I'm sure I'll catch some flack for having a feature called "hanging with the cool" and featuring Barry Rozner as "the cool". The lead columnist from the northwest suburban paper can rankle some feathers.
Some enjoy him immensely, some despise him. And some, like myself, dabble between both camps. But there's some things you have to say about this former beer vending, beat reporting, Scotch drinking, golf analyzing, horse betting, radio show hosting, columnist we call Barry: He doesn't take it personally, and he's more than happy to talk about it. Which is what we did when we started exchanging e-mails. Enjoy.
Fels: So, let's start off with Barry the beer vendor. How did this start? How long did it last? Were you vending pre- and during the Haray Caray era? Because I saw a huge sway in beer drinking Cub fan populi and not for the better either. Was their a difference in selling to regular beer drinking galoots of the early 80's and the fraternity swill that filled the Bleachers during the Cub fan Bud man era? And how much of the beer did you just wind up drinking yourself?
Rozner: It was really out of necessity. I needed a job and I usually spent most of my summers at the ballpark anyway, so when I was old enough I started vending. Even before that, I would flip up seats for a free pass to the next day’s game, and a couple times I helped pick up garbage on the field. I knew some guys who were vendors and they told me how to get into the union. I was a vendor from ’77-’84. In high school, I’d work the night games at Comiskey in the spring and fall. In the summer, both ballparks. In college, on the weekends I’d come in for NHL, NBA, NFL and MLB games.
I started on pop, moved to peanuts and Frosty Malts, and finally beer when I was 21. I also had a food stand under the North end zone at Soldier Field and all the Bears would walk by on the way to the locker room. Every week, Walter Payton would ask if we had Reggie Bars. Every week, I’d explain that we only have Oh Henrys. One week, I stopped on the way to the game and bought him a Reggie Bar. I wish I knew what he ran for that day.
The good news is that the crowds got bigger after Harry Caray arrived. The bad news is once it became the place to be in 1984, much of the new crowd in the boxes didn’t drink, so I had to move my operation to the bleachers. It was a great summer job and a great way to see the games. My last game was Game 2 of the 1984 NLCS. I sat in the bleachers after that game and thought about what Wrigley Field would look like the next week in the World Series. Still wondering what it will look like.
Fels: So you go from being a doe eyed sports fan to going to Wrigley Field as a beat reporter. Now every reporter I've spoken to or listened to is that once you start covering the team, your fandom goes right out the window. Did you find this to be the case? Also, how much easier was it then to be a beat writer?
Rozner: It was certainly a different time in the newspaper business and the baseball business. It’s true that the first time I walked into the Cubs’ clubhouse in 1985 to do a sidebar was probably the last time I cared about who won or lost. It’s a newspaper thing. The fan in you is gone. There’s a job to do. By the time I became the beat guy, I was just focused on the effort. Most guys – if they were being honest – would tell you that, if anything, they sometimes find themselves rooting against the team they cover. It’s like anything else you see from afar, the closer you get to it the less you like it. You know, once you see the sausage made…
It was a much easier job 20 years ago than it is today. Before the Internet and especially social media, you could break stories every day. If you wanted to work hard, there were stories in that room every single day. Lots of them. It’s tough now. The access to players, coaches and managers is so limited. You walk into a clubhouse before a game today and most guys are hiding somewhere. After a game, there’s three guys sitting at their lockers with plates of food. The manager speaks to the entire press corps at one time. When I covered the Cubs, before they went to hit, probably 22 guys were at their lockers. After a game, same thing.
There were Hall of Famers all over the room and they understood their responsibility, especially if they made a mistake that day. They were there waiting for the media, and the younger guys learned from them. If they weren’t standing up for what happened that day, it’s pretty likely a veteran was going to tell them that part of the job is to talk to the fans, and that’s how they spoke to the fans. On the road, it was three beat guys and local press probably wasn’t interested, so you had the room to yourself.
I’d get to a game four hours early and I had the run of the joint. It was not uncommon to sit alone with the manager for an hour before a game, or sit in the coaches room for an hour and that’s when you learned all the good stuff. I think the beat guys today have a much tougher job.
Fels: So how does that work.... one day you're a beat reporter, and your job is to be as informative and as thorough as possible. The next day you're a columnist, where it's your opinion that matters. The two seem like totally different jobs. In fact it would seem that your work as a beat reporter ( which was excellent) might actually hinder your columns on the Cubs.
Is it harder to write columns on the Cubs, having had as much exposure to the organization as you have? Sure it's a whole new regime. And things should be totally different. But when you've seen how the sausages are made like you have....
Rozner: I didn’t find it to be a difficult transition. You always strive to find a balance, whether reporter or columnist. It’s always in the back of your mind. You ask questions. Is this fair? Is this honest? Have I gone too far? Am I giving the reader the best information? If you are being fair and honest and you haven’t gone out of your way to be mean-spirited, then you can’t worry about the reaction. If you worry about what people will think, whether it’s people on the playing field or in the stands, then you won’t tell the truth and that’s unfair to the reader.
Look, most Cub fans think I’m a Sox fan, and most Sox fans think I’m a Cub fan. So I must have done something right. In this job, you’re going to piss off a lot of people every single day. No one wants to be hated, but some people are going to hate you for whatever reasons they find when they wake up that day. I’m still amazed that I can cause such reactions, but you know me well enough to know I don’t take myself that seriously.
I don’t believe I’m the final word on anything. I’m paid to have an opinion and I give my opinions, but it’s just one guy’s opinion. You are entitled to yours, as I am to mine. I don’t take it personally when people get angry. As Jerry Seinfeld said, “If they don’t like the show, it means they don’t like the act. I don’t take it to mean they don’t like me. They don’t even know me. How could they make that determination?”
Fels: Well let's get into that... Part of that is simply the job that you have. I don't know any columnist that was ever universally loved. Maybe Roger Ebert. And even then there were "Siskel guys". The role of the columnist has lightning rod qualities to it. And your job is to have an opinion. But how you state that opinion is where I think people draw their anger. I have no problem with you bashing the Cubs. God knows they deserve it. But there were times where I believe you overdo it. Your whole criticism of the Jim Hendry passing on Ryne Sandberg for manager read like a personal attack.
I thought what you wrote was utter crap. Same with the whole "Kerry Wood came back because he's Tom Rickett's mascot." That incensed me to no end..... (Then you turn around and write that epic beautiful farewell to Kerry on his last day.......You bastard. Wish I could write like you sometimes.) You have an opinion, that's cool. You call Kerry Wood a "mascot" you're making a choice to piss people off.
Are there times where you look at a column and say "Hmm maybe a little overboard. But that's the point i want to make." Are there times you wish you took a different tone?
Rozner: Interesting questions. You have a future as an interrogator. I’ve known both Sandberg and Hendry a very long time. Personally, I’m fond of both. Thing is, I don’t have the luxury of having friends and giving an honest opinion, so I lose a lot of relationships in the process. It’s an unfortunate part of the job. On Sandberg, your recollection of things I wrote couldn’t be more wrong. But perceptions and recollections are often far from reality.
The reality is I never once, in print or on radio, suggested Sandberg deserved to be the next Cubs’ manager. Never. On the contrary, I said many times that hiring Sandberg under these circumstances would probably not end well for the Cubs or Sandberg, something that angered many Sandberg supporters. I criticized Hendry for never telling Sandberg the truth, which is that he never had any intention of hiring Sandberg to coach or manage in the big leagues.
I said that from the time Sandberg finished his first year at Peoria. Hendry never liked it when I wrote it, but it was true. The great thing about Hendry is we would have it out on something, he’d have his say and he’d let it go. Not many GMs are like that. I just knew Sandberg wasn’t a Hendry guy, and that’s OK. As a GM, you better hire the guy you think is right or you will be sorry. But I thought Hendry owed him that honesty.
Sandberg’s dream was to manage here and he couldn’t see what was obvious to me, knowing all the parties involved. He stayed until he could finally see it for what it was. Epstein, conversely, told Sandberg immediately that he would not be considered. Like that decision or not, it allowed Sandberg to move on. In any case, to say I bashed the Cubs for not hiring Sandberg is patently untrue. Others in this town certainly wrote that, but it wasn’t me.
As for Kerry Wood, he’s another guy I liked a lot. I admire Wood and never blamed him for getting hurt, or the Cubs’ ill-timed decision to extend him in 2004. They paid him. That’s their problem, not his. I thought his claim that he choked after Game 7 in 2003 was one of the most commendable statements I’ve ever heard, albeit completely fictional. Wood was exhausted and almost certainly hurt already. Watching him walk around the mound near the end of his start in Game 3 reminded me of Rick Sutcliffe stalling for time between pitches when he was in agony from shoulder pain.
Wood had no chance in Game 7. The man was on fumes and you could see it from the first pitch in Game 7. He didn’t choke. He was cooked. But he took the blame when he didn’t have to, trying to take heat off his teammates. Quite honorable. However, when he came back near the end and passed on chances to go to winning teams, when he knew the Cubs would be terrible, it baffled me.
Guys make choices for personal reasons, family reasons, and I get that, but if you’re a competitive person, how can you pass on a chance to win? I’ll never get that especially when you know you’re almost out of chances. That’s a Cubs culture thing and it has to change. If you’re so comfortable here that you don’t want to leave for a chance at a ring, there’s something wrong with what’s going on here. It’s still happening today. That’s why I didn’t like the “mascot’’ idea. It was merely to sell tickets and Ricketts’ decision sent the wrong message just when Epstein was trying to send a new message.
Wood was done and everyone knew it. Turns out, he didn’t last very long. It’s a tough word to use and it pissed a lot of people off, but I don’t regret it. Yes, I’ve written things I read the next morning and thought I went too far, or maybe chose the wrong words. That was wasn’t one of them. Then, Wood did the right thing and retired. I wrote, as I always do, from the heart and with passion. He deserved praise and I meant every word of it. I take each issue and each day as it comes.
Just because I didn’t like his choice to come back here doesn’t have anything to do with writing about his career, the best game ever pitched and his decision to retire. That piece on Wood you liked so much, and I appreciate the kind words, also pissed off a lot of people who thought I should have ripped him for a failure to live up to his promise. So there you go. Like I said before, in this job you’re always pissing someone off. But there’s a time and a place for everything, and there was no reason that day to criticize Wood.
As you probably recall, I wasn’t a big fan of Sammy Sosa, a guy I pounded pretty hard a few hundred times. But when the Cubs threw him under the bus at the end of 2004, I defended him against the Cubs’ transparent tactics. Talk about pissing people off. Holy s***! I got killed for that, but wrong is wrong. The Cubs supported, enabled, defended and covered up for Sosa to their own benefit and profit until he served them no purpose, and then they trashed him. Suddenly, the saint was evil. It’s just wrong. I can’t ignore that just because I think the guy is a pile of crap.
I make mistakes all the time and make the wrong call frequently. If you’re going to have opinions every day, whatever the format, you’re going to be wrong. I promise you that. But on Wood and Sandberg, just as on Sosa, I said what I felt, what I knew to be true, and don’t regret anything about it.
Fels: Rapid fire time.....Ready? Good. Who could you throw further, Paul Sullivan or George Offman?
Rozner: Ofman, soaking wet and carrying his computer bag.
Fels: Player you wish you experienced as a fan instead of as a media member?
Rozner: Barry Bonds.
Fels: Favorite Cub?
Rozner: Andre Dawson.
Fels: Favorite Scotch?
Rozner: The kind someone else pays for.
Fels: Most gullible person to a prank in the press box?
Rozner: If I tell you, I won’t be able to do it anymore.
Fels: Best Cubs trade in your lifetime?
Rozner: DeJesus for Bowa and Sandberg.
Fels: Worst Cub trade in your lifetime?
Rozner: Lee Smith for Calvin Schiraldi and Al Nipper.
Fels: Most over loved Cub?
Rozner: Aramis Ramirez.
Fels: Most under appreciated Cub?
Rozner: Rick Reuschel. No kidding. 97th all time in WAR. All time. Look it up.
Fels: The last great round of golf I shot was at _______
Rozner: Steeplechase, a 78 in late April. Only second time breaking 80. I could give you a hole-by-hole breakdown, including a horrific 3-putt on 9, back-to-back birds on 10 and 11, and chipping in for bird from 70 feet on 17, but I know you don’t really care. No one cares about anyone else’s golf game, fantasy team or NCAA bracket. So let me start with an up-and-down for par on the first…
Fels: Best golf course in the Chicagoland area that people don't know about?
Rozner: Chevy Chase in Wheeling.
Fels: Will Tiger win a major this year?
Fels: Which one?
Rozner: The British and the PGA.
Fels: Say something funny about Matt Spiegel.....
Rozner: He has a very serious Twitter addiction that I fear threatens his family life, sanity and very existence. I’ve begged him to get help, but he doesn’t see it as a problem. Actually, this isn’t funny at all. He needs an intervention.
Fels: What happens first, Cubs go to the World Series or Barry Rozner goes to Vancouver?
Rozner: I’m not stupid, all evidence to the contrary. I don’t have a death wish. I’ll say Cubs in the World Series.
Fels: Thank you sir, we now have time for your closing statement......
Rozner: I have the greatest job in the world. I’m really lucky to be doing what I’m doing and in the city in which I always wanted to do it. I’m grateful for all the opportunities I’ve been given. I think that pretty much says it all.
In addition to reading Barry in the Daily Herald, he hosts the best best baseball show on radio- Hit & Run, on WSCR every Sunday from 9a.m.-12p.m.