Posts Tagged ‘Joe Posnanski’

Like the locker room of the World Series champions or the Super Bowl winners, the second-floor mezzanine of The Kansas City Star probably was the scene last night of champagne corks flying and reporters and editors spraying each other with the traditional celebratory beverage.

If it wasn’t, it should have been: The Sports Department learned yesterday that it was one of three papers to win sports journalism’s biggest award for its work in 2012.

The Associated Press Sports Editors voted The Star as a winner of its “Grand Slam” competition. That is, The Star was named one of the top 10, large-circulation newspapers in each of four main categories: daily sports section, Sunday section, special sections and website content and presentation.

It is a tremendous triumph for the paper, especially considering that the only other two papers to gain Grand Slam status last year were the Washington Post and The New York Times. The air is mighty thin at the top, and that’s where The Star’s Sports Department has stood for the last 15-plus years.

In a sports-section story today, sports editor Jeff Rosen said, “We’re not in this business to win awards, but it’s a tremendous honor to score The Star’s first Grand Slam.”

The quality of the sports section is something that, I’m sure, a lot of readers take for granted. The sports section’s rise to the top has been gradual, for the most part, and it’s worth taking a look at the modern history of the sports section and how it climbed into the top ranks nationally.

In most cases, the stature of a paper’s sports section coincides with the caliber of its columnists. For the most part, that is the case with The Star.

When I was hired as a general assignment reporter at The Star in 1969, Joe McGuff was sports editor and sports columnist, and his name was uttered with reverence. He was a clear-headed thinker and straightforward writer whose honesty and dedication to Kansas City and its betterment were unquestioned.


Joe McGuff

His greatest hour came in 1968-69 when he played a huge role in convincing the executives at Major League Baseball to locate an expansion team in Kansas City. That, of course, came on the heels of the late Charles O. Finley owner of the Kansas City Athletics, moving the team to Oakland.

Not since then, and probably not before, has a sports writer or columnist stepped so far beyond the customary trappings of his job. As far as Kansas City was concerned, McGuff might as well have been “St. Joe” after that.

Another great Star sports columnist in the 1960s and 70s was Dick Mackey. Another not afraid to leave the comfort zone of sports, Mackey set sports aside the day after Martin Luther King’s assassination (April 4, 1968) and wrote about King and the nation’s shock.

Metaphorically, Mackey later drove himself into the ground: In a state of exhaustion and with an ulcerated stomach, he collapsed in the back of a cab in Memphis and died. That was in the late 70s.


Jon Rand

In the 1980s and 1990s, the featured columnist was Jon Rand, another straight shooter, who came to The Star from the Miami Herald. He wasn’t a flashy writer, but readers could rely on him to give them informed opinions. The most memorable line that I recall of Rand’s was a year or so before The Chiefs hired Carl Peterson as general manager and Marty Schottenheimer as coach. The front office was led by Lamar Hunt’s old buddy, Jack Steadman, who was never popular with the fans.

“This fish stinks from the head down,” Rand wrote one day, capturing the sentiment of the entire city.

Gib Twyman was another outstanding columnist. A born-again christian, he was genuinely empathetic with people who were experiencing difficulties, and he frequently digressed from the sports scene. He wrote several extremely touching columns, I recall, about the Thompson family after a Thompson daughter, Amy Thompson, was shot in the neck and paralyzed in a botched robbery on Halloween night 1986. Some friends organized the first Amy Thompson Run in 1988, and over the years it has raised more than $1.5 million to help people with brain injuries.

On Christmas night, 1989, Amy died of complications from her injuries.

Twyman, unfortunately, had a big problem making deadlines, and that resulted in him getting fired for plagiarism in 1994. He later redeemed himself as a reporter and columnist at a paper in Salt Lake City, before dying of a heart attack in 2001.

In the long run, though, it was not a columnist but an editor who took the sports section to new and spectacular heights.

In 1996, then editor Art Brisbane and managing editor Mark Zieman brought in a guy named Dinn Mann, who, at 31 years old, already had some notches on his journalistic belt. He came to The Star from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where he was associate sports editor. Before that he had been sports editor at the Houston Post before it folded in 1995.

Mann also had a high-propane personality and some estimable blood lines: His grandfather was Judge Roy Hofheinz, a former Houston mayor, who built the Astrodome.


Dinn Mann (right) with Louisville, KY, sports commission director Karl Schmitt

Mann only stayed at The Star for five years, but he brought the sports section into the 21st Century before the 21st Century arrived. It was he who introduced the snappy, funny headlines on the lead sports story of the day. It was he who pushed for award-winning special sections, and he who introduced many features that are still cornerstones of today’s sports section, such as the Five-Game Planner and expanded “On the Air” listings of sports on TV.

In addition, Mann hired columnist Joe Posnanski, who became the counterbalance for Jason Whitlock, whom Mann’s predecessor, Dale Bye, had hired in about 1994. It was at The Star that Whitlock and Posnanski found their voices and established their launching pads to bigger jobs. At The Star, Whitlock wielded the hammer, while Posnanski supplied the poetry.

Mann himself went on to an extremely big job in 2001 — founding editor-in-chief of MLB.com, baseball’s official website. Mann is still with MLB.com, which has grown to more than 100 employees.

When Mann left, his top assistant, Mike Fannin, became editor and kept the momentum going. After Fannin was named editor of The Star in 2008, the sports section went through a bumpy period. Fannin’s top assistant in the department, Holly Lawton, took the reins, but she left two years later, after allegations surfaced that she and Fannin had had an affair. About the same time, Whitlock left the paper after a blow-up with Fannin and perhaps Lawton.


Jeff Rosen

The ship got righted late in 2010, however, after The Star hired Rosen as sports editor. For six years, Rosen had been deputy sports editor at the Houston Chronicle.

For the last couple of years, the public face of the sports section has been columnist Sam Mellinger, who combines Whitlock’s hammer with Posnanski’s poetry.

Already, Mellinger has established himself as a “destination columnist,” that is, someone who draws readers to the paper just for what he brings to the paper.

Headed by the team of Rosen and Mellinger, and buttressed by fine reporters like Blair Kerkhoff, Adam Teicher and Bob Dutton, The Star’s sports section should be solid for the near future.

Don’t be surprised if you hear about more “Grand Slams” down at 18th and Grand.

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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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With the Chiefs getting set to open summer camp next week in St. Joseph, this is a good time to address a subject I’ve been thinking about lately.

Jason Whitlock.

More specifically, Jason Whitlock and his future at The Kansas City Star, where he’s been a fixture for 16 years.

In my opinion, Jason is effectively finished at The Star. I’m not just basing that on the fact that he hasn’t had a column in the paper – either sports or one of his ridiculous “independent thoughts” op-ed pieces — since June 2. No, the tell-tale sign that he’s effectively finished is that there have been very few inquiries and very little speculation, anywhere, regarding his absence from print.

That tells me that he has essentially become irrelevant, as far as readers of The Star are concerned. At this point, The Star might as well cut his big, fat salary loose and spend the money on some more reporters or copy editors.

In recent weeks, The Star has been running a box, usually on Page 2 of the Sunday sports section, saying that Whitlock is on vacation. A few weeks ago, someone at The Star told me that Whitlock had gone on vacation and then had a death in the family.

But still…seven weeks? Nobody at The Star gets that much time off; I’m pretty sure five weeks is the maximum.

He’s been writing columns for Foxsports.com, and he’s been Tweeting, but, like many a suspect on A&E’s “The First 48,” he’s “nowhere to be found” in the pages of The Star. I haven’t put in an official inquiry to anyone at The Star because if a separation is looming, I won’t get a straight answer. Besides, it’s not particularly material if he does resurface in print because, as I said at the outset, my point is that he’s effectively finished at the paper.

Here are three reasons I say that:

:: During the go-go years, when Whitlock and Joe Posnanski were a solid one-two punch, just about everyone who followed sports couldn’t wait to read what Whitlock and Poz had to say. They had a symbiotic journalistic relationship that worked to the benefit of the readers. With Whitlock often wielding the hammer and Posnanski bringing the lyrical touch, the duo gave the readers a reason to open their papers early. Then, a year ago, Posnanski left The Star to become a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, and the magic quickly disappeared. It was like any great team – Burns and Allen, Martin and Lewis – they were just a lot better together than as solo acts.

:: We came through the entire conference realignment story, which went on for many weeks, without an utterance, as far as I can tell, from Whitlock. It has been, by far, the biggest story in college sports this year, and The Star’s supposed No. 1 columnist never wrote about it. The people who carried the ball for The Star on that story – and ever so capably – were reporters Blair Kerkhoff and Mike DeArmond and columnist Sam Mellinger. Mellinger is Posnanski’s successor. A baseball expert, he has made great strides in his relatively short tenure. He’s like Posnanski in that he’s prolific, but he’s different in that he relies less on turning a phrase and more on insight and keen observation.

:: Finally, the Chiefs are in a sorry state, and, while they still are very popular, they are not nearly as relevant as they used to be under “King Carl,” as Whitlock memorably referred to former Chiefs president Carl Peterson. They have an earnest but unimaginative owner in Clark Hunt; they have a hot-headed, yet dull-as-dirt coach in Todd Haley; they have an egocentric president, Scott Pioli, who hides in his office; and they have a sub-par group of players. So, really, what does it matter what Whitlock might write about this year’s Chiefs?   

Let’s face it…Whitlock’s day in the sun as a columnist for The Star has passed. I wish him luck in the future, but it’s time for him and us to move on.

The king is dead! Long live the king! (Mellinger, that is.)

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