Off the Record

Just before Christmas, New York Times sports reporter Mike Wise, who’d spent the better part of a decade at the side of Pat Riley and Shaquille O’Neal, Latrell Sprewell and the pre-rape suspect and Nutella pitch man Kobe Bryant, got an e-mail from Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, editor of The Washington Post ‘s sports section. Mr. Garcia-Ruiz-himself a candidate to replace former Times sports editor Neil Amdur last year-said he’d always admired Mr. Wise’s work, and that he could offer him a column as well as the chance to do the kind of enterprise features that could jump from the front page. These would be sports stories meant to draw in a housewife from Alexandria who spent her Sundays in darkened seclusion, praying for the Redskins game to end. Sports stories, in other words, for people who don’t normally read about sports.

“You’re flattered anytime somebody likes your work,” Mr. Wise said about the e-mail from Mr. Garcia-Ruiz. “But when it comes from The Washington Post , it definitely makes you take a second look.”

Mr. Wise took more than a second look. Within three weeks, he had met with Mr. Garcia-Ruiz and others at The Post and signed a sweetheart deal: He’d be writing a twice-a-week column, plus long features, for a salary bump. It didn’t hurt matters that Mr. Wise recently got engaged to a Baltimore Sun reporter.

In jumping to The Post , Mr. Wise, who is 40, becomes the third young high-profile reporter to leave The Times ‘ sports section in less than a year, joining Buster Olney, who left for the wilds of ESPN: The Magazine , and Mike Freeman, whose tenure as a columnist at The Indianapolis Star ended before it began when it was disclosed that he’d lied on his application about having graduated from the University of Delaware. (Mr. Freeman did in fact attend the school for four years and never claimed alumnus status while working for The Times .) Mr. Olney toiled as the country’s signature baseball-beat writer during the Yankees’ late-1990′s championship run, and later covered the New York Giants. Mr. Freeman, meanwhile, had recently helped oomph up the section’s profile, with pieces on college-recruiting parties and possible academic violations at Ohio State. Mr. Amdur recruited Mr. Olney, Mr. Freeman and Mr. Wise in the 1990′s as he built the section from a black-and-white afterthought to a splashy stand-alone section.

And while all three left for different reasons, their departures expose fault lines in the foundation of a section still seen as significant in growing the paper’s national reach. Like the Montreal Expos, the paper now finds itself dealing with the unfamiliar scenario of having bred and raised talent, only to see its homegrown stars seek more lucrative or more high-personal-profile posts.

What’s more, the department’s subtractions make it unmistakably clear that opportunities now exist for sportswriters to transform themselves into more than just breakfast-table reads, becoming high-priced, marketable stars across a variety of platforms. That is, if they don’t work for The Times .

“In the mid-1990′s, Neil Amdur basically brought in some really talented young people who all did very well and made names for themselves and became quite marketable,” said Times columnist Harvey Araton. Referring to Messrs. Freeman and Wise, he said, “Their ages make them quite attractive to other major sections across the country, who maybe are more willing to pay people in sports than maybe The Times would pay. It’s a reflection of a full column lineup and nowhere really to go. You run into a wall where people ahead of them are not going anywhere right now.”

Indeed, Mr. Araton himself currently stands at the head of a line of columnists more immovable than Fordham’s famed five blocks of granite. In addition to him and sportswriting dean Dave Anderson, the paper fields George Vecsey, William Rhoden and Ira Berkow. Former tennis-beat writer Selena Roberts used a considerable offer from ESPN to win a column post one and a half years ago. And, more recently, Murray Chass returned from an extended medical leave to pen a regular baseball column. Before making his ill-fated move to Indianapolis, sources said that Mr. Freeman-who had turned down a column offer from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in March 2002-grew frustrated after being reassured that his time as a regular Times columnist would come sooner rather than later.

“Everyone can’t be a columnist,” said Times sports editor Tom Jolly. “We have a great group of columnists now. I think anyone who writes enterprise kinds of stories has the opportunity to make as much impact as a columnist. They-Mike Wise and Mike Freeman-certainly did some stories that made an impact. But their ambitions were in columns, and it just so happened those opportunities existed on the outside rather than from within.”

Mr. Wise, who himself turned down the lead columnist’s job at the Chicago Tribune in 2002, said he never demanded a column from The Times , but diplomatically added: “I don’t think it would be wise for The Times to ask a Dave Anderson or George Vecsey or Ira Berkow to cut back on their columns so I could be appeased. These are icons in our business, and they should go out how they want. Dave Anderson once ran quotes for me on my first month on the job because I was struggling on deadline. That’s the kind of people that work there.”

And yet, as iconic as Messrs. Vecsey, Berkow and Anderson remain, their faces remain relatively unknown in a sports landscape where the mugs of the sports columnist from the Dallas Morning News to the Topeka Capital Journal seem to make it onto ESPN each night. Indeed, in an age in which newspapers themselves wither under the weight of Internet and cable sports coverage, their sports columnists have become their signature players, yapping continuously and regularly on air about the travesties of the B.C.S. rankings. While Times sportswriters can occasionally make television appearances, rules prohibit them from becoming regular fixtures on shows or signing a deal with a particular network, as The Washington Post ‘s Michael Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser, who host ESPN’s Pardon the Interruption , have done. (Mr. Rhoden does appear on occasion on ESPN’s Sports Reporters .)

“It seemed like a smart thing to arm myself with,” said Mr. Olney, who left The Times last year with a lucrative offer from ESPN after bristling under the last throes of Howell Raines’ regime, speaking about television appearances. “As part of a sports empire, I can get on TV five times a week, just because they have so many networks.”

Likewise, Mr. Wise said: “On one hand, the whole celebrity cult of journalists is scary and wrong for our business. On the flip side, there’s so much ancillary income out there, and how long do I sit back and say, ‘One of my peers is able to cash in-why can’t I?’ I think every person in the business says that to himself at one point.”

Asked if The Times would change its policy regarding television appearances, Mr. Jolly said it’s “not something we’re discussing right now.”

“It’s a personal choice each individual needs to make,” he said. “I respect people who want to become personalities and pursue a television career. I think it’s extremely important that we continue to report the news, and that we don’t evolve into a completely column-driven sports section. I think we have tremendously smart people. All those people are among the best and brightest in the business and the truth of reporting the news.”

What precisely the section will look like going forward will be determined in the coming months, as the Raines era begins to fade from 43rd Street’s immediate collective memory. Perhaps no area of the paper felt the so-called Howell doctrine more strongly than sports, where college football became the section’s primary focus and Augusta its obsession.

Mr. Wise, for his part, leaves with no hard feelings. The Times may be having trouble holding onto the likes of him these days, but in his view, the state of his soon-to-be-former employer is just fine, thank you. “Anybody that wants to say there’s a problem, look at it when Neil got there and look at it now,” Mr. Wise said. “I’m very proud of what Neil Amdur did, and proud of what people who followed him continue to do. It will be one of the best sections in the country because of who works there.”

“He was a highly stylized character,” said Mark Monsky. “To a certain degree, he was a creature of his own making. Jerry Nachman set out to be Jerry Nachman, and he succeeded.”

Mr. Monsky, Mr. Nachman’s longtime running mate, was speaking on the afternoon of Jan. 20, following the death of his friend from cancer at the age of 57. In an epic career, Mr. Nachman-most recently the vice president and editor in chief of MSNBC-did nearly everything you could do in this business: Writing columns for the New York Post . On-air reporting on radio and television. Running the behind-the-camera operations as WNBC news director and vice president of news for WCBS.

As recounted in New York Post reporter Steve Cuozzo’s book, It’s Alive: How America’s Oldest Newspaper Cheated Death and Why It Matters , on Mr. Nachman’s first day as editor, he declared war on the “Klingons” from the rival Daily News .

It was certainly a spirited attack. In his nearly three years in the captain’s chair, Mr. Nachman’s Post -then owned by Peter Kalikow-tore after stories, exposing sexual abuse at Covenant House and problems with the New York State Regent’s Exam. When a subway train ran over a dog in Harlem, the Post nicknamed it “Token.”

“We milked it for weeks,” said Post reporter Bill Hoffman.

Mr. Nachman’s official memorial is slated for Thursday, Jan. 29, at 11:45 a.m. at the Riverside Chapel. But another sendoff of sorts, a “war-story night,” is currently being planned for Elaine’s.

“Everyone will sit around the campfire and tell Jerry stories,” Mr. Monsky said. “That’s what’ll send him off smiling. He liked nothing better than Jerry stories.”

Off the Record can be reached by e-mail at spappu@observer.com.