"You're a fortunate man," John Schulian told me on the day I learned I would be moving to Baltimore to become executive sports editor of The Evening Sun.
I hadn't been feeling all that fortunate during that unforgiving winter of 1984, and neither had he. John had built a national reputation for clear thinking and seamless prose from his base at the Chicago Sun-Times, where he was known as the thinking man's sports columnist.
Since the days of Ben Hecht and "The Front Page," Chicago had been noted for its clanking typewriters and dot--- journalism. Yet here was Schulian offering train commuters and bus riders a lyrical difference, a thrice-weekly sports essay written in clean, elegant sentences that grew into tall, tightly woven paragraphs. He elevated the events he covered like no writer in town and was his best under the heated pressure of deadline. He reputation rose at an angle equal to that of the paper's in the late 1970s and early 1980s; an invigorated and smarter Sun-Times was giving its rival, the Chicago Tribune, all it could handle. That is, until the fall of 1983, when the suspense was lifted over who would be the new owner of Chicago's morning tabloid.
On the morning when Australian press lord Rupert Murdoch stepped into the newsroom, it was the day the music died for many of us. Murdoch had worldwide billions to his name, but nary a scruple.
Some 70 newsroom employees chose to leave the paper with a severance rather than work for Murdoch. Shortly before I left in February of 1984, Schulian put a hand on my shoulder and began to tell stories of Baltimore, the hardscrabble city where he had cut his teeth as a reporter.
I remember his saying my new home would be a Chicago in miniature, a city of family loyalties and home cooking, of neighborhood pride and fierce devotions, of public figures worthy of suspicion and sweat-stained laborers worthy of celebration. He told me the coarse and frozen die-hards I would find at Memorial Stadium during Colt season would be uncannily reminiscent of Bears fans at Soldier Field, and that the restaurants of Little Italy would warm my soul and fill my belly in the same manner as our favorite side-street restaurants on Chicago's South Side.
And, as if to save the best for last, he said Baltimore was a writer's city, a place that offered a nearly inexhaustible array of characters with stories to tell, many of whom he reintroduces to you in today's cover story, starting on Page 6.
John suggested I warm up to Baltimore. Buy a balloon from Mr. Diz on the Pimlico parking lot and fritter away an afternoon watching the ponies pass. Drop by Abe Sherman's for an out-of-town newspaper or two, he said, and warned me that a journalist would not escape without his or her fair share of abuse from the old cuss. And don't neglect to whack some crabs on a picnic table and wash the pickin's down with a few Natty Bohs.
On that wintry day in 1984, John Schulian gave me wonderful advice: Embrace Baltimore.
Now, nine years later, I am all the more fortunate for following his words. For not only have I discovered a great city of characters, I have learned that my adopted home is a city of great character.