Mike Downey was the quickest wit in town … and a sweetheart of a guy

Mike Downey was one of my sportswriting heroes.

My first job out of college was at Star Publications in the south suburbs, where he had worked years before. By that time, 1983, he was an extremely popular columnist at the Detroit Free Press. I’d go back and read Mike’s coverage of high school sports at the Star with a combination of awe and despair. Awe because he’d been a fully formed wordsmith at a young age and despair because I wasn’t.

By the time I worked up the nerve to write him a letter and send him some of my work, he was a columnist at the Los Angeles Times. The big time had found him, yet he found time to write me back. He offered encouragement, telling me to swing for the fences with my writing, to try new things. He said he had made a vow to himself when he was young that he’d strive to be the best at whatever he decided to do for a living, even if that was mopping floors. Janitorial services’ loss was newspapers’ gain.

He made anything seem possible — anything besides being Mike Downey. It took me a long time to realize that was OK. There was only one of him.

Mike died of a heart attack Wednesday at his Rancho Mirage, Calif., home. He was 72. It hurts to write that. He was a sweetheart of a guy.

Not many people get to work with their heroes. I did. Mike and I shared the Chicago Tribune’s “In the Wake of the News’’ column from 2003 to 2008. The opportunity to be a columnist at his hometown newspaper had brought him out of retirement. It was one last itch that needed itching. He had worked at the Chicago Daily News and the Chicago Sun-Times before going to Detroit and then LA. When the Trib called, he couldn’t say no.

After he arrived in town, we met for lunch on Michigan Avenue. That morning, I had written a column saying that, as much as I liked Ryne Sandberg, I wasn’t sure second basemen belonged in the Hall of Fame. In my labored reasoning, if Sandberg had played third base, his statistics wouldn’t have stood out so much. Mike, who was Chicago through and through, loved the town’s pantheon of stars and celebrities. He loved Harry Caray. He loved Ernie Banks. He loved everything about the White Sox, despite the pain and suffering they had caused him.

And he loved Sandberg. Mike looked at me as if I had radiation poisoning and might be contagious. He wanted to know if I was nuts. Quite possibly, I said.

But I was ready for him.

A few years earlier, after leaving sports to write a news column at the Los Angeles Times, he had written an entire column admitting he hated football. And here I was, waiting for him on Michigan Avenue and armed with that information. How, I asked, could he cover Bears games now that his secret was out?

“I was misquoted,’’ he said with that wry smile of his.

He had the quickest wit of anyone I’ve ever known. In a 2003 column, he had some words for Sammy Sosa after the Cubs slugger was caught with cork in his bat:

“It was as if someone had caught Superman using brass knuckles, or suspected Robin Hood of stealing from the poor, or accused King Arthur of rigging it so that the sword would slide easily out of the stone.

“However it happened, a hero’s shining-knight image has been tarnished. And those who believe in him can keep right on believing if they so please, but those who govern over him could have a very sad judgment to make as to his future.

“If the cork fits, they can’t acquit.”

In 2005, the Giants’ Barry Bonds told reporters that hearing their questions about his alleged steroid use “is like watching ‘Sanford and Son.’ You’re just rerun after rerun after rerun.”

Wrote Mike: “Oh, Fred Sanford and Bonds are a lot alike, if you ask me. I think they both took a lot of junk.”

Mike had a chance to go to Northwestern to study journalism, but his family didn’t have the money. After graduating from Bloom Township High School at 16, he started working full time at the Star.

He could have written anything, but he picked sports. He was a sportswriter at the Daily News until it went out of business in 1978, but he also wrote about television in his early days in Chicago. Legendary columnist Mike Royko, whose crustiness was almost as famous as his opinions, complimented him on his writing. Mike carried that around like a medal, because that’s what it was to a newspaper person in the city.

He liked Los Angeles, and he liked Hollywood. His wife, Gail, was one of Dean Martin’s daughters. It really was amore.

He once shopped a screenplay he had helped write about boxer Joe Louis. He got a meeting with a producer who immediately started fantasizing about box-office star Arnold Schwarzenegger in the role of Max Schmeling, whom Louis had fought twice. When Mike gently suggested that the muscle-bound, action hero Schwarzenegger might not be right for a movie celebrating Louis, the producer boomed, “There’s one rule in this town: If you can get Schwarzenegger, you get Schwarzenegger!”

The screenplay didn’t go anywhere, but Mike had a good story to tell.

When Donald Trump was convicted recently on 34 felony charges, Phil Arvia, a friend of Mike’s, posted on Facebook: “Not since Robin Ventura went hitless in 41 straight at-bats as a rookie in 1989 have I seen someone take a worse 0-fer than the New York 0-for-34 I saw today.’’

Wrote Mike: “Belongs in hitless protection.’’

“It’s effortless for you, isn’t it?’’ Arvia wrote back.

It really was.

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