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.
INSIDE THE WAKE