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Archive for August, 2010

In this summer of Royals Retrenchment and Waiting for Whitlock, here’s something to cheer about.

It’s not close by. But that doesn’t really matter. It’s a universal story that can be embraced by anybody anywhere.

The heroine is a three-year-old filly named Lisa’s Booby Trap (more about that in a minute), who has surmounted a club foot and blindness in one eye to become, in a matter of weeks, the most closely watched racehorse in America.

The hero is her owner and trainer, Tim Snyder, who bought the horse for $4,500 ($2,000 down, $2,500 if she won a race) after the breeder had given up on the horse.

To give you the gist — and the glory — of the situation, Lisa’s Booby Trap has won four straight races, with the most recent win coming Friday in a stakes race at prestigious Saratoga Race Course in upstate New York. She paid $5 to win on a $2 bet; the jockey was Kent Desormeaux. Earlier, she had won three races in a row at the relatively small Finger Lakes Racetrack in the same state.

The next step will be a much bigger test. She is scheduled to run at Saratoga on Saturday, Aug. 28, in a Grade III stakes race. Graded stakes are the highest levels of racing, with Grade I being the top, followed by grades two and three. But any graded race is a big deal.

New York racing fans were watching Lisa’s Booby Trap before her most recent win, but it was a New York Times story Friday morning (the day of the race) that catapulted her and her owner into celebrity status. Writer Bill Finley summed it up by saying, “Horse racing is the type of sport…where anything can happen, even a stakes victory at Saratoga by a horse that was a lost cause, with an owner and trainer who never had much more than $2,000 rolled up in his boot.”

Now for the backdrop. Snyder, who is in his 50s, has spent a good part of his life working with “claimers,” the lowest level of racing, where horses can be purchased at set prices before a given race. After the race, the new owner (or trainer) leads the horse away to his barn, while the previous owner gets the prize money, if the horse was fortunate enough to finish in the money.

Snyder’s life changed in 2003, when his wife, Lisa, died of ovarian cancer. Snyder, as Finley told it, went off to California, where he worked odd jobs for a few years and tried to regain his bearings. He returned to Finger Lakes to work for another trainer but set his sights on getting a horse of his own.

From a friend, he ended up buying an unnamed horse the friend had obtained from a breeder. Because of the club foot, the horse had an awkward gait. In addition to the blind eye, she had a shoulder problem. In an interesting juxtaposition, Snyder named her for his late wife and also for a chain of strip clubs in South Florida that he patronizes.

Stuck with the horse’s inherent defects, Snyder began experimenting with different shoes, and, lo and behold, he found a combination that worked. Just like that, Lisa’s Booby Trap began her Cinderella-like transformation.

“The big outfits, the big farms,” Snyder told Finley, “they take a horse like that and push her to the end of the line. If she didn’t have those problems, I’d never have gotten her.”

So, chalk one up for a little guy with a lot of perseverance and for a club footed filly who wanted to run and just needed the right shoes.

What a story it would be if Lisa’s booby Trap won on Aug. 28 and then went on to run in a Breeders Cup race, the world championships, at Churchill Downs in November. People from California to South Florida would be watching and rooting.

Lisa's Booby Trap and owner Tim Snyder (right) -- New York Racing Association photo

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Some of you probably are tired of reading about the Jason Whitlock saga.

But it’s got a very important element that is worth discussing — the credibility of The Kansas City Star.

The Star’s stock in trade is its credibility. Readers rely on The Star — just as readers in other cities rely on their daily papers — to get at the truth, when the truth is obscured by lies, conflicting allegations, complicated facts and just plain clutter.

For example, The Star has been working mightily to comb through the chaff of the Karen Pletz situation at Kansas City University of Medicine and Health Sciences. Was it a case of an administrator run amok, or was it a case of a board of directors that was sound asleep? Or was it both? The Star has done an excellent job, overall, of trying to sort things out, and its stories have laid plenty of blame at the feet of both parties.

Only The Star has the resources to launch a thorough examination and be assured that most people will trust the result. No other news organization in Kansas City can come close. So, when The Star speaks on the Pletz issue, thousands of people — tens of thousands of people — listen closely.

Another example: The Star recently published a big, 40-year anniversary story on the slaying of political and civil rights leader Leon Jordan, suggesting that it might be a good idea to reopen the case. Less than two weeks later, lost evidence turned up, and police decided to reopen the case.  

Here’s another, different, example of The Star’s credibility: Why do you think Mark Funkhouser is mayor today?  Here’s why: KC Star editorial writer Yael Abouhalkah, who has “covered” City Hall for more than 20 years, got behind him early on and started pushing. Yael, in turn, convinced the editorial board to support Funkhouser, and The Star then endorsed Funkhouser, propelling him to victory.

Among the dozen candidates for mayor, Funkhouser did not stand out for his character, personality or ability to build a consensus. No, he was just another member of a weak field. But he had The Star behind him. That’s why he won; the voters trusted The Star. (Footnote: The Star, to its credit, saw the error of its ways a couple of years after Funkhouser was elected and admitted it made a mistake.)

So, The Star’s credibility is important, very important to this community. And what is it doing with this Whitlock fiasco? It is chipping away at its own credibility. For weeks, The Star has been publishing a note to readers saying Whitlock is “on vacation.” Come on, it’s a lie, and everybody knows it.

It’s something else. Maybe he’s been suspended; maybe it’s a contract dispute; maybe the editors are sick of dealing with him. It could be anything…other than a vacation. After an absence that now exceeds two months, he’s probably not coming back.   

So, The Star should stop lying. It could drop the “note to readers” and say nothing. It could change the note to say, “Jason Whitlock is on leave,” or “Jason Whitlock is off work.”

Sorry to say, this is not the first time that The Star has been less than forthcoming about Whitlock’s status. In October 1998, Whitlock was suspended for goading fans who were taunting him at a Chiefs-New England Patriots game in Foxboro, Mass. Against the press-box glass, he held up hand-scrawled signs that said, “It’s warm in here — good looking women too” and “Bledsoe gay? Pats suck.” (He was referring to Patriots’ quarterback Drew Bledsoe.)

That was on Sunday, Oct. 11. The next day, Whitlock was suspended, and the suspension turned out to be for two weeks. The Star didn’t inform the public, however, until 10 days after the suspension. On Oct. 22, then-sports editor Rick Vacek wrote a column explaining the suspension and referred to “offensive” signs that Whitlock had shown to Patriots fans. He didn’t say what the signs said.

On Nov. 1, Miriam Pepper, who was then readers representative (the position that Derek Donovan now holds), wrote a column saying that the tardy report and lack of details had been a disservice to readers. “The newspaper regularly has to ‘go with the news’ before all sides weigh in,” said Pepper, now a vice president and editorial page editor. “In this case, it could have been handled by reporting the incident immediately and explaining that management was investigating.”

That episode hurt The Star’s credibility, and that was before the bottom fell out for most metropolitan dailies. Now, here we are again with a situation that, while probably different at its core, is still a matter of public interest. Whitlock is not a journeyman reporter; he’s the highest profile columnist and personality at The Star. Readers want — and deserve — an explanation that is not bogus.

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As many of you know, I’m a dedicated women’s college basketball fan.

So, I’ve got a related story for you.

I’d been looking for a used dishwasher recently to tide us over in our current house so we can transfer our good, LG dishwasher to the house into which we’re moving. Last Thursday night, I spotted on craigslist three dishwashers I was interested in, and I sent e-mails to the three sellers, asking if they still had the dishwashers.

I got two responses Friday morning, one from a guy named Aaron and the other from “Cindy Stein.” For 12 years, until the end of the 2009-2010 basketball season, one Cindy Stein was the women’s basketball coach at the University of Missouri. (A new coach, Robin Pingeton of Illinois State, was named in April.)

So, I’m looking at the name Cindy Stein and thinking, “Hmmmm, is it possible? Could it be…? I recalled having heard from a friend in Columbia that she might be moving to Kansas City. So, I thought, “Well, maybe.”

I wrote back and asked her to call me on my cell phone. She called while I was in the barber chair, so I didn’t pick up, but after I left the shop I retrieved a message from Cindy, who left a return number with the area code 573, which includes Columbia, Mo.

I called her back and said, “Is this the famous Cindy Stein?” She said, “Well, I don’t know about famous…” 

Within half an hour, my daughter (who had picked me up from the barber shop) and I were at the home she recently purchased in Leawood. She is renovating it and doing a lot of the work herself.

When I asked her if she had anything in the works insofar as employment was concerned, she said was thinking about starting a basketball program for youths — from beginners to elite — and was going to do some TV commentary for women’s games next season. 

When my daughter told her that she had just graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, Cindy’s eyes lit up. She is familiar with Knox and Galesburg, she said, because she grew up in Peoria, which is about 35 miles from Galesburg.

She was extremely gracious and friendly. It was a memorable morning for me and my daughter…Oh, and I bought the dishwasher. Frigidaire. Price, $25.

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As some of you may know, I have a friendly bet with fellow blogger Hearne Christopher of KCConfidential.com over whether Jason Whitlock will return to The Kansas City Star. The stakes are lunch at The Well in Waldo.

I am so convinced that my position is correct — that Whitlock is finished at The Star — that today I am presenting Whitlock’s advance “obit” accompanied by a timeline noting the highs and lows of his 16 years at The Star. 

With no further ado, then, join me in bidding a fond adieu to Jason. (Wherever you are, Jason, I hope you enjoy the tribute.)  

*** 

Jason Whitlock, who brought big-time, hammer-pounding sports commentary to The Kansas City Star, has left the paper after 16 years as a sports columnist.

The Star announced Whitlock’s departure on (day to be determined), following the widely read columnist’s two-month absence from the pages of The Star. During that period, The Star occasionally ran a note to readers, along with Whitlock’s mug shot, saying “Jason Whitlock is on vacation.”

During his absence, even members of the sports staff did not know what was going on or if he was coming back. Sports Editor Holly Lawton recently told a reader who called her to ask about Whitlock that he was taking back-to-back vacation months. For years, Whitlock has worked for The Star on a contract basis, and the terms of the contract have not been made public. Regular employees of The Star get a maximum of about 28 days paid time off and cannot carry over unused days from one year to the next.

An indication that Whitlock was either trying to spread his wings or was dissatisfied with his role as a sports columnist at The Star surfaced on April 27, when a political opinion column written by Whitlock turned up on the page opposite The Star’s editorial page. An editor’s note accompanying the column said that the Op-Ed column would appear weekly.

The column appeared for six consecutive weeks and then disappeared just as mysteriously as Whitlock himself.

For his part, Whitlock did nothing to shed light on the situation. Last Friday, he posted this message on his Twitter account: “KC folks, do not believe anything said about me by ANYONE, even if he/she claims to have spoken to me. They are lying and/or misrepresenting.”

Whitlock, 43, also writes a weekly column for FOXSports.com. That column continued during his absence from The Star. Previously, he wrote a weekly column for ESPN.com and had worked as a radio talk-show host on local sports radio stations.

For 13 years, from 1996 to 2009, Whitlock and fellow columnist Joe Posnanski provided a powerful and intriguing one-two punch on The Star’s sports pages. Whitlock generally took the role of heavy hitter, calling out players, coaches, owners and others for sharp criticism, while Posnanski offered nuanced opinions and compelling narratives and commentaries. A year ago, Posnanski left The Star to become a senior writer at Sports Illustrated.

Whitlock and Posnanski helped transform The Star’s sports section into one of the best in the nation. Four times since 2003, the section has won sports journalism’s highest honor, being ranked by the Associated Press in the top 10 for its daily, Sunday and special sports sections. Whitlock has won top 10 honors as a columnist three times since 2005, including last year.

King Carl and Dr. B.A. Homer 

Famously and fearlessly, Whitlock took on major sports figures, such as former Kansas City Chiefs’ president and general manager Carl Peterson, whom Whitlock dubbed “King Carl,” and current president and general manager Scott Pioli, whom Whitlock often referred to as Scott Ego-li.

He also introduced Star readers to a fanciful character called Dr. B.A. Homer. Described as “Kansas City’s leading sports therapist,” Dr. Homer would engage in imaginary dialogue with Whitlock, often trying to convince Whitlock that his position on an issue – whatever it might have been – was crazy.

In a September 2006 interview with a sports blog called The Big Lead, Whitlock was asked if he intended to remain a sports columnist.

“Yeah, I’m always going to keep a hand in the sports world,” Whitlock said. “Writing about sports is a great platform to write about the rest of life. Plus, the sports world and the entertainment world are where much of the bojangling is taking place. I haven’t left The Kansas City Star because I’m treated well there, enjoy the freedom, love the city, the Internet makes the world much smaller and, most important, I have a good boss.”

At the time, his supervisor was managing editor Mike Fannin, who oversaw sports and features. Two years ago, Fannin was named editor of The Star, and since then, Whitlock has worked for Lawton, who succeeded Fannin as sports editor.

Last Friday, to the surprise of many rank and file workers at The Star, Lawton submitted her resignation as sports editor, saying she intended to leave journalism. The notice of her resignation, placed on Star bulletin boards, reportedly said that she would remain sports editor until a successor was in place.

A source at The Star said Friday that he had spoken with Lawton and that she had told him her departure had nothing to do with Whitlock’s situation. “She said she wanted out from under the job,” the source said. “She wanted a life.”

The source also said that the Whitlock situation might have been in limbo for an extended period because of the terms of his contract, such as when it was due to expire.  

Whitlock, an Indianapolis native, is a 1990 graduate of Ball State University, where he started as an offensive tackle for two years. He came to The Star from the Ann Arbor News in Michigan. He previously worked at The Charlotte Observer in North Carolina and the Bloomington Herald-Times in Indiana.

*****

Jason Whitlock timeline at The Kansas City Star

1994 – Whitlock is hired as a sports columnist

October 1998 – Whitlock is suspended for heckling fans who taunted him in the press box at a Chiefs-New England Patriots game at Foxboro, Mass. Among other things, Whitlock displayed to fans a hand-written sign that said, “Bledsoe gay? Pats suck.” He was referring to New England quarterback Drew Bledsoe.

April 2007 – Perhaps Whitlock’s most provocative column, titled “Imus isn’t the real bad guy,” is published. In the column, Whitlock argued that African-Americans should examine hip-hop music’s culture of black-on-black disrespect rather than focus on shock jock Don Imus’ description of Rutgers women’s basketball players as “ho’s” (whores).

March 2010 — The Associated Press names Whitlock one of the top 10 sports columnists in the country for 2009. It is the third time since 2005 that he has been so honored. 

April 27, 2010 – The Star launches Whitlock’s “Independent Thoughts” column on the Op-Ed page. An editor’s note says the column will appear weekly.

May 27, 2010 – Whitlock’s last sports column, about a “culture of corruption” in college sports, is published.

June 2, 2010 – Whitlock’s sixth (and last) “Independent Thoughts” column is published. The headline is “Obama owes Bush an apology.”

Aug. x, 2010 – The Star announces Whitlock’s resignation.

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