so I voted for him. I have to be honest and say I did not vote for Bruce Sutter and I loved Bruce Sutter. I loved watching him pitch, but he wasn't a Hall-of-Famer to me. I know people will disagree with that, but I didn't vote for him.
CS.com: You've spent a large part of your life writing about sports. What is sports -- the people who watch it -- to you? Is it merely entertainment? How do you justify writing about sports to yourself?
Downey: I think sports has more to do with civic pride than anything else I know of. It's the one time that people rally around their community and state. There is an entire state that gets involved if Nebraska's football team is good. Norman, Okla., didn't celebrate Oklahoma's football season; Oklahoma did. Tell me a time that Chicagoans got together more and enjoyed themselves more than when the Bears won the Super Bowl or when the Bulls won that first NBA championship. I just think this is more than toys and games. I think it's the one thing that rallies people together and gives them something to look forward to.
CS.com: What's your first column going to be? Are you writing an intro column or you just going to jump right in? How much have you thought about this?
Downey: I have. My first news column in Los Angeles I was going to dive right in. Mike Royko used to talk about how boring it can become when columnists write about themselves. I took that to heart and agreed with that, but my editor asked me to do an introductory column. I think my first line was, "Hello, my name is Mike and I'm a recovering sportswriter." It was the same thing, just trying to be clever and I probably wasn't. But I felt that some people needed to know something about me. The thing is, I had already been an L.A. columnist in sports for 12 years. Now, I'm not new to Chicago as a human being, but I'm new to the Tribune sports pages, so my first column on Sunday, Jan. 19 will be an introductory column, welcoming myself back to Chicago. If no one else in Chicago welcomes me back, at least I'll welcome myself back. And then I'll go to the Super Bowl. I still have a home in Los Angeles and I'm going to drive down to the Super Bowl and spend a week at that and there'll be a week's worth of columns. I wish the Bears were in the game. That would be the only thing that would improve it.