No Cheering In the Press Box, and No Lying In the Press Room (if only)


It’s been many years since this recovering sportswriter’s last post-game presser, but recent events are bringing back memories of the old days.

Try to take the observations in this mini-column (and first CKOW post in some time) as non-partisan and non-ideological, for whatever it’s worth.

The gist: How a coach (or other public authority figure, for that matter) in a big, high-pressure market (like Chicago, or Washington, D.C.) deals with the news media is both instructive and predictive.

If you’ve followed Chicago sports history over recent decades, you probably know what I’m talking about.

The best coaches, managers and GMs succeed on the field while maintaining a healthy and professional – though not necessarily friendly – relationship with the press. They recognize that when they address the media, they’re by extension talking to their fans and paying customers.

Some even skillfully charm reporters to the point that their mistakes quickly move out of the public discourse (think Joe Maddon).

The worst do none of this (anyone remember Terry Bevington?).

Occasionally, the Chicago sports media and coaches or managers collide, and the result is a spectacular, public meltdown for the ages (after you put the kids to bed tonight, search “Lee Elia tirade” on YouTube, then turn it up really, really loud).

That’s an extreme example, but the point is, these episodes usually end badly for one side in particular.

Also, the nuances can speak louder than words.

Watch Chicago Blackhawks’ coach Joel Quenneville in typical post-game media session: Sleeves rolled up, hands firmly gripping on either side of the podium and succinctly answering every, single question like a pro, without condescension or peevishness. Is there any question who’s in charge?

The people that choose to constantly battle the media – rather than practice effective leadership, surrounding themselves with bright, capable people and delivering positive results – usually don’t last very long.

Obfuscation, deflection, stonewalling, outright lying, whatever… eventually, it all comes home to roost.

Rex is our quarterback. Rex is our quarterback? The fans are smarter than that. They’ll figure it out, will “vote” by not showing up to games and finding something else to do.

You may disagree with what’s being reported or what you’re reading, and that’s all fair.

Mistakes and misjudgments happen on the part of journalists individually and with news organizations more broadly – and when it does happen, believe me, the repercussions are both public and humiliating.

But also remember journalists have a job to do, and they don’t work for your favorite team or your favorite candidate. They really work for you, the people.

Quarterbacks come and go, coaches come and go, politicians come and go.

But the press has been and always will be there. The press is undefeated.

And we’re a stronger country for it.

The Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center


A New Year’s harvest and another call to all corn and bean counters!

Sept. 30 - The growing season all but over, Paige admires nature's bounty.

Happy new year from the Corn King!

I hope everyone’s holidays were safe, healthy and merry and Santa made it through the blizzards to bring you lots of goodies. The summer sun is long gone and my rooftop green went brown months ago, but I’m happy to report another successful Wrigleyville harvest. A hot, humid summer combined with abundant moisture yielded a nice crop, some of which you can see here.

With that, the second annual Corn King of Wrigleyville Corn and Bean Counting Contest is officially underway! Same deal as last year — give the photo below an eyeball and send me your best guess (through this blog or via on the total number of corn kernels and beans in the pitcher.

Count 'em up and send me your guess - Hint: This pitcher stands 8 3/4 inches high and holds about 2 1/4 quarts (72 fluid ounces) of liquid.

Whoever has the closest figure wins a special-issue CKOW t-shirt in the size of your choice. Deadline is midnight Jan. 16 (NOTE: DEADLINE HAS BEEN EXTENDED TO MIDNIGHT MARCH 1), and there’s no cost to enter. One estimate per person, please. Get your guesses in soon!

As for the real corn and soybean farmers of the U.S., 2010 brought a big harvest but not the home run many expected earlier in the year, as heavy August rains in parts of the Midwest hurt crop development. In a November report, the U.S. Department of Agriculture pegged the corn crop at 12.54 billion bushels, down 4.3 percent from 2009.

This is a problem if you like to eat steaks, pork chops and such – or if you like to eat, period. Corn is truly a hot commodity these days. Ethanol makers are sucking up a greater portion of the crop and demand from foreign buyers such as China is increasing, meaning domestic cattle and hog producers have to pay more for feed, pushing animal prices higher, and so on down the line to the supermarket meat case.

A sample of the 2010 rooftop harvest.

Corn futures rang out the old year Dec. 31 by hitting a 29-month high ($6.29 a bushel), and more fireworks may be in store after the 2011 opening bell rings Monday morning.

Retail beef and pork prices rose through most of 2010 (bacon hit a record $4.77 a pound nationwide average in October, for example), and probably will continue increasing in 2011. I expect inflating food prices to be a big story this year, along with escalating costs for other basic necessities, like oil and gasoline.

For the past year, I covered the agriculture markets and food industry from the CME Group trading floor for Vance Publishing’s AgNetwork, and will continue to do so this year. Follow me on Twitter and I’ll keep you posted on the latest as best I can.

Not to get your 2011 off on a down note. As we did a year ago, CKOW would like to extend best wishes to everyone for good health, strong whiskey and better times in the coming year. We’ll also remind everyone there are only 90 days until the gates open again at Wrigley Field.

Of course, new Cubs manager Mike Quade is officially invited to stop by the roof any time and discuss crop production techniques, hit-and-run strategy and any ways to right the Ricketts’ rickety ship (Note to Mike: the same invitation was extended to Lou Piniella and he never showed – look what happened to him).

Meantime, stay warm and get your contest guesses in soon! CKOW

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Midsummer crop report – High as an elephant’s eye

July 21 - Paige kicks back in the shade of dad's crops. Hard to say which are growing faster.

Greetings from Wrigleyville, where baseball managing careers go to die but the corn still grows tall.

It’s been over five months since my last post — I know, I’ve been lax about keeping everyone updated about this year’s crops. All I can say is blogging is a lot easier when one is both jobless and childless, as I was for most of 2009.

But as you can see, the corn and soybeans are shooting the moon. Planted May 9, Mother’s Day, the crops have gotten a nice boost from plenty of rain in June and a blessedly hot, humid Chicago summer so far.

July 9 - Our new sweet corn plot off to the right

Also, we expanded this year – seeding three big pots to “field” corn (aka the industrial stuff, fed to pigs and chickens and distilled into ethanol), each with about six plants. We have two pots of soybeans, at around 20 plants apiece. Plus, we’ve got a late-seeded sweet corn plot this year that’s a bit behind its rooftop friends but catching up quickly.

As of July 21, the corn topped out at a little over six feet tall (excluding the pot) and the beans are about 33 inches high and sporting a nice “canopy” to shade the soil, as the farmers say.

Look closely at the top photo, and you’ll see the corn recently developed tassels and silks. That means pollination, the all-important reproductive phase, is underway. This puts CKOW’s crop roughly on pace with the rest of Illinois (89 percent silking as of last weekend, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture – way ahead of the typical pace, in other words).

Say hello to Corn Princess Phoebe Mueller (CKOW's niece), proudly sporting her new Corn King shirt. CKOW t-shirts now on sale, $18 each, including youth sizes. Be the first kid on your block to own one!

We get through pollination unscathed, and our corn crop, as a certain former Illinois governor soon to be fitted for an orange jumpsuit would say, should be “bleeping golden.”

The country’s real corn farmers are poised for a shiny year as well. Thanks to a dry, warm Midwest spring, crops were planted well ahead of the usual pace, a stark contrast to the cold, soggy conditions last year that kept tractors parked in the sheds for weeks. Last month, the USDA projected a 13.25 billion-bushel harvest, topping last year’s record by 140 million bushels.

And meet Audrey Leemans, whose mom Sarah, of Wheaton, won CKOW's first annual corn/bean counting contest last winter.

But the summer is far from over, and a hot, dry August and September – which some weather folks expect – could take production down a few notches. The usual summertime weather jitters, combined with rising consumption from the ethanol industry, have helped keep corn futures hovering around $4 a bushel, still high by historical standards.

Finally, in the wake of the unfortunate news out of the Friendly Confines this week, this year’s crop is hereby dedicated to Lou Piniella, who deserved better than what Jim Hendry and his $140 million band of sad-sack underachievers gave him the past two seasons.

CKOW would like to extend a personal invitation to Sweet Lou, before he retires and rides off into the Tampa sunset, to drop by the rooftop and pick up his own ear of Wrigleyville-grown corn. It would look nice on your desk, Lou, and would be much more useful than Derrek Lee’s bats.

Is that the door I take to get the hell out of this place?

As for the mess Lou will be leaving behind, well, we can’t blame Milton Bradley this year. But we can offer some suggestions to Cubs owner Tom Ricketts as the team slogs through increasingly meaningless games the next couple of months and he considers who will be the next victim… er, leader… for this storied franchise.

In the days since Piniella announced his retirement, we’ve heard names of the usual suspects tossed around: Bob Brenly, Joe Girardi, Ryne Sandberg, etc. But here’s an outside-the-box idea for you, Tom.

Mr. Ricketts: Hire Jim Essian. Right now. For the rest of the season. Just like ’91. What have you got to lose?

Eamus catuli, 102 years and counting…

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The harvest results are finally in – and we have a winner!

As in Hollywood, it’s awards season here in Wrigleyville. Yes, that means we’ve finally gotten around to tallying up last year’s harvest and have some news on CKOW’s Corn- and Bean-Counting Contest I.

The final count: 3,688 corn kernels and soybeans in the glass flower vase pictured below. The winner? Envelope please…

CKOW is delighted to crown Sarah Leemans (pictured left), a friend of the family who resides in the western Chicago burb of Wheaton, Ill., as the 2009 champion of our annual counting contest.

Sarah came closest among a couple-dozen entries with a guess of 3,949, just 261 above the actual total. In so doing, she kind of reverse-channeled Bob Barker and undercut her husband Mike’s entry, 3,950, by one. Sorry, Mike: The price is wrong. We imagine this is going to make for some interesting dinnertime conversation at the Leemans house.

So congratulations, Sarah, you’ve just won yourself an official CKOW t-shirt! I’m guessing she almost as thrilled with this honor as she was hanging with Adrian “Vinny Chase” Grenier at Sundance film fest last month.

Contest guesses ranged from 65 to 4,200, but most came in well on the low end. That probably proves only that it’s tough to count a jar of kernels and beans based only on a photograph on somebody’s blog.

In the grand scheme, my harvest is hardly a bin-buster: The kernels and beans in the jar amounted to roughly one-seventh of an actual bushel of grain. But we had some fun with it, and we’ve got something to plant on the roof this spring.

A hell of a hill of beans

Speaking of which, pitchers and catchers for Major League teams officially report for spring training this week (the Cubs officially opened camp in Mesa, Ariz., today). That’s always something that always warms Wrigleyville hearts as another punishing winter drags on.

Midwest farmers won’t report to their fields for another couple months. Some probably still have acres of last year’s corn left unharvested because heavy rain and snow kept them at bay. Let’s hope Mother Nature is a little kinder to them, and the rest of us, in 2010. Let’s also hope the baseball gods are kinder to Cubs fans this year. Getting through the first day of spring training with no labrum surgeries is a good start.

Thanks to everyone for your entries and your interest. Keep your bean-counting skills sharp and stay tuned for more crop progress reports in 2010!

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Crop progress report – A New Year’s harvest & a call to all bean-counters

Dec. 22 - Dad & Paige check out a snow-capped Wrigleyville a few days before harvest.

Happy new year from the Corn King!

Apologies for being away for so long, but CKOW has been on an extended paternity leave since we welcomed our beautiful daughter Paige Carolyn Blythe into the world Nov. 16. She’s doing great, and looks forward to helping dad raise more crops this summer.

After a lengthy delay, I’m happy to report that my rooftop harvest was completed by Christmas. The result was about nine potato-sized ears of corn and a couple-hundred soybean pods. Nothing spectacular, but we did prove you can raise farm crops on a big-city rooftop from germination to harvest, and keep the squirrels, aldermen and other rodents away.

So with the ears shelled and the soybeans de-podded and everything stored safely in a glass flower vase on my kitchen counter, the first annual Corn King of Wrigleyville Corn- and Bean-Counting Contest is officially underway!

Count 'em up and send me your guess - Hint: This flower vase stands 8 1/2 inches high and holds about 6 1/2 cups (56 fluid ounces) of water.

Give the photo above a good look-see and then send me your best guess (through this blog or via on the total number of corn kernels and beans in the jar. Whoever has the closest figure wins a special-issue CKOW t-shirt in a size of your choosing. Deadline is midnight Jan. 17, and there’s no cost to enter. One estimate per person, please. Get your guesses in now!

Across the rest of the Midwest, a lot of farmers haven’t been as fortunate in getting their crops in, as the exceedingly heavy rains of last summer and early autumn morphed into exceedingly heavy snows of late fall and winter.

Just days before Christmas, about 5% of the U.S. corn crop remained in the field, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, an almost unheard-of level for that time of year. That amounts to roughly 3.97 million unharvested acres – approximately 645 million bushels, or 5% of the estimated 12.97-billion bushel harvest – according to analysts cited by Dow Jones Newswires. Farmers probably won’t get to a lot of that corn till spring, if they bother with it at all.

As we’ve written before, such unrealized production will crimp supplies and keep grain prices elevated, potentially trickling down the food chain to what we ultimately pay at the grocery store (March corn futures on the Chicago Board of Trade closed at $4.18 ½ a bushel today, the highest since late June).

My ears are runt-like Ryan Theriots compared to these Iowa-grown Derrek Lee versions from from my dad's fields. That's primarily because my stuff was confined to a 20-gallon flower pot, while his had unlimited access to prime Heartland soil.

All of this further cements 2009 as one of the latest harvests on record and one of the more bizarre crop seasons in memory. Even my dad didn’t finish his corn till Dec. 8, a month or so later than normal. While many of us cursed the past year’s weather in Chicago, Midwest farmers really had reasons to gripe. But a lot of them would probably tell you that, like raising kids, you just deal with it.

As we all get down to dealing with a new year, CKOW would like to extend best wishes to everyone for good health, strong whiskey and better times in the next decade. We’ll also remind you that it’s a mere 98 days till the gates open once again at Wrigley Field. Now there’s a season we can all look forward to.

Meantime, stay warm and get your contest guesses in soon! CKOW

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Crop progress report: Harvest moon over Wrigley

It's close to the end of the line for my crops, as the long, green days of summer have faded into the harsh reality of another coming winter.

It's close to the end of the line for my crops, as the long, green days of summer have faded into the harsh reality of another coming winter.

Much like American farmers’ harvesting efforts this fall, I’m behind on posting fresh crop updates here. Unlike the farmers, I don’t really have a good excuse.

But anyway… As Chicagoans know, our year-long monsoon season resumed again in October. Here and across much of the Midwest, it rained and rained and rained some more.

Kernels dented and hardened, this ear is about ready for pickin’.

Kernels dented and hardened, this ear is about ready for pickin’.

That kept combines parked in their sheds most of the month, and as a result, the U.S. harvest is running far behind the usual pace (as of last weekend, about half the soybean acreage and a quarter of the corn was harvested, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; normally, about 87% of the soybeans and 71% of the corn is in the bin by that time).

That’s not a huge problem if it doesn’t drag on for too much longer. But the longer crops are still in the fields as November marches along, the greater the risk of yield loss as wind whips around dry, brittle plants and ears and bean pods drop to the ground.

While the harvest delays have fueled skittishness in the grain futures markets and propped up prices, we’re still in line for whopping crops, as the next USDA crop production update Nov. 10 is expected to show.

According to a Dow Jones Newswires survey, analysts project a 12.995 billion-bushel U.S. corn harvest, down 0.2% from an October USDA estimate but still the second-biggest crop on record. The soybean crop is pegged at 3.27 billion bushels, up 0.6% from the USDA’s October figure and a record.

Has-beans: With most of the leaves having dropped off the plant, all we have left are the pods.

Has-beans: With most of the leaves having dropped off the plant, all we have left are the pods.

Up on the roof, as you can see, my corn and soybeans remain standing, but are otherwise deader than Reagan. I’ll probably give them another week or so to let the ears and bean pods to dry out, then start plucking and tally up my yield.

So this is a good opportunity to announce the first annual Corn King of Wrigleyville Corn- and Bean-Counting Contest! After I shuck the ears and pick the pods, I’ll dump everything into a glass container, post a picture on my blog, and start taking guesses on the total number of kernels and beans.

Whoever has the closest guess to the actual numbers wins a special CKOW t-shirt! How do you like that, sports fans? Stay tuned.

Fun corn factoid #6: The baseball term “can of corn,” often used to describe a lazy, easily-catchable fly ball, is believed to have originated in the 19th century and refers to the practice where a grocer would use a stick with a hook on the end to tip a can of vegetables off a high shelf, then catch it in his hands or outstretched apron. It’s a favorite phrase of White Sox broadcaster Ken “Hawk” Harrelson.

Till next time CKOWers, we gone!

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Alive and well with the Dead Milkmen at Riot Fest

Dead Milkmen frontman Rodney Anonymous works a sold-out Metro into a frenzy Saturday night in Chicago.

Dead Milkmen frontman Rodney Anonymous works a sold-out Metro into a frenzy Saturday night in Chicago.

“Okay, look at you,
“Don’t you look like Siouxsie Sioux,
“How long did it take to get that way,
“What a terrible waste of energy,
“You wear black clothes say you’re poetic,
“The sad truth is you’re just pathetic,
“Get into the groove get out of my way,
“I came here to drink, not to get laid.”

So go a few lines from “Instant Club Hit (You’ll Dance to Anything),” a song mocking the pretensions of ‘80s British Goth and synth-pop from the Dead Milkmen’s 1987 album, Bucky Fellini.

The Philadelphia band skewered that and just about everything else over eight studio albums, taking punk’s sneer and adding heavy doses of caustic, irreverent humor and witty lyricism, often producing hilarious results.

Rodney shares the mike with a fan.

Rodney shares the mike with a fan.

Forming in 1983, a year after David Letterman began his late-night run, the Milkmen soon became college-radio darlings, cultivating a smart-ass style years before the dawn of the so-called “age of irony” we supposedly now live in. They were taking shots at pop culture figures and name-checking celebrities long before latter-day wiseasses like Blink 182, Eminem and Weezer came onto the scene.

With songs like “Bitchin’ Camaro,” “Beach Party Vietnam,” “The Thing That Only Eats Hippies” and the classic “Punk Rock Girl,” the Milkmen resonated with a lot of college kids, like myself, who’d been gagging on a never-ending diet of classic rock radio, Duran Duran videos and Cosby shows.

The Milkmen, which broke up in 1995 and reunited last year, were in Chicago over the weekend to play a couple shows at the fifth annual Riot Fest, a collection of punk offerings at the Congress Theater and a few other small venues around town.

CKOW caught up with two of the band’s founding members – lead singer Rodney Linderman (aka Rodney Anonymous), and Joe Genaro (Joe Jack Talcum) — before their Saturday night show at the Metro, a block north of Wrigley Field.

The Milkmen deliver

The Milkmen deliver

While they’re sporting a touch of gray these days (both are 46), we found them to be in fine and feisty form during an afternoon Q & A session backstage at the Metro, and they put on a great show later that night for a capacity crowd. They said they hope to put out a new album at some point, and shared a few other thoughts about their career and life in rock n’ roll. CKOW hopes you enjoy my “Almost Famous” moment:

CKOW: I’m just a local guy with a blog. I’d like to apologize for not being Rolling Stone.
Rodney: That’s okay. It’s okay to not be Rolling Stone. Never apologize for not being Rolling Stone, because that’s a terrible magazine. On the plane, I was kind of reading it over Joe’s shoulder, and it’s not what it used to be at all.

CKOW: Is there anything you’d like to apologize for?
Rodney: Yeah. There are a couple of records that I don’t think we should have done. (Friday) night’s show we probably should apologize for. I didn’t think it was that great. I’ll apologize for my playing last night, and my singing. It better be better tonight. Otherwise, I don’t have much of a career ahead of me.

Big Lizards in Wrigleyville's backyard - me and two of the original Dead Milkmen, Rodney and Joe, backstage at the Metro.

Big lizards in Wrigleyville's backyard - me and two of the original Dead Milkmen, Rodney and Joe, backstage at the Metro.

CKOW: You guys were kind of ahead of the curve when it came to things like name-checking in songs – taking shots at the likes of Michael Jackson, the Beach Boys and so forth. Could you start an ironic, wise-guy band like this today?
Rodney: I think we were ironic because we weren’t that musical. At least I’m not. If I had more talent we’d have been much more of a ‘musical’ band. But there’s hazard with that kind of stuff, because it dates itself. You were talking about people who were in the news at that time. (Name checking) was a bad idea. Don’t do that, because it dates the song. I would never do that again.

CKOW: You’ve played shows or toured with the Replacements, the Ramones, Iggy Pop, Husker Du and Debbie Gibson. Debbie Gibson? Isn’t she the kind of person you guys made fun of?
Rodney: Yeah, but I feel bad about that, because she’s probably a nice person. I bet if we brought Debbie Gibson in to like, play piano or something, she’d do a really competent job. She’s a really good piano player. She’s a much better keyboardist than I am. I bet you if Debbie Gibson got up one morning and wrote a song about what it means to be Debbie Gibson and being a mom and all that, and went to some little club, I bet you it would frickin’ rock.

CKOW: I’m sensing a little regret?
Rodney: Plenty of regret. I’ve done a lot of dumb things… I’m trying not to do any of that now. I tend to over-think stuff now.


CKOW: How would you characterize your fans nowadays?
Joe: All ages. I run into people who say, ‘you were my dad’s favorite band. He couldn’t come to the show because he was working.’ I’m like, ‘oh great.’ A lot of our original fans, I don’t know if they’ve died off or moved on.
Rodney: Everybody seems younger to me. I don’t know what pipeline of filth they’re tapped into.

CKOW: My wife and I are expecting a baby daughter next month. How about some Punk Rock Girl names?
Rodney: I would suggest Persephone (Greek goddess of of innocence and receptivity). She was Demeter’s daughter. What about Gertrude? I had a great aunt named Gertrude and a great aunt named Clarabelle.
Joe: I don’t know if that’s punk rock.

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