Affectionately known as “Sully” by his contemporaries in the media, Paul Sullivan is in his 12th year covering the baseball beat for the Chicago Tribune. He’s seen his share of baseball, and is not afraid to write the truth. In this interview, he shares his career background, and talks about being a Tribune reporter covering a Tribune-owned team. He also talks about what it was like dealing with Sammy Sosa, and a key player’s potentially serious health concern he kept under wraps.
The Heckler: What’s your background, and how did you get started in the business?
Paul Sullivan: I got an English degree at the University of Missouri and came to the Tribune in 1981 as a copy clerk. I moved my way up through the system. I was a reporter city side. I worked for Mike Royko for two years, and Preps Plus for two years. I covered the Hawks for a year. That was my first full-time beat. Then I moved to baseball in ’94 full-time covering the Sox.
TH: Did you ask to get into sports?
PS: No, Royko made the decision for me. You worked a couple of years under Royko as his legman, and basically he decides where he wants to put you, or if he wants to put you anywhere. He could have, I guess, just fired me. But he took pity on me and sent me to sports. I had no intention of getting into sports. I’ve spent the last 18 years there, so I guess it’s an okay beat.
TH: So Royko had that much influence at the paper that he determined where people worked?
PS: He had a lot of influence. He saved my career. If it wasn’t for him, I don’t know what I would be doing, probably washing dishes.
TH: How did he save your career?
PS: He hired me when I was being let go by the Tribune to be his legman.
TH: What were the duties of the legman? Was it doing research for stories or getting his coffee?
PS: It was doing his reporting, though you definitely did get coffee. It was mostly reporting and research. For instance, I had to research everyone in Congress’s war records. If they fought in a war, and compare that to their voting record whether they were pro-war or anti-war, or pro-hawk or anti-hawk. It was a massive research project. Royko didn’t have the time to do it, so I spent hours in the library, and then he’d write one column on something I worked two months on. But it was worth it. It was a great experience.
TH: Was he a tough boss to work for?
PS: He was a very tough boss to work for. He was like a Bobby Knight type where he would be in your face and screaming, and you couldn’t stand the guy while you were working for him some days, but he also had a mellow side. He was hilarious, and obviously a big Cubs fan as everybody knows, so we had that in common. I think that’s probably why he sent me to do sports, because we always talked about the Cubs so much.
TH: Does being the beat writer for the team instead of a columnist affect you as far as the questions you ask the players, since you see them every day?
PS: I don’t think people understand the difference between a columnist and a beat writer. A beat writer is supposed to be fairly objective. Obviously if I was totally objective it would be pretty boring, but I think most of it is based on the premise of objectivity. A columnist can say whatever he wants. He can go off on a rant against one of the players. I’ve got to deal with the players, so I try to get along with everyone if I can. It’s not always possible, but I think I make an effort.
TH: Being an employee of the Tribune, have your superiors ever put any constraints on you as far as what questions you could ask or what you could write about?
PS: No, they basically leave me alone. The Tribune gets criticized a lot, but I’ve shown before that I’m willing to criticize the general manager or manager, like Ed Lynch, Jim Riggleman, or Andy MacPhail even. If criticism is merited, I’ll criticize, but I’m not a ripper or a guy just looking to knife people, and there are some guys like that. The Tribune basically leaves me alone. I find my own stories every day and send them in just like any other beat writer.
TH: Aside from the injuries, what do you think was the biggest problem last year as to why this team didn’t make the playoffs?
PS: Injuries to Wood and Prior primarily. I think that hurricane actually hurt them more than they can say or anyone can say, because even though it gave them a nice break at the beginning of September, they had to play the last three weeks straight. That one road trip was really killer, because I had to do all of those games. I’m not making excuses for them, they did it themselves, but that last road trip was a pretty grueling trip. It seemed like they were getting over it, and then they blew those games in New York, and after that, it was all downhill. I’m not saying the hurricane is the fault, but they were mentally and physically exhausted at the end.
TH: How would you compare Dusty Baker as a manager to previous managers of the team?
PS: I think he’s probably the best manager they have had since Leo Durocher. I think his track record speaks for itself. People want to focus on all the hoopla last year with the Steve Stone thing. I don’t think that was handled particularly well, but as far as his overall year, they won a lot of games without Prior and Wood. He kept them in the race all year, so I think he takes a lot more blame than he deserves.
TH: You mentioned Riggleman. What did you think of him as a manager?
PS: I didn’t think he was that good of a manager. He was okay, but I think managing is part psychological and part tactical. You’ve got to be able to deal with these guys and I think Riggleman, for whatever reason, seemed real removed from the whole clubhouse. Whereas Dusty, for better or worse, he seems pretty involved with his clubhouse. Riggleman, Lefebvre, Treblehorn. There’s a whole bunch of them you could really say were the same guy to me. They were all blah. They were just there.
TH: Are there areas that you think they should have addressed in the offseason that weren’t with this team?
PS: I think they should have improved the bullpen more. They got rid of Farnsworth. As much as Farnsworth aggravated all of us, (he was great material for the Heckler) I really think that he had a lot of talent that if he put it together, he could have a good year. We saw it a few years ago. I don’t think that was a good move trading him and not getting a major leaguer in return. I think they should have looked harder for a closer. I don’t think the Dempster closer thing was ever in anyone’s mind. I think that was something that they threw at us for whatever reason. I do agree with the Sammy Sosa move, even though they didn’t get much for him. I think they thought the starting pitching was so good that it could carry the team, and it can, but if they’re injured, they’re in a lot of trouble.
TH: You mentioned before that leading off was a tough spot for Patterson. Do you think they should have addressed the leadoff position?
PS: The only position they could have really squeezed a leadoff guy into… it would have had to have been an outfielder. Maybe a Jacque Jones. I can’t think of who was all out there. It is hard to get a good leadoff guy, but I just wish they would leadoff Walker (before he was injured) and move Corey down in the lineup. If you look at the stats last year, Walker, when he was leading off, was among the top average-wise leadoff hitters in baseball. I’m not down on Corey. I think he’s going to have a big year, but he just strikes out too much to be a leadoff hitter to me.
TH: How difficult was it dealing with Sammy Sosa as the Cubs beat writer?
PS: It was aggravating. I’ve probably written hundreds of stories about Sammy Sosa, and maybe a couple of handfuls of them have been what he could think of as negative. And that’s all he ever thought about, was the times you criticized him. He was like a one strike and you’re out guy. You criticize him once and you’re through. I was recently talked with Frank Thomas. I had a lot of fights with Frank when I covered the White Sox, but we still talk, and we can still have a normal conversation. So I think he [Sosa] was just too thin-skinned for Chicago. You have to have a thicker skin if you’re going to play in this town and he didn’t have it.
TH: Barry Bonds has blamed the media for his problems. Was Sosa comparable to Bonds in that aspect where he acted like a jerk to the media, like [ESPN’s] Pedro Gomez mentioned that Bonds was?
PS: No, most of my career I had a good relationship with Sammy. It was only after the cork episode that something changed. I covered him for five seasons and I would say three and a half of them were great. Once I criticized him for the cork thing, that was it. I just ignored him after that. I didn’t have any problems. If we were in a big group session interviewing him, he wouldn’t be rude to me or anything. He was professional mostly, but not all of the time. I wish him well. I hope he has a good stay in Baltimore and a good career. I just think it’s better off that they don’t have him here.
TH: Is there anything you suppressed at the request of a player, or something that you thought might affect your relationship with a player that you kept quiet?
PS: Just once. Kerry Wood had an injury in ’99 where he was sent to the hospital with a tiny hole in his heart. I found out in spring training and I was working on it and I didn’t write it. I wanted to talk to him first, and then he blew out his elbow in spring training. So I talked to him and said I knew about this heart thing, but since he’s out for the season anyway, I said I’ll just not write it. And then at the end of the season I’m going to write it, if you want to talk about it then. So I held it for the whole season, and he agreed to an interview at the end of the season.
TH: Do you think baseball has addressed the steroid issue the right way, and how do you think it has affected the game?
PS: Obviously it changed the record books with Sammy and McGwire, possibly Sammy. I agree that there should be stricter testing, but I don’t think the blame is being put on the right people. Sure the players, you’ve got to blame the ones that did it, but [MLB’s former Chief Operating Officer] Sandy Alderson was the GM with Oakland when McGwire and Canseco were there, and I think Giambi was just coming up. That whole organization to me…they were the ones who legitimized using in baseball because people could see them doing it, and they were getting away with it. And I even asked Sandy Alderson a couple of weeks ago about this, and he suspected Canseco, but he never said anything to him. So I said, why didn’t you say something to him and he said, “Well, he had already denied it.” Well, you’re his boss, so if he knew you knew, maybe he would have stopped doing it or been afraid of doing it. I think he was an enabler, and once Oakland got all juiced up, everyone thought, well, they’re doing it. I think he’s one of the worst offenders. Donald Fehr, keeping the drug testing policy off the table; that was a bad thing. Bud Selig obviously; there’s a lot of people to blame, and not just the players. Probably the media, too, because we were focusing on smaller parks and the harder baseball when obviously we weren’t looking and it was right in front of our eyes. People basically ignored it, just thinking, they’re taking Creatine and Andro, or some lesser supplement. So I blame everybody, including myself.
TH: As a member of the media in the late-’90s, and everybody was saying the ball was juiced, the parks were smaller, and the talent wasn’t as good. Did you think in the back of your mind watching these guys that they were on the juice and you just kept it suppressed?
PS: I’ve had Cubs players tell me, ‘Why don’t you write about Sammy?’ and I said, you want to come out and say you’re accusing him, then sure, I’ll write about it. But no one ever would and I had no proof of it, so you can’t write something when you don’t have any proof.
TH: Do you think the records should be stricken from the books if it’s found out that these guys did use steroids?
PS: I don’t know since it was legal and wasn’t banned in baseball. McGwire was doing it, so that’s a tricky question. Would you get rid of Doc Ellis’s no hitter because he threw it on acid? Is that a performance-enhancing drug? That became a legendary story, so why don’t you put an asterisk by his name? I’m sure there are players that did amphetamines, so should we put asterisks by their names because they were on amphetamines when they hit home runs? There’s always going to be new drugs, improved drugs, drugs that nobody is able to detect. I think this is an issue that is going to go on and on.