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WSI News - Sox Interviews

Phil Rogers


another EXCLUSIVE interview from White Sox Interactive! ††

The canvas that he covers is now much broader then just the city of Chicago. Phil Rogers is the national baseball writer for the Chicago Tribune and baseball has been in his blood for years. Rogersí association with baseball goes back to the days of the old Houston Colt .45's and continued by watching and then covering the Texas Rangers from 1984 through 1997.

He came to the Tribune in 1997 and covered the White Sox as the beat writer before moving into the national coverage slot when Hall Of Fame writer Jerome Holtzman retired. Rogers has worked with, and knows most of the movers and shakers in baseball and has interviewed practically everyone from Commissioner "Bud" Selig to Sox Manager Jerry Manuel. †Simply put, the man knows the game.

He was kind enough to take time out of his day to speak with WSIís Mark Liptak. The topics covered ranged from how he picks his features, to what he thinks of the Tribune owning the Cubs, to a new revelation about the recently signed labor agreement between management and the players union. Rogers also talked about the job Sox G.M. Ken Williams has been doing, where the organization has made its mistakes and what the team has to do to reconnect with its fan base.

ML: Growing up in Texas, Phil, how did you decide to get into the sports media business?

PR: "Growing up I always followed sports. I followed the old Dallas / Ft. Worth Spurs minor league team. Weíd go to Houston Colt .45 games and when the Rangers came, weíd go to 20 or so games a year in old Arlington Stadium. I loved sports and writing was always easy for me. Even in high school I was always covering a game somewhere, so when I went to North Texas State University thatís what I wanted to do. One of my professors there was Bill Mercer, who was the Sox TV announcer with Harry Caray and J.C. Martin in the 70's. I still keep in touch with him, heís a great guy. My first job was in Shreveport, Louisiana covering college teams like Centenary and as far East as Monroe where Iíd see schools like Northeast Louisiana, Louisiana Tech and Grambling. Iíd also cover the Dallas Cowboys and even the New Orleans Saints so I did a lot."

ML: You came to the Tribune in 1997. How did you go from Sox beat writer to national correspondent?

PR: "Itís what I was doing in Dallas in the later years. I replaced Jerome Holtzman when he decided that he wanted to cut back on his work load."

ML: How do you decide what to write about and are you required to write a certain number of columns every month?

PR: "I donít have a requirement outside of a Sunday "baseball notes" feature. I do a subject column every week, I think itíll be running on Wednesdayís now. As far as what I write about, I play it by ear. Something is always going on in baseball. I covered the labor situation a lot and in 1998, I basically followed Mark McGwire around during the home run race. Iím kind of a hybrid, meaning Iím a columnist but also a reporter."

ML: Phil I know you get this a lot and I mean nothing personal, but Iíd like you to comment on this. The fact is that the Tribune also owns the Cubs and many White Sox fans claim an inherent favoritism is at work. In your case they point to the number of columns you do on the Cubs versus the Sox and also the "tone" of some columns, like the one you did saying the Sox could have a hard time signing Paul Konerko. Any thoughts about this?

PR: "First off there is an inherent conflict of interest that weakens our (Chicago Tribuneís) position. Also itís an indefensible conflict. As far as our sports department, we get no benefits from the fact that the Tribune Company owns us and the Cubs. I asked the same question myself when I interviewed for the job back in 1997. The gentleman I was speaking with said no pressure would be put on us, no one would tell us what to write or how to write it. Itís now 2002 and I have never seen any pressure applied. As far as personal criticism, I tend to ignore it although I will reply to fans who e-mail me with opinions.

With the White Sox, keep in mind, the organization is always talking about the financial aspect of the club. The Sox always make a point to draw attention to the payroll and as long as they continue to have a limited payroll, thatís always going to be an issue. I donít want my readers caught unaware. My style is to push a story into the future. I always try to see how the parts are going to fit. In Konerkoís case, the Sox keep talking about a 45 million dollar payroll. I was trying to figure out how they could devote fifty per cent of that payroll to three guys (Editorís Note: Konerko, Magglio Ordonez and Frank Thomas) who all hit right handed. Itís kind of funny that some fans think Iím a Cubs fan. Iím actually more comfortable in Comiskey Park then Wrigley Field. I think the National League should have a DH. I grew up a Rangers fan and covered then for a long time. Iím an American League guy."

ML: Letís talk about the recent labor agreement. I know you spent a lot of time covering that. How close were the two sides to actually having another work stoppage?

PR: "With just hours to go until the deadline, neither side knew how it was going to come out. Both sides knew how far they were willing to go, but they didnít know how far the other side would reach. It was a legitimate concern that they would have to call off games."

ML: Revenue sharing and competitive balance were the central issues in this discussion but the agreement makes no provisions that teams have to spend revenue sharing money on players. What safeguards are there that owners will try to get better?

PR: "There isnít a minimum payroll requirement because the union objected to having one, the owners tried to get one put in. That being said, it has recently come out that clubs who get revenue sharing money must file a report every year to the commissionerís office detailing where and how that money was spent. The commissioner then has the power, if he doesnít like where the money is going, to levy substantial fines on teams. The money has to be spent on things like player salaries, adding minor league teams or stadium improvement."

ML: Then how does that square with published accounts quoting Jerry Reinsdorf as saying in the owners ratification meeting, that teams should use that money towards reducing operating debt rather then going to player acquisitions or salaries?

PR: "Iíve seen that story. All I can tell you is that I was at that meeting and all reporters were outside the conference room. I know that when Iíve tried to get comments from owners afterwards in these kind of situations,†they were always tight lipped. I canít vouch for the veracity of that story. Assuming that comment was made, I donít think reducing team debt would fall under the guidelines of where revenue sharing money has to go, therefore the commissioner would get involved to stop it."

ML: How does the new agreement affect the White Sox?

PR: "The Sox will have to spend about a million dollars more on player salaries because the minimum salary level went up. The Sox wonít be affected as much because theyíve always been in the middle. Long term, if they make the playoffs they eventually might stand a better chance of winning something because the new agreement should put a drag on salary levels with the top spending teams."

ML: Former Commissioner Fay Vincent has a new book out called, "The Last Commissioner." In it he makes some strong charges against Jerry Reinsdorf, namely that he was one of the architects of the collusion period in the 80's and that his intention during the 94 strike was to destroy the players union. What do the other owners think of Reinsdorf?

PR: "Thereís no question heís been an anti labor voice. In the early days it vas a very strong voice. Certainly in the 1994 strike he was very involved but I think heís kind of backed off since then."

ML: A number of White Sox fans feel that this club has no chance to even get into a World Series as long as ownership refuses to spend money, deal with agents like Scott Boras or sign pitchers to long term contracts. Can that philosophy actually work today?

PR: "The last labor deal is very important because it tried to start leveling the playing field. I donít think it went far enough, but it has set up a system that moves towards competitive balance. I still think the Sox can win in the future because they are in the weakest division in baseball. Once you get to the playoffs anything can happen."

ML: Speculation has surfaced about Jerry Reinsdorf selling. I know from two sources, that a member of his immediate family has been arguing for him to do this the past few years but so far heís ignored the advice. What happens to the team when he leaves the scene?

PR: "Thatís a very good question and one that weíve discussed in the Tribune offices. No one has an answer right now, we don't even have enough to speculate on.†I donít know if people would line up to buy the team. Certainly his age and the amount of money heís lost will be issues. Iíd guess that it would stay in his family."

ML: You wrote when Ken Williams was hired that he might have the toughest job in baseball. Taking over a team with high expectations thatís not willing to have a large payroll. Assess the job heís done in the past two seasons.

PR: "His major transactions, David Wells, Todd Ritchie have failed. The pipeline of young pitching talent has hit a dam. The saving grace has been some very good young position players. Heís in a very difficult situation. If you were going to give him a grade, Iíd say it would be a C- or a D+."

ML: I know many Sox fans feel frankly, that Williams isnít qualified for his job. Letís say things remain the same next season, around 82 or 83 wins and on the edge of "contending." Would ownership consider making a change, would they be willing to admit they were wrong?

PR: "Theyíd have to make a change. Next year is a critical year for the team, ownership should demand improvement after three years. Itís interesting that Williams and Oakland GM Billy Beane have exactly the same qualifications. Both guys were marginal major leaguers, both guys learned under strong GMís, Sandy Alderson in Oakland and Ron Schueler with the Sox, both guys started in the minor league / player development areas and both guys work for franchises that have limited payrolls. Thatís all Iím going to say about that."

ML: How is the relationship between Williams and Jerry Manuel? A lot of fans feel there is a problem because Williams is always showing up in the clubhouse, has told off some players and once threw all the post game food on the floor.

PR: "My qualified answer is that itís OK. I havenít spent a lot of time with the Sox since the early part of the year. Itís very difficult not to get along with Jerry Manuel. Iíd say they have a decent relationship, Iíve never gotten any indication from talking with Manuel otherwise."

ML: Phil having observed the Sox up close and personal, what is it that theyíve done right and where have they made mistakes?

PR: "They find and develop young players very well. I know that in 97 when the Sox let Albert Belle and Robin Ventura go, they invested six million dollars in signing that group of draft picks and in paying minor league managers, pitching coaches, trainers and so on. That money didnít go in the owners pocket. I know when I covered the Rangers that they always talked about how good a job the Sox did from a minor league standpoint.

The biggest problem has been from a communication area. The Sox donít appreciate how many breaks the fans will give them if they were open about things. They have a "bunker mentality," that everyone is against them. Iíll give you an example. During the labor situation, any reporter could call any day, and speak with the Commissioner or his management team about what was going on, how things were developing and so on. That was a big change from the past and I think that caused a groundswell of support for the owners side.

The White Sox donít return calls. With them itís always the number of fans that go to Wrigley Field against the number of fans that go to Comiskey Park. Itís an inferiority complex and they blame the media. When I did a column in the Spring evaluating Chicago ownership on both sides of town, I found out that in the past, the team that drew the best usually was winning the most. Itís not that way anymore."

ML: Any thoughts on what the Sox have to do to reconnect with the fans, many of whom refuse to return to the ballpark because of events over the past twenty years?

PR: "Short of winning a World Series, nothing short of an ownership change is going to do that. When I first got here and heard all the anti-owner talk, I didnít pay any attention to it. Iíve heard that everywhere. Itís always easy to blame the owner. I didnít understand the depth of feelings that Sox fans have in this issue. The Reinsdorf group, for whatever reason or reasons, is very unpopular. The only way to revitalize the franchise is to get new ownership."

ML: Finally how do you feel about the state of baseball on the South Side from the time you arrived in 1997 until today?

PR: "When I got here I thought this was a pretty good team. They had Belle, Thomas, Ventura and some good veteran pitchers. Now only Frank is left. This team loses position in the Chicago market place every year. Every year itís getting tougher and tougher for them to win. Maybe the new labor agreement will help that, but we wonít know until somewhere down the line how that may help the viability of this franchise."

As always comments, questions, insults, ridicule and pathos are welcomed. Contact me at .

Editor's Note: †Mark Liptak is an experienced sports journalist, holding several awards for both his electronic and print media work. †He has held numerous sports reporting positions for various TV and newspaper†organizations, including Director of Sports for KNOE-TV (Monroe, Louisiana)†and KPVI-TV (Pocatello, Idaho), and sports writer for the Idaho Falls Free Press, where his column "Lip Service" has appeared for for a number of years. †"Lip", his wife, and cats presently live in Chubbuck, Idaho, where they collectively comprise 100 percent of the Pocatello River Valley's long-time Sox Fan population. †

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