A People with Passion series
December 6, 2011: Jon Greenberg
A Bucktown apartment, ESPN on the screen, twitter on the computer, and two shelves packed with sports books. I take a long scan of those shelves; seemingly every book that pops into my head is there. Friday Night Lights, Playing For Keeps, the Jordan Rules, Summer of ’49…
When I first read Jon Greenberg’s column on ESPN Chicago, I assumed he was a born-and-bred Chicagoan. A north shore suburbanite, probably. He had a feel for the city that felt authentic. Turns out, Greenberg grew up a Pittsburgh fan in the near-border town of Steubenville, OH. His worst moment growing up was a Game 7, but it wasn’t the 1990 Eastern Conference Finals, but rather the 1992 National League Championship Series.
In the 17th installment of my Chicago journalism People With Passion interview series, ESPN Chicago columnist Jon Greenberg discusses his path to ESPN, his love of Royko, his understanding of Chicago sports fans, and why “don’t write for free” is faulty advice.
I wasn’t a big sports fan growing up until probably middle school. My step dad wasn’t a huge sports fan. My older brother got me into baseball a little bit but it wasn’t like we were a baseball family. So I kind of got into it in middle school to fit in. I used to love watching the Sports Reporters on ESPN, the old show with Dick Schaap. I thought that was awesome.
We would get three papers every day: the Post-Gazette in Pittsburgh, because I lived on the border, the Steubenville paper, which was terrible, and USA Today, which I used to think was good. (Laughs.) No, it is. USA Today is fine. We used to get USA at my dad’s jewelry store. He would bring it home, and that was a window into the national media.
I just started reading and reading. My older brother was on the school paper when he was in high school, and I started my freshman year because I wanted to do that. I wanted to do that ever since I was a freshman in high school, and that’s kind of what I stuck with. That’s what I used to read. That’s what I loved reading.
I got really into sports books probably around junior year of high school. One of the first big ones was probably Fab Five. And I know the worthiness of that book has been debated, or kind of cast aside. It’s still a great book though. Some of it might be, debated I guess is the good way to say it. But that was the first one I read a ton of times. I’ve read that a bunch. I started getting the Best American Sportswriting. I still have the first one, the first Best American Sportswriting, probably from ’96. Re-reading the stories over and over and over.
I was from Pittsburgh originally. My mom got re-married and we moved to Steubenville. Steubenville is like living in Hammond, IN. You’re basically a part of Pittsburgh. I had friends who were Browns fans or Bengals fans. A lot of people were Ohio State fans. I wasn’t. When I started liking sports, I didn’t have the family aspect bringing it into me. It was my choices. Besides the Pittsburgh teams, I liked Michigan. I liked the helmets. Desmond Howard. I liked the Fab Five. I didn’t like Ohio State. Sixth grade. Maybe fifth. I liked baseball a little before that. My older brother was an Oakland A’s fan. Because that was McGwire, Canseco, Henderson and that stuff.
But the Pirates were good though when you were young.
Right. Pittsburgh got really good in 1990. They had those three straight years. So then I became a big Pittsburgh fan. I was a big fan of my high school football team. They were like the Steelers to us. We were the second winningest high school in the state. It’s that Friday Night Lights thing. The town doesn’t shut down or anything, but Friday night we all went to the games. It was a social event. It was fun. I got really into it when my friends started playing.
That helped wanting to be a sportswriter too. First sports story I wrote was a journal entry in 8th grade about how the Pirates weren’t going to fall apart after Barry Bonds left, and they were at least going to finish .500 the next year. That shows how good my predictions are. 20 years later, I’m still waiting for that .500 season.
You know, even with the Bulls being great, I tended to define my fandom more based on the things that went wrong than the things that went right.
Right, I agree. I think that’s how you define a fan.
So what was the big crippling moment for you? I had Game 7 1990. Pistons. Left Donny Burba’s house in tears.
You know, I’ve thought about this moment before. I’ve even written it a little bit. It was Game 7, ’92 NLCS. I don’t know where my older brother was and why I was watching it alone, but I was. I was watching it in our little den on that old 70s/80s couch that’s really rough. We still had that. And I was watching it by myself. And you get tired. The game is on late. And I’m watching it, I’m watching it, and there was this air of like, you knew this was it for the Pirates. You knew Bonds was leaving. The team was in financial turmoil. Everyone knew that. I read the Post-Gazette every day. It’s really depressing. You knew it was coming, but god, you felt so good about this team.
You know when you watch a game and you’re half asleep? And you’re in and out and you’re in and out. I remember as the Braves were rallying, I didn’t see that one run they scored to tie it. I missed it somehow. [Ed. note: Entering the bottom of the 9th, the Pirates led 2-0. Atlanta scored one run on a bases-loaded sacrifice fly with no outs, and then won the game on a two-out single that scored both the tying and winning runs.] So when the winning run was scored, I was like, “Man, they’re celebrating a lot for tying the game.”
“Why is Van Slyke sitting down in the outfield?” And I was like, “Oh shit.” I remember them sitting down, and just that feeling of failure. You just knew it was over, man. You had a feeling back then that your teams would never win. It was just never going to happen.
The Pirates still haven’t had a .500 season. My friends and I got all excited this year. I was this close to buying the package, the MLB package to watch the rest of the games. I was so into it. And then they lost that game in 19 innings, and they lost ten straight and that was it. (Picks Pirates hat up from the couch and puts it on.) This is the only hat I own. A Pirates hat. I don’t buy hats unless it’s my team. I have all these Pirates and Steelers t-shirts I can never wear. In sportswriting, I won’t get to watch the Steelers most weeks because I’m covering the Bears. So it’s kind of beaten sports fandom out of me a little bit.
So college, you’re doing all sportswriting?
Yeah. I did work study for the public radio station, but besides that I did sportswriting. I was a beat writer sophomore year, got assistant sports editor in football and basketball my junior year. Senior year I worked for the local paper, the Athens Messenger, which is probably one of those 7,000, six-day week circs, but I had to cover football and basketball every game. (Laughs.)
You know, it kills your social life. I didn’t go to every road game, but I went to most. I was busy, but it was fun. Those were great times. I wish I would have been a more aggressive beat writer back then, but it was fun.
At what point did you know that ESPN Chicago was going to be something getting under way?
I think I read it like everyone else did. And I don’t remember where I read it first, but it hit the wire local, and I looked at the story and the only guy quoted was some guy in Bristol. I waited and didn’t do anything, and then I thought, Man, I should really just apply. I mean, I applied late.
I was talking with a buddy of mine. His girlfriend knew someone at the radio station, and he and I were talking about it. He’s like, “Dude, you gotta apply for this.” He was already part of ESPN at this point, but he didn’t even know. Nobody knew what was going on with this. She gave me just a random sales guy she knew there. She e-mailed him for me, which was awesome. That really helped.
He just gave me the name. If I emailed the guy at ESPN, maybe he passes it along, maybe he doesn’t. I didn’t know anybody there but a couple of reporters. So I email the contacts I get. I send my resume, cover letter. I just did links to clips. I almost think that’s easier nowadays. Just in an email. I didn’t mail this huge package.
I was doing columns for the Huffington Post too – I forgot to say that. In 2008, I’m like, I’m not doing enough. A.P., you’re doing game stories. MLB.com, same thing. Daily Herald I think had petered out at that point. Their freelance budget was down. So I emailed the Trib, the Sun-Times, and the Huffington Post Chicago with ideas. Like, “We need to do maybe more of a deadspin-type thing for your site. Like a fun blog for your sports site.” McGrath didn’t email me back, but I think that was around the end of his time. The Sun-Times didn’t email me back, although I noticed they started something. I don’t know if they did it at the same time or if it was after I wrote it. (Laughs.) But they did do one exactly like I said.
And then the Huffington Post guy emailed me back. He works for the News Cooperative now. Ben Goldberger. He’s like, “Yeah, I like it, let’s do it.” I was writing like – man, I’m not saying they’re that great, but Huffington Post you can write whatever you want. I think at one point about the Cubs, I said, “Even Sarah Palin would want to abort this team.” I mean, can you believe that got in? That was during the ’08 playoffs after they lost Game 2.
Anyway, what I was saying was I didn’t know I was applying to be a columnist [at ESPN]. They were like, “Do you have any column clips?” I sent them column clips and they were like, “We really like these.”
That’s a lesson, and I’ve said this before to kids and other people. People say, “Don’t write for free.” Well that’s b.s. Don’t get taken advantage of, but writing is writing. And it’s not writing for free. If you’re getting something out of it, it’s not free. My wife even used to kid me. She’s like, “Why are you working so hard on these Huffington Post columns when you’re not getting paid?” “Well, I’m working on my writing.” I’d love to be getting paid. But that helped me get this job. I wouldn’t have gotten this columnist job I don’t think without it.
Your first ESPN column was a White Sox column. And you’re talking about the White Flag Trade, which would have been when you were a senior in high school –
Right. I remember that. I actually liked the White Sox at Steubenville. It was weird. My AL team. (Laughs.)
You interviewed some White Sox fans, and then you dropped Algren and Royko. When I first saw you, I assumed you were a Chicago dude. You seemed to have the backstory down. Did you educate yourself when you got here? Did you have to seek out the city’s best work, or did you know City On the Make already? And Boss already?
I read Boss in middle school. One of my middle school history teachers was a big Royko fan, and used to read us his syndicated columns in class. We’d do a book report about something, history-type stuff, so I picked Boss. I remember we had to do a cover page, so I drew a machine actually chasing down citizens. (Laughs.) I love that book. I think everyone in Chicago should read Boss once a year. It should be a thing before you get your city sticker for your car. You should be able to talk about Boss. It’s such an awesome book.
But yeah, I’ve tried to educate myself. I think I understand what stuff means. I hate the hackneyed approach that people have in Chicago. They talk about deep dish and Garrett’s Popcorn. I like Harold’s. That’s Chicago.
So let me ask you this then, and this is sort of the big question here that’s on my mind. When I was a kid, and I was reading sports, it was very important to me that the guys I was reading were Chicago-based, that they were from here and that they knew what I’d been through and all that.
Was that important to you with Pittsburgh? Did you feel that way?
I don’t know if I was a big enough fan to really have those kinds of moments. Which is kind of weird, but maybe that’s good for a sportswriter, because I’m not that nuts about it. I’m a little detached almost. But yeah, I agree with what you’re saying. The basis of what you mean, I completely agree with. I don’t think writers should be fans, but they should be able to identify with what’s important. And I think a good reporter can figure that out, what’s important, what’s authentic.
I have a problem with that in the city sometimes, when I think people write specifically to get a scoop or to get on someone’s good side. And it’s like that everywhere. I’m not just saying Chicago writers are guilty of that and others aren’t, but I have a real problem when people deify someone or vilify someone because they’re trying to get in with someone good. I think that’s a huge problem and I think it happens all the time. Fans can see it though. Chicago fans, as meat-headish as they can be when they call in on sports talk radio or comment on your stories or twitter or stuff, I think they’re pretty smart.
I know a writer friend of mine, and he does it to be obnoxious, but he used to cover the Sox, and he always says how the Sox writers are all from different places but the Cubs writers are fans. Which isn’t true, but that’s his way of saying that some writers in this town are fans. You don’t want writers that are fans. Columnists, yeah, it helps to be able to identify with Chicago and the experience, but as reporters or beat writers, you don’t want fans out there. A lot of them are good enough to do both. Like Paul Sullivan’s great. He can do both. I think the stuff he writes is fantastic because he does have that history behind it. He knows how to put it in his proper context.
It is tough not being from here, sometimes. I can’t say, “Well when I was – ” (snaps fingers) – but you know, it’s funny, I followed the Bulls for those championship runs. Really, I loved them. They were the only team I liked. And I liked the White Sox back then, too. So I do have some memory, but not as much as everyone else.
Yeah, but it’s something that comes up in sportswriting but not in other fields.
Because you can go and be a political reporter in Washington, and I don’t think they get mad if you can’t remember where you were the day Nixon was re-elected, but there are sports fans who would feel that way.
Oh, especially in this town.
Like, “What? You’re from where?”
Right. “You’re not one of us.” Yeah, that’s fair. This town’s interesting too because people don’t leave. People come back here. People assume I’m from here all the time. You get the anti-semitic stuff too, Comments like “Go back to Highland Park.” I’m not from Highland Park man! (Laughs.) Jews aren’t all from Highland Park. I’m from Steubenville, Ohio. But yeah, you’re right. This town man, people come back. People want Chicagoans talking about Chicago.
But I’ve been here since ’03. I think I’ve got a decent view on the way these teams are. I’d say the Bears are probably the only one where I’m pretty shaky, just because I never follow it. Even when I moved here, I wasn’t watching the Bears that much because I was watching the Steelers games. I knew who the players were, but I don’t know the ins and outs of the Bears. Where as a freelancer I covered all of the other teams a lot more regularly.
It’s pretty simple. We don’t like quarterbacks.
Yeah, I figured that one out.
That’s pretty much it. We don’t like quarterbacks. We like everything that already happened.
You like talking about Ditka.
We like talking about Ditka.
The ’85 Bears.
Well that’s – yeah. (Sighs.) Yeah. (Pause.) And then, you know, defense and running.
Right. Running the ball. Defense.
So, is it easier for you to be impartial because you’re from Ohio? The whole “no-cheering-in-the-press-box,” is that easier for you than for somebody like Telander who’s from here?
Yeah, but you kind of get the fandom beaten out of you pretty quick in this job. So I don’t think there’s any problem with fandom. You know what’s funny? Most of the writers, like a Cubs writer will be a big fan of the Bulls or the Blackhawks. That’s kind of where they put their energy. Maybe it’s a little easier for me… I guess. But at the same time, you’re writing for the audience. You don’t want to be dismissive. You don’t want to be Mariotti and just say “Everyone’s stupid.” I know it’s important. I know what fans should care about. I think…
You disassociate yourself. It has to happen. It’s natural. But you know what though? You still are a fan of big plays. When Hester returns one we’re all like, “Woo!” Everyone can yell. You’re just not like high-fiving people. You admire the skill rather than cheer for the results. I think we all admire skill.
Okay, so then last question. You’ve been doing this for like 10 years professionally, and 3 years at ESPN. What is it that you love about what you do every day?
The first time I saw my name in a byline hooked me. And that’s very egotistical to say, but it’s true. You like to see your name in a byline. You want people to say, “Wow, I read this, and I like it.” I hope I entertain readers. That’s what I want. I want people to read it and say, “I liked that. It made me laugh a couple times. I might have learned something.” That always makes me feel good.
I like to see the news and I like to report it. Maybe it’s gossipy almost, but I like to be the one to tell someone something. And I just love writing, man. You hate it and you love it. It always made me feel good when I’d read writers say, “I absolutely hate writing,” because I used to think it was just me, that I was just too lazy or too a.d.d. to get my thoughts down. It’s frightening. And I’m such a procrastinator because I don’t like doing bad work. I’m glad that when I started reading professional writers that everyone feels the same way. If you really care about it, then you hate it.
But yeah, that’s what I came here to do. I want to keep writing and telling stories as long as I can. That’s it. I think all writers should like to write. That’s my main thing. I need to be a better reporter, and I’m trying, but I do love to write.
PREVIOUSLY IN THE SERIES:
(NOTE: The dates below refer to the date of the interview. The order is the date they were run.)
December 12, 2008: Alex Kotlowitz (re-edited August 15, 2011)