Wally’s World: Ex-Post Sports Guy Explains Fiery Exit

Walking up a ramp at Shea Stadium, Wallace Matthews, the ex– New York Post columnist, spotted an old adversary making his way toward the field.

“Mr. Met,” Mr. Matthews said, “how are you?”

The baseball-headed mascot bobbed in Mr. Matthew’s direction, but didn’t break his stride.

“He hates me,” Mr. Matthews said. “I called him the worst mascot in sports.”

Tonight, Mr. Matthews was looking for friends. It was Friday, May 24, two days after Mr. Matthews-a self-admitted “hothead”-quit the Post (his bosses claim he was fired) after writing a column blasting co-worker Neal Travis for a gossip item people interpreted to mean that Mike Piazza, the Mets’ star catcher, was gay. After his editors held his column, the chafed columnist dumped his screed on the Internet and publicly chastised his bosses for lacking integrity and “balls.”

Of course, Mr. Travis’ column had also forced Mr. Piazza to make an odd proclamation of his heterosexuality before a game in Philadelphia, and tonight the Mets were back at Shea for the first time since the catcher’s declaration to a group of reporters. As for Mr. Matthews, he had little reason to be there-except to show his fellow hacks that he was still around.

“I just didn’t want anyone to think I was dead,” he said. “I wanted them to know that I could still make a living in this business.”

In the press box that evening, Mr. Matthews’ fellow writers peppered the air with a mix of concern (“You all right? You doing all right?”), barbs (“We need somebody to cover a 5K on Sunday”) and expressions of solidarity (“Those Australians can’t take a joke; they have no sense of humor”).

“It’s embarrassing,” Mr. Matthews said later. “I don’t want to feel like I’m a returning war hero or something. It makes me feel like I’m a ghost at my own funeral. I didn’t do anything. I got pissed off at my boss and quit.”

Mr. Matthews, 45, is no stranger to fights. A former Golden Gloves boxer with silvery hair and a goatee, he came to the Post as a columnist in 1994 from Newsday , where he mainly covered boxing before becoming a columnist. At the Post , Mr. Matthews cultivated his reputation as a screamer, a tough guy who went after the likes of Mets general manager Steve Phillips on an unending basis.

“Wally was a good tabloid guy,” one New York sportswriter said. “He was made for the Post in many ways. He didn’t really come off as dumb, and yet he took the macho position on a lot of issues. He could be a bulldog without insulting the intelligence of the reader.”

On Monday, May 20, Mr. Matthews opened up the Post at his home in Oyster Bay. As usual, he scanned the gossip pages to see if there were any sports items, and quickly found one-at the top of Mr. Travis’ column, titled “In and Out with the Mets.”

Citing an interview in an upcoming issue of Details in which Mets manager Bobby Valentine said that Major League Baseball might be emotionally ready to handle an openly gay player, Mr. Travis commented that “some may think that Valentine is getting in first before one of his big guns is outed.” He went on to state “that the player and a still-closeted local TV personality recently purchased a house together in a ritzy New York suburb,” but then said he couldn’t find any documentation of it.

Mr. Matthews said he was flabbergasted. “I’d heard this rumor about Piazza a couple of weeks before,” he said. “When I saw it [in Mr. Travis' column], I said, ‘Holy shit!’ I said to my wife, ‘Somebody just told me this. Can you believe this guy wrote this?’”

The following day, Mr. Matthews said, he toyed with the idea of writing a column about the matter, but was told to hold off because the paper was tight on space-but also because it was considered a sensitive issue, and one that he’d best leave alone. Then, Mr. Matthews said, after 6 p.m., as he got ready for his evening run, Post sports editor Greg Gallo called.

“Piazza just came out,” Mr. Matthews recounted Mr. Gallo saying, “and said he’s not gay.”

According to Mr. Matthews, Mr. Gallo asked if he’d consider writing up a quick column about it, and Mr. Matthews said yes. Once he sat down at his laptop, Mr. Matthews said he began to simmer.

“I started asking myself, ‘Why am I even writing about this? Because this guy wrote this fucking item,’” Mr. Matthews said. “In my interpretation of the story-and maybe I’m wrong-but if this guy doesn’t write this fucking item on Monday and forces the Mets to confront this issue, we’re not all around Piazza asking him, ‘Are you?’

“I mean,” Mr. Matthews continued, “why should I protect this guy? He’s the one who started the whole fucking thing. That’s why I wrote it was a ‘Travisty of journalism.’ That’s what passes for cleverness on deadline.”

The piece he turned in was certainly a doozy. He wrote that the world of professional team sports wasn’t ready for an openly gay player and called out Mr. Travis for printing what he deemed a “scurrilous” rumor.

“The kind of ‘journalism’ perpetrated in Monday’s Post is abhorrent,” Mr. Matthews wrote. “As are the McCarthy-like tactics of homosexual groups that deliberately out celebrities and athletes under the premise of exposing hypocrisy.”

Mr. Gallo did not return a call for comment. Likewise, Post editor in chief through a spokesperson declined to comment.

But according to Mr. Matthews, Mr. Gallo wasn’t all that amused.

“He said, ‘You can’t beat Neal over the head like this,’” Mr. Matthews recalled. “‘When you attack Neal Travis, you criticize Col, you criticize the front of the paper. You criticize the whole newspaper.’

“He didn’t say it,” Mr. Matthews continued, “but he implied that I was criticizing how [Rupert] Murdoch chooses to run this paper.”

Mr. Matthews said he pleaded for the sports editors to give the column to Mr. Allan, but was told the editor was gone and unreachable for the day. He also said he told Mr. Gallo that he didn’t want to leave Mr. Travis out of the column, that if it ran without the criticisms he’d “fucking quit.” Then, he said, after working through the piece with an assistant sports editor and making a few cosmetic changes, he assumed the piece would run.

When he didn’t see the piece in the May 22 issue of the paper, Mr. Matthews said he called Mr. Gallo and asked, “Where the fuck is the column?” When Mr. Gallo said, “I told you it couldn’t run,” Mr. Matthews replied, “I told you if you don’t put the fucking column in, I was through with you guys. I’m done with you guys-I’ve written my last word for the Post .”

Only afterward, Mr. Matthews said, did Mr. Gallo say that Mr. Allan had approved the piece to run the next day, May 23. Mr. Matthews said he held to his resignation and, after throwing his phone across the room, posted a version of the piece on a chat board for the Web site Sportsjournalists.com at 9:26 a.m.

“I always knew the paper had no integrity,” Mr. Matthews wrote in introducing the piece on the Web. “Now we know it has no balls, either.”

“PS,” he added. “Anyone need a columnist?”

Mr. Matthews colleagues at the Post were stunned. As one Post source put it: “To do what he did, to say what he did, is more than disloyal to the paper. It’s a slap in the face to the editors and people that helped make him well-known. It’s ungrateful.”

The Post said it officially fired Mr. Matthews later that day, and the Daily News quoted Mr. Matthews as saying later that day on ESPN radio, “I probably lost my job.”

Some have criticized Mr. Matthews’ self-immolation as being not as righteous as it seems, pointing out that his contract had run out and he had other work lined up. In addition to appearing on the MSG Network, he’s been hosting an afternoon program on ESPN Radio on a semi-regular basis since March. “He knew what he was doing,” said a Post source. “He had a purpose.”

This same Post source indicated that Mr. Gallo had become increasingly worried about how much attention Mr. Matthews would devote to the paper. But Mr. Matthews maintains that he and the Post had worked out a two-year contract extension in April and were merely ironing out how he could accomodate both jobs. Going to ESPN full-time, he said, would represent a “40 percent pay cut” from his deal at the Post , which one source estimated to be about $180,000.

“Anybody that tries to make the case that I contrived all this is full of shit,” Mr. Matthews said. “I couldn’t have done better if I took my head and stuck it in the oven.”

Mr. Matthews admitted, however, that he had grown frustrated with the Post in recent years. After transforming himself into what he called “the quintessential Post guy-the tabloid hit man,” Mr. Matthews that said he’d grown increasingly disenchanted with the paper after the 2000 Presidential election.

“Then it lost any semblance of being a real newspaper,” Mr. Matthews said. “It affected me; it was my paper. When people say to me, ‘Aw, what do you expect? It’s the Post ,’ I said, ‘This is where I work-I have to care.’”

Then came Mr. Allan, who in a now-infamous purge fired managing editors Stu Marques and Marc Kalech and columnist Jack Newfield (whom Mr. Matthews considers a close friend) one morning last Spring.

“The paper [got] trashier, and I got more and more disgusted,” Mr. Matthews said. “I admit I was starting to wonder if I would be there, or if I even wanted to be there. I wasn’t sure if I was a Post kind of guy.”

And, of course, Mr. Matthews’ sudden change of heart hasn’t sat well with a few of his Post colleagues. Indeed, as one Post source said: “I’m just amazed he could say that. That never stopped him from taking Rupert Murdoch’s money. That’s messed up! Maybe the guy should see a therapist.”

Two of his former Post colleagues wondered the same thing in print. In a tongue-and-cheek June 24 item dubbed “No Matter of Principle,” Mr. Travis said he was sorry Mr. Matthews was fired, but that it was “good to know that before he took his principled stand, Matthews already had lined up a better-paying gig.”

Meanwhile, fellow Post sports columnist Phil Mushnick wrote that Mr. Matthews had “forced the Post ‘s hand. And he knows it.”

“You know what that was?” Mr. Matthews asked of Mr. Mushnick’s column. “It was, ‘Don’t fire me too, boss. I’m with you, boss.’ That’s a great stance for the moral conscience of sports to take.’”

Mr. Travis defended his columns on the matter adding, “Those sports guys on the beat always get mad when we gossip columnists tread on their turf.”

Mr. Mushnick told Off the Record that while he, too, has issues with Mr. Travis’ item, he also took exception to Mr. Matthews’ blanket attack on a place that “allowed him to make a very good living while pursuing outside interests for eight years.”

“Wally Matthews didn’t suddenly come in here and find Neal Travis,” Mr. Mushnick said. “Nobody walks in blind. He didn’t come here because it was the bastion of journalism. He came here because it had a pretty good sports section.

“I still consider Wally my friend,” Mr. Mushnick said. “I’m going to miss Wally. He was a good read. A good, angry read.”

In May, after retiring from baseball, Jose Canseco, the former Yankees, Athletics, Red Sox, and Devil Rays slugger, told the world that he was ready to write a “tell-all” book about the inner workings of Major League Baseball, including naming steroid users. As an added bonus, Mr. Canseco promised to dust off the details of his long-finished relationship with Madonna. You know, like 11 years ago.

Even the mere specter of Mr. Canseco’s still-to-be-written literary masterpiece raised the ire of his former colleagues. But he’s going through with it anyway, and according to his literary agent, the Atlanta-based Ron Laitsch, Mr. Canseco will be in town the week of June 1 to meet with publishers.

When asked what Mr. Canseco expected from the book, Bill Chastain-Mr. Canseco’s co-author, who covered the ballplayer as a writer for The Tampa Tribune -said: “You always hope for Ball Four . The one difference is that, with Ball Four , Jim Bouton was a pretty good player who became a journeyman. This is a book by someone who was the best in the business for five years. There hasn’t been too many books telling all by somebody like that.”

At least one publisher, however, won’t be lining up to meet him. Baseball guru Rick Wolff, vice president and executive editor of Warner Books, who worked on such books as A Pitcher’s Story: Innings with David Cone by Roger Angell and Pete Rose: My Story by Roger Kahn and Pete Rose, said he’d seen an overview and had already passed.

“My biggest concern is that with a tell-all sports book, the media picks over all the juicy details and soon it loses all of its thunder,” Mr. Wolff said. “It’s hard to keep that momentum.”

On the subject of Mr. Canseco’s literary ambitions, Mr. Wolff said: ” Ball Four changed the culture because it named names. But it was a rather funny book, too. It came out of a much different culture.”