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The Sniper

Roger Brown takes his shots. The sports world returns fire.


C.C. Sabathia is dressing after a loss to the White Sox. The Jacobs Field locker room is almost bare, save for huge leather couches and state-of-the-art electronics. Yet the meaty ace-in-waiting is in no mood for reflection. And he surely doesn't want to speak about Plain Dealer columnist Roger Brown.

His beef goes back to a game last summer. Sabathia, on one of his more combustible outings, had been lifted for a reliever. The pitcher responded by throwing his glove against the dugout wall and screaming obscenities.

After the game, Brown asked Sabathia about the outburst. "I wanted to know what he was so angry about, because he had made such a public display," Brown says.

Sabathia provided only curt responses. When it became clear the interview was going nowhere, Brown walked away.

As soon as the columnist was out of earshot, Sabathia skewered him before the remaining reporters, saying he'd like to whip Brown's ass.

"I guess he made some menacing remarks," Brown says, no hint of worry in his voice.

So on a recent afternoon, the hefty hurler is asked for his thoughts on Brown's column. "I don't read it," Sabathia says. "Whenever I'm in it, it's something bad."

A reporter tries to get him to elaborate, but Sabathia politely dodges the questions.

Bob Wickman, the Indians' All-Star reliever, is eavesdropping. As Sabathia pulls on an Oakland Raiders jersey, Wickman inserts himself into the conversation. "Sir," he tells the reporter, "the interview is basically over. The guy answered the question."

The reporter informs Wickman that he's not the one being interviewed.

"I just don't see why you are picking at him. He answered the question," Wickman says.

A feeling of tension fills the room. Sabathia says nothing. Wickman's eyes begin to widen, as he and the reporter briefly stare each other down. Then the 240-pound reliever waddles toward the shower.

It turns out that Wickman has his own beef with Brown. It's not an uncommon circumstance in the world of Cleveland sports.

Brown took a circuitous route to his present job. He worked for a now-defunct Northeast Ohio daily, then joined The Plain Dealer as a metro reporter. He would later become its radio and TV critic before finally landing a sports column.

Viewed from the outside, it was a risky move -- one that PD sports editor Roy Hewitt won't discuss. Brown was being asked to write an insider's column, a series of brief quips, rumors, tough opinions, and behind-the-scenes info. It's a job usually reserved for veterans, those owning a Rolodex thick with the phone numbers of coaches, agents, players, and general managers. But Brown was coming from entertainment, generally considered the flyweight division at most papers.

To say the least, it wasn't a popular move among the more senior sports writers.

Hewitt was hoping to replicate a column by Charley Walters that appears in the Pioneer Press of St. Paul, where Hewitt once worked. Brown was dispatched to Minnesota to learn the ropes.

But he was at a distinct disadvantage. "I've got 3,000 unlisted numbers in my cell phone," brags Walters, a 20-year-veteran. "I make 100 phone calls a day, which only requires me to push 10 numbers into my phone and ask, 'What do you know?'"

Brown, by contrast, was a novice. He was also a loner, often working from home. When he does go to games, he usually stakes out a place off by himself in the press box to watch in solitude. (He agreed only reluctantly to be interviewed for this story, then promptly cut off all contact with Scene.)

But Brown's biggest challenge would be writing in Cleveland. Gunning for players and coaches is considered everyday sport by the Minneapolis-St. Paul press. The Cleveland media, timid even by heartland standards, appeared more like a cheerleading squad, where shots are usually reserved for after the target has been either traded or fired, when there's no fear of recourse.

One need only hark back to last fall for an example of those see-no-evil, speak-no-evil ways. Though more than a dozen reporters cover Berea daily, it was ESPN that broke the story about the near-open rebellion of Browns players against coach Butch Davis. Comically, the Cleveland media was forced to quote superior reporting from Connecticut.

Brown, however, quickly showed that he harbored no such caution. If there's a shot to be had in Cleveland sports, be assured that Roger Brown is taking it.

Over the years, he's called Wickman fat. He's labeled radio host Mike Trivisonno "your beacon of buffoonery, your icon of inarticulate comment." He's implied that former Cavs assistant coach Stephen Silas was as valuable as an empty Gatorade bottle, and he's repeatedly blasted Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas for his erratic play.

While he's not really venomous, he doesn't pull punches. And that, in Cleveland, is a rare thing.

"What I'll say about Roger is, he has a lot of guts to do what he does," says a writer from a rival paper.

It isn't the kind of work that wins friends. Players consider him a cheap-shot artist and have been known to berate him in the locker room. Fellow reporters call him lazy and say his information is often suspect.

"I don't envy what he has to do, when he has to sort out truth from fiction," says one PD reporter. "He's got sources who believe what they tell him is true, and you've got people with agendas who are tying to cover things up."

But whether you love him or hate him, if you care about Cleveland sports, there's a very good chance you read Roger Brown.

"Everybody reads Roger," says Andy Baskin, who covers the Tribe for Fox Sports Ohio.

Talk to front-office officials or fellow reporters, and they'll often begin any discussion of Brown with a grudging compliment, only to follow with a lengthy analysis of his shortcomings.

"There are a lot of us there who don't think that what he does is good journalism or is good for our field, because sometimes it is just rumor-mongering," says a rival reporter.

Ah, the rumors. Columns like Brown's are built on secondhand stories and anonymous sources. Speculating about upcoming moves or who doesn't like whom in the clubhouse is Brown's job. Yet the accuracy of what he peddles has long been open to debate, even among Plain Dealer colleagues. If there is one criticism of Brown that is troubling, it is this: He makes things up.

"He speaks a lot of truths," says a reporter from a rival paper. "But, unfortunately, he speaks a lot of untruths."

Adds a front-office official: "A lot of times, he's wrong. Dead wrong. The integrity level and burden of proof in the media has continued to spiral downward."

It's those supposed "untruths" that have sullied Brown's reputation.

During the past NBA season, Brown wrote that new Cavs' owner Dan Gilbert was planning to have LeBron James' mother and her boyfriend flown to away games in Gilbert's private jet.

The report was "blatantly untrue," notes a writer who covers the Cavs.

After the item ran, Gilbert became more leery of the media. "It colored his whole judgment of the media, and it didn't get us off on a good foot," says the writer.

After former Cavs guard Jeff McInnis signed a deal with New Jersey, Brown speculated that James reached out to rapper Jay-Z, part owner of the Nets, to pave the way for McInnis' deal. Brown further conjectured that James may remember New Jersey's assistance when his own free agency arrives.

"That is Brown at his worst," says the Cavs writer. "Jay-Z owns like 5 percent of the Nets, and I doubt he's the one making personnel decisions."

Hal Lebovitz is the godfather of the insider's column in Cleveland. He started writing his in 1964, when he became sports editor at The Plain Dealer. He's still at it today, writing every Sunday in The News Herald and The Morning Journal.

When asked about Brown, Lebovitz is cagey. "You are going to make this a pissing match between Roger Brown and me, and I don't want that," he says.

But it doesn't take much prodding to get him talking. After a little give-and-take, Lebovitz, who is nearing 90, gets to the point: "I can't compete with fiction."

Another sports editor simply calls Brown a "piece of shit."

Still, it's hard to say who's right. Though critics believe that Brown makes things up, they offer little evidence to back their claims. Moreover, journalists tend to be cattier than trophy wives. Among those content to be team stenographers, a guy who mixes it up is bound to cause resentment.

"He's got a tough job, and he executes it very well," says a PD writer.

Former Cavaliers coach Paul Silas wasn't a fan of Brown's -- nor were many of his players.

At a press conference last season, Silas refused to answer Brown's questions. The columnist persisted. "I don't know if you can't hear, but I'm not answering your questions," Silas boomed back.

Though Brown frequently criticized Silas in print, one writer says that the coach's resentment stemmed from Brown's ripping of Silas' son, Stephen -- if you could even call it a rip job.

It all started last summer, when Brown wrote: "The jury's out on how much impact Kenny Natt, the new Cavs' assistant coach, will have on Paul Silas' staff this season. Word is one reason former Cavs assistant coach Bob Donewald was fired after this past season was because the team's other two assistants, Mark Osowski and Stephen Silas, weren't happy that Donewald had so much input on game strategy and privately lobbied for his dismissal."

That was followed a few weeks later by another cutting critique: "Few Cavs have real respect for team assistant coach Steve Silas, the head coach's son. Fairly or not, many Cavs view the younger Silas as a 'yes man' for his father -- and don't trust him to be an effective buffer between them and the head coach."

Who knows whether it was true or not? Those close to the Cavs say it wasn't.

But the greater sin, according to Brown's detractors, was that he was taking swipes at someone who didn't deserve it. "Stephen Silas was a gentle guy who would never harm a fly," says one writer. "He even had gone on record saying if his father were not the coach, he would not have a job. But Roger took a shot at the guy."

Brown's unpopularity stretched to the locker room. In one memorable scene late last season, five players, one by one, lined up to verbally assail Brown in the locker room. The feeding frenzy was so fierce that players were called out of the shower to confront the columnist.

Ira Newble, according to a beat writer, was pissed that Brown had written about Newble's shooting coach being arrested in the Flats. Robert "Tractor" Traylor lashed out at Brown for reporting that the hefty forward was having problems with then-GM Jim Paxson.

"It was definitely one of the most memorable things that happened, mediawise, during the season," says the writer.

Brown also incurred the wrath of guard Sasha Pavlovic for printing this rumor: "Is Browns' quarterback Jeff Garcia cooling off -- and Cavs' swingman Sasha Pavlovic heating up -- as the love interest of Carmella DeCesare, the controversial Playboy Playmate? Hmmm."

After reading the item on the internet, Pavlovic's overseas girlfriend called to bitch him out.

Others criticize Brown for taking a shot, then not showing up in the locker room to let players confront him, according to two front-office officials. It's an unwritten code in sportswriting that if you rip someone, you have to show the next day to let that player have his say.

"You do, if you have any balls," says Bob Finnan, who covers the Cavs for The News Herald and The Morning Journal.

"He really doesn't come around that much," says an Indians front-office official.

But a PD writer refutes the assertion: "He doesn't rip and run, as they call it in the business. He'll walk through the lion's den, so to speak." Besides, as someone who covers all sports, Brown can't possibly attend every game of every team.

He only chuckles when he hears of his reputation. "They get their shot at me," he says.

Brown isn't the only one taking return fire from players. His job is to cover young millionaires, who are often very thin-skinned. It's a profession in which even minor incidents can quickly expand to all-out war. Just ask Kenny Rogers, the Texas Rangers pitcher who assaulted two TV cameramen for merely shooting video of him.

The give-and-take, says Walters, has long been part of the job: "That's what goes on all the time. It's a lot of us vs. them, them vs. us. That's a tight line you walk."

But for Brown, the biggest difference is that he's doing it in Cleveland.

While Plain Dealer columnists Bill Livingston and Bud Shaw take occasional shots, their criticisms are usually delivered with less-than-pointed arrows, leaving Brown to stand alone.

Cleveland's sports media is "not considered hard-hitting," says one PD writer.

Adds a reporter from a rival paper: "Cleveland doesn't have the reputation of having a tabloid kind of journalism behavior that fans can't get enough of. I don't think Cleveland is that way."

Or perhaps Cleveland's media just isn't that way. After all, fans here aren't much different from those in Detroit, Chicago, and Minneapolis. Yet Brown is temperate in comparison to writers in those cities. And much to his colleagues' consternation, he isn't afraid to insinuate that Cleveland's media is soft.

"I agree with it," says one beat writer. "There is no way the Cleveland sports media is as hard on its teams as Boston, New York, L.A., or Toronto. But I know when Roger wrote that, he pissed a lot of his fellow media members off."

WTAM host Mike Trivisonno is among Brown's most vociferous critics. Rarely a week goes by without the columnist taking a shot at the city's top sports talker. "I look to see if my name is in it," says Trivisonno of Brown's column. "If it's not, I don't read it. If The Plain Dealer is going to let him write that column, they should put it with the comics."

WKNR host Kenny Roda often calls Brown "Roger Clown" and has taken several shots at the columnist's accuracy. Brown has persistently speculated on the future of WKNR. At one point, he predicted that it would dump its sports-talk format and go to 24-hour religious programming. It never came to pass.

"We're still here," says station manager Michael Luczak, who confesses to reading Brown regularly.

Which, of course, is the point. Even Wickman, Brown's biggest critic on the Tribe, is a reader.

When Brown wrote earlier this year about Wickman's weight problem -- a point even the pitcher would have a hard time refuting -- Wickman cut it out and placed it in his locker for motivation, says a front-office official.

And though one rival writer says that most players don't read the column -- journalism "is not a part of their world," he says -- he nonetheless guarantees that every GM in the city does. "He's someone you read three or four times a week. If nothing else, if you like him or you dislike him, you're reading his stuff."

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