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Spinning a web of laughs

THE BALTIMORE SUN

D.J. Gallo is a Towson University graduate who has written some funny headlines:

"Nike signs LeBron to $90 million deal, 8-year-old Indonesian Sweatshop Worker to $9 deal."

"Al Qaeda.com Bowl Seeks to Soften Image."

"CBS Debuts 'CSI: Portland Trail Blazers.' "

Such spoofs and accompanying faux news stories are on Gallo's Web site, SportsPickle.com. His best lines are getting picked up by major newspapers and drawing praise from such high places as Sports Illustrated, which calls the site "highly amusing."

SportsPickle.com is striking thousands of sports fans' funny bones and making a rising star of its creator, who writes every word.

Jim Ornstein of William Morris, a top talent agency, cold-called Gallo last spring and added him as a client.

Gallo, 25, quit his job at a Baltimore public relations firm in late November because so many doors were opening for him.

"This is what I want to do: I want to make fun of people," Gallo said. "I might fall flat on my face, but I'm going to give it my best shot."

Before, he was working 55 hours a week at the firm and commuting more than an hour each way to near Harrisburg, Pa., where he moved last summer with his wife, Emily, a Hershey, Pa., teacher. He was writing his "pickle" content in the middle of the night.

Now, he is working out of his house, submitting comedy material to television networks and freelancing for ESPN The Magazine. There is talk of a book.

"Writing isn't my hobby anymore, it's my job," he said. "That's what I wanted all along. It's very exciting."

Ornstein, Gallo's New York-based agent, said that anyone who can dream up such headlines as "Bill Parcells Announces Rebuilding of His Waistline" and "High School Basketball Coach Successfully Removes All Fun from Playing" is not about to fail.

"There's no one else doing what he does; he's consistently, absolutely hilarious," said Ornstein, who also represents former Raven Tony Siragusa, basketball coach Jeff Van Gundy and daytime TV star Kelly Ripa.

Aside from writing stories and headlines, Gallo asks poll questions, holds bogus auctions and makes football predictions on SportsPickle.com.

A recent poll question asked fans what they thought Keyshawn Johnson might do with his free time after Tampa Bay deactivated him for the season. Choices included a) petition Webster's to put an "I" in team; b) begin production of Keyshawn The Magazine; and c) throw self damn ball.

But the heart of the site are the weekly headlines and stories poking fun at sports icons, traditions and absurdities.

"The site is for people who really enjoy sports but don't take it too seriously," Gallo said.

At the baseball trade deadline last July, he wrote: "The St. Louis Cardinals and Seattle Mariners pulled off a major trade, or perhaps a minor one, minutes before the deadline when St. Louis dealt a player to be named later to Seattle for a player to be named later. 'We needed to get pitching for the playoff chase, and this trade may or may not have gotten it for us. We're potentially very excited,' said Walt Jocketty, St. Louis general manager."

After a string of off-court problems involving pro basketball players, the headline on the site's lead story read simply, "NBA Arrested."

Some of his items are less than tasteful, which he admits.

"I like the ones that are a little inappropriate," he said. "It's satire."

When pitcher Darryl Kile died in 2002, Gallo received complaints after writing about fantasy baseball managers being angry that one of their pitchers had died.

"People said, 'How could you make fun of that?' " Gallo said. "But I wasn't making fun of Kile; there was nothing funny about that. I was making fun of the fantasy guys."

Editors at an Arkansas newspaper actually fell for his story about Americans taking classes to learn about soccer.

"They ran it like it was real," Gallo said.

Days before Kobe Bryant's arrest on rape charges last summer, Gallo wrote that Bryant was trying to tarnish his image in order to gain "street cred." MSNBC cited the site for predicting Bryant's troubles. Sheer luck, Gallo said.

His favorite off-color headline? One of his first: "Middle School Boys Declare Poo-holes Their Favorite Player," referring to St. Louis Cardinals star Albert Pujols.

But he avoids curse words - "I just don't want to sink to that level," Gallo said - and his somewhat old-school sports politics ring clearly.

"Hackers Put M.I.T. Atop BCS Standings" was his take on the ridiculousness of the Bowl Championship Series.

"Bob Knight Lightly Kicks Player in Crotch" showed his skepticism that the fiery coach had mellowed.

"Yankees Attempting to Sign Christ Upon His Return" was a shot at the Bronx Bombers' domination of baseball's personnel market.

"People probably think I hate sports. I don't," Gallo said. "I think I'm just sort of frustrated by them."

Raised in Pottsville, Pa., he was the youngest of four children and a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

"Even when he was little, he had a dry sense of humor with a sarcastic touch," said his oldest sister, Debbie Sweitzer of Summervile, S.C. "He cracked us up all the time."

He was a co-captain of his high school basketball and golf teams, "which I like to point out," Gallo said, "because when you make fun of sports, people tend to think you were a dweeb in high school who got made fun of. I was actually a fairly good athlete."

He attended Towson on a full academic scholarship and wrote sports for the school paper, The Towerlight. He began to find his voice while writing a weekly football prediction column.

"No one cares what some 19-year-old college kid thinks about NFL games, so I tried to have fun with it," he said.

He was as quiet and thoughtful in class as he was funny and outlandish in print, said Dr. Beth Haller, a mass communications professor. "You could tell he was extremely bright," she said.

The idea for the Web site came to Gallo several months after his June 2001 graduation. What about a sports version of The Onion, the online humor site he admired?

"I had all these ideas [for headlines and stories] and the thought just came to me," he said. "I was sitting at my first job, which I hated, bored out of my mind. I did a search and found there really weren't any sites like that."

Since "onion" was taken, he chose "pickle" and bought a domain name. Then he "had a brain flood and wrote down 65 headlines," he said.

The site was up within a month. Lacking Web design skills, Gallo wrote the material and forwarded it to a Towerlight cohort, Adam Reisinger, who was - and still is - the site's Webmaster.

"At first, I was doing it out of the Towerlight offices," said Reisinger, who interned as a sportswriter at The Sun, graduated in 2002, and now works as a computer salesman in Connecticut.

SportsPickle.com drew little traffic, averaging around 3,000 visitors a month for the first year. Then a Canadian Internet magazine listed it as a top site, and Sports Illustrated featured it last March.

Visits increased to 50,000 a month.

"Getting mentioned in Sports Illustrated obviously was the breakthrough," Gallo said.

The Los Angeles Times and Miami Herald are among papers that have picked up his work, crediting SportsPickle.com. Another is The San Francisco Chronicle, whose sports humor columnist, Tom FitzGerald, is a heavy user.

"I do a lot of canvassing of newspapers and Web sites, and SportsPickle.com is one of the best," FitzGerald said. "Gallo has a real nice knack for the funny headline and funny fake news story."

Gallo hopes to become even funnier now that his "pickle" writing has become his day job. Now, all he is juggling are freelance opportunities and his work for ESPN The Magazine, which assigned him to cover top tennis players in Baltimore earlier this month.

Wherever he goes, he travels with a tape recorder to capture ideas that pop into his head.

"He's one of those people who had a dream and pursued it and made it come true on his own terms," Towson's Haller said. "He writes a very funny site, but he's not goofing around. He's for real."

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