Offensive Line Man

Does sports columnist T.J. Simers know he’s writing for the <em>Los Angeles Times</em>?
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NOVEMBER 5, 2015: Following a six-week trial, a jury has awarded $7.1 million to T.J. Simers, the former Los Angeles Times sports columnist who sued the newspaper for age and disability discrimination in 2013. A spokeswoman for the Times says it will be filing an appeal. Simers worked at the Times for more than 20 years. He rankled both readers and colleagues during his tenure—but found a large, impassioned audience, too. Writer RJ Smith profiled the controversial columnist for Los Angeles magazine in June 2006.

If you Googled “T.J. Simers” together with “jerk,” about 248 hits would come up. That considerable number is misleading, however, because Simers hasn’t finished tomorrow’s sports column yet. Being a jerk isn’t static. It’s a life mission.

Here’s how Simers introduced himself to then-Dodger outfielder Milton Bradley: “I heard you were a real dick.” He once blocked the clubhouse door with a golf cart to trap San Diego quarterback Jim McMahon. He roots for USC in the press box. He wears an Angels cap when covering the Dodgers. “I tell them I’m supporting the best team in town,” he says.

Athletes have strong feelings about Simers. But strong feelings aren’t restricted to those he interviews. Many of Simers’s coworkers at the Los Angeles Times don’t care much for the guy, either. At least two sportswriters, columnist Diane Pucin and hockey writer Helene Elliott, didn’t talk to him for years, and Pucin still doesn’t.

“As precious as space in the newspaper is these days,” says Elliott, “I think there are better uses for it than for sexist, bullying, one-note, self-absorbed writing.”

“I have no reason to call up T.J. and chat,” says Pucin.

But what about his readers? Simers has lots of readers, and they, too, have strong feelings about him. At the end of most columns (he writes three times a week), he runs a piece of hate mail. These letters tend to suggest that Simers (a) doesn’t know anything about sports, (b) writes too much about himself, his family, his freakin’ son-in-law—aka the grocery-store bagger—and (c) is no Jim Murray. They think, in short, that he is a jerk.

Which is okay with Simers. He’s one of the Times’s most recognizable figures, not to mention the least Timesy writer in the paper. He is so popular that when CBS’s SportsLine Web site tried to steal him away recently, the paper gave him a raise—after it cut the staff and the size of the section.

Some sports columnists win readers by making themselves extremely useful. This was the mode of Allan Malamud, who held down Page 2 a decade before Simers. Malamud wrote his column at the Times for seven years (and at the Herald Examiner before that), and his approach was simple: He helped the guy on the bar stool argue the merits of this left-hander over that one by hosing him with a torrent of insider observation.

Simers doesn’t. “The hard-core sports fan hates my column,” he says. “They say, ‘Why are you telling us about the grocery-store bagger?’ They say, ‘Tell me how the goalie for the Kings did last night.’ Frankly, I don’t care how the goalie for the Kings did most of the time.”

Some columnists win readers with a prose style that won’t be denied; the late Jim Murray, the Times’s Pulitzer Prize-winning icon, effortlessly turned just-so sentences that were the perfect alchemy of gin and vermouth. Simers isn’t a snazzy stylist. His column is all about voice. He rasps and bellows and brays and cracks jokes top to bottom. He doesn’t want you to like him, but for a columnist, he does something more essential, and a lot harder: He makes readers feel like they know him.

“You come in from Philadelphia,” he says over lunch at a downtown restaurant, “and you see the L.A. Times and you go, ‘What the hell are they letting this shit in the paper for? My God, this guy is the worst!’ And then what happens is, someone from LA. will go, ‘You don’t understand. That’s our asshole. You gotta read him a couple of times, you gotta know the characters.’” In Simers’s case, contempt breeds familiarity.

Former Times editor John S. Carroll had a rule about the man who became a columnist on his watch: “T.J. has nine toes over the line, and it’s our job to keep him from using his last toe.” But as his employers have learned, it’s hard to pay a guy to throw custard pies without getting some on your Spring Street wing tips. Simers rags on Bill Dwyre, the outgoing sports editor, and is sizing up new sports editor Randy Harvey. He’s reported on an unflattering phone conversation he had with an executive from the Tribune Company, the Times’s owner (after that column ran, the executive removed his phone number from the company directory). Simers had a regular spot on ESPN’s Around the Horn, until he publicly made fun of the program. ESPN asked him to please stop criticizing the show, so of course he did it the next day. The network sent him packing.

Still, there’s a lot of ESPN in Simers. In the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and Los Angeles had a football team, there was a consensus that athletes were more or less like their fans, an illusion sports columnists used to their advantage. But in the era of 24-hour news cycles and ESPN, blanket coverage of salaries and shenanigans has shown athletes to be less like the average newspaper reader than ever. Sports talk radio has exploded by capitalizing on the shift, building up and tearing down figures by the hour. The heck with consensus, let’s brawl. Meanwhile, newspaper columnists have gone on doing what they’ve always done, and newspaper readership has steadily fallen.

Simers is columnizing for an era of sports talk radio. Dead trees are rising from their graves to make a readership care about newspapers—if only by making them mad, and then getting them curious enough to find out what fresh outrage will surface tomorrow. Channeling the bluster of red-faced broadcasters (Simers has got his own show, too, with his daughter Tracy, Sunday mornings on XTRA), he turns up the loudmouth volume and craftily turns down the insider content. He doesn’t get into who the Clippers are going to draft, say. His column is talk radio for generalists, a soap opera that shouts at you. Simers doesn’t write about Nomar Garciaparra’s defensive skills, but he sure is obsessed with the way he yanks at his batting glove before he comes to the plate. Sports talk radio turns numb-nuts arguments about stuff like this into an afternoon; nobody does it better than Simers.

He’s offensive for the sake of being offensive, a middle-aged guy reaching out to younger fans of South Park or Family Guy. They might buy a newspaper one of these days. Simultaneously, he plays up how he’s a family guy himself, coming on like a longsuffering dad and thus humanizing his obnoxiousness. It doesn’t always work. Simers scored national criticism for a 2001 column in which he ridiculed an attempt by the Sparks organization to market the team to lesbians. Keith Olbermann wrote a letter calling Simers “homophobic as hell” and demanded he be fired.

Some of his jokes at his family’s expense can make a reader cringe, and when he plays the modern caveman, drooling over Salma Hayek, it’s not a pretty picture. He says the only column the Times ever axed was one about a press event for the impotence drug Levitra. Banning T.J. on Levitra is the definition of a mercy killing.

His best moments come when he butts heads with a jock who just won’t play along. Athletes have become entertainers, and Simers works the locker room like Joan Rivers on the red carpet. He approaches a pitcher and asks, Hey, why’d you give up that home run, big guy? Then he writes down whatever he says. Simers can get multiple columns out of an athlete refusing to talk to him. He goads the idols into some accidental flicker of humanity. What shakes loose might be funny, or it might even say something about what Garret Anderson is really like.

“My advice to our players is to understand what his column is all about,” says John Black, director of public relations for the Lakers, “and what he’s all about and to go with the flow and to try to have fun with it. If you get into a battle with him, you’re going to lose.” Judging by this year’s columns, Phil Jackson must have a hard time taking advice.

One reason Simers gets away with it is, he doesn’t look like the easiest guy to intimidate: He’s thick and tall, with no-nonsense glasses obscuring his poker face. He is also always up front and personable. Simers isn’t going to say one thing when he sees you and another when he starts writing. He’ll call you a dog to your face. He doesn’t go away, and people figure out pretty quickly that for him, interviewing athletes is a game and a lot of his bluster is an act. “Simers lives in fear of everybody figuring it out,” Bill Dwyre says.

The sports section of the Times is literally a shambles these days. A new office, with rows of cubicles and flat-screen TVs hanging on walls, is currently under construction; meanwhile, the staff is tucked away in the back of the building, in a disorganized space.

In other ways, too, the Tribune Company has uprooted the staff: In 2004, the section was ordered to cut 14 pages weekly. There were layoffs and buyouts; box scores were edited down and omitted, daily soccer reports, fish reports, and more, all cut.

After a quarter century as the Times sports editor, Dwyre announced early this year he was leaving the job (he will be writing for the paper). “I have done the best I can to make this one of the best sports sections in the country,” he says. “Some years I did all the right things, and when we had the space to do them, we were up there with anybody.”

The 24-hour news cycle has forced Dwyre—and now incoming sports editor Randy Harvey—to find new ways to connect with readers; box scores aren’t as essential when you can find them online in real time. “We’re at a stage where all the sports sections in the country look the same, smell the same,” says Dwyre. “I had a problem with diminishing resources. Our space is getting smaller, and our ability to do the kinds of things we used to be able to do under the wide-open Chandler family—it isn’t the same ball game. Given those circumstances, you look around and you say; ‘How can you maintain the readership base? How can you make this a must-see destination every day?’ If you can’t do it with quantity and fantastic writing and longer stories and better stories than anybody else, which we still pretty much do but not to the extent we used to, what do you do it with? My answer was Simers.”

Dwyre says he understands why some on his staff don’t speak to the columnist. “They’re just showing good taste,” he jokes. “Most sports desks are peopled by bats-and-balls guys, who grew up as USC fans or Lakers fans. They live and die for that. The big screens on the wall of the new area—that’s for them. They are fans, and hopefully they are very good with the English language. But they really don’t get Simers. A lot of them don’t like him.”

It’s not just Pucin and Elliott who have voiced their objections. What Simers does goes against everything students are taught at journalism school. Don’t use the first person. Don’t pick fights. Don’t disrespect the owner of the hometown team by calling him the parking-lot attendant. All this is going to rankle beat reporters every time they look at his column. Consider Elliott: a journalist in the Hockey Hall of Fame, one of the best in the country, who had to fight long and hard to get the respect of those she covers. Then here comes Simers, who makes a big joke out of the notion of respect.

Simers is always looking for a new joke. A couple days before the Dodgers open their season, he looks excited. Sports Illustrated predicted the team will make the play-offs. Where does Simers think it’ll finish?

“I have no idea. It really doesn’t matter,” he announces. “I don’t know how the Dodgers are going to do. That’s what they play a whole season for.” He’s not stoked about the team’s prospects; he’s excited about his own. Given the team’s busload of imported veterans and rookies, with a new manager and general manager to boot, he knows there will be a whole lot of newcomers to irritate in the locker room and clubhouse, initiates not yet inured to the sound of his voice.

He claps his hands together. “Fresh meat!” he says.