Knock on Woody
In 2004, the Denver Post gave Woody Paige a one-year leave of absence that allowed the longtime sports columnist to move to New York City, where he'd been named a regular on ESPN2's Cold Pizza. The Post subsequently hired veteran New York Times scribe Thomas George as Paige's de facto replacement, and George proved to be an inspired choice; his measured, thoughtful approach marked him as the anti-Woody. As for Paige, who loves to raise eyebrows by, for instance, mocking cities other than the one where he resides, he sent weekly columns to the Post until the month or two preceding December 4, 2005, when a goodbye piece was published. "I'm not coming back a year later," he wrote -- and he was right. He's actually coming back three days short of a year later.
Yep, Paige officially rejoins the Post staff on December 1, filling the opening left by George, who bid the broadsheet farewell in August to become managing editor of the NFL Network. Not that Paige has severed all ties with ESPN: He recently inked a three-year contract to participate in Around the Horn, a daily program in which sports journos from around the country ridicule and occasionally yell at each other; he'll tape his segments from a new studio in the Post newsroom. But Paige will no longer be an ingredient on Pizza, a program that many TV observers have expected to falter ever since it was moved from its original time period opposite the network morning shows to a lower-profile 10 a.m. Eastern slot. He stresses that his departure shouldn't be interpreted as evidence that the program is nearing its expiration date. "People are going to look for some hidden meaning to all this," he says. "But the true situation is, I've been in New York for over two years, and even though I enjoyed my stay, I really missed Colorado, and I really missed writing."
This explanation seems sincere -- but so did Paige's denial of Internet buzz that he was on the way back to the Post, which he offered during an October interview for the More Messages blog posted on Westword's website. About three weeks later, on November 2, Post editor Greg Moore sent a memo informing staffers of the columnist's impending homecoming, and in the blurb, he mentioned that he and Paige "began discussing his possible return about two months ago." This implies that Paige's previous claims had been a lot less than forthright, but he insists otherwise, albeit in a notably Clintonian manner. As he puts it, "I don't believe anything I told you was an untruth, as presidents say."
Does that mean there's a blue dress in Paige's closet with something gooey splattered on it? In the spirit of Kenneth Starr, let's follow the evidence.
On October 10, an item on SportsJournalists.com, a popular bulletin board, declared, "Woody Paige is returning to the Denver Post," followed by the assertion that "they totally screwed Marc Spears," who was among the current staffers who were allowed to pen try-out columns after George vacated. (Anthony Cotton, one of the Post sports section's finest contributors, was also in the running.) Shortly thereafter, two other sports-oriented addresses, Deadspin.com and TheBigLead.com, picked up SportsJournalists.com's lead. The anonymous Deadspin author noted that his site had ridiculed Paige in the past for plenty of things, including his view that "eating dog food on live television" was wholly acceptable, before adding, "He had abandoned [his] column when he became a full-time ESPN talking head in NYC, but persistent rumors that the show is in serious trouble might have finally taken their toll." TheBigLead piece echoed this observation with the headline "Another Sign Cold Pizza Is in Trouble: Woody's Writing Again in Denver."
These three online strikes prompted a call to Paige, which he returned on his cell phone while strolling Manhattan; at one point, he mentioned that he was in front of Trump Tower. When asked about the web rumblings, he said he had no plans to leave New York. After all, he had a year left on his ESPN contract and had already spoken casually with network execs about an extension. Besides, he went on, Cold Pizza was earning healthy ratings, giving him no reason to consider jumping ship.
Paige couldn't say for certain why the Denver comeback gossip had started, but he speculated that his first return visit to Denver since his initial exodus provided the spark. He was slated to attend the September 25 Monday Night Football game pitting the New Orleans Saints against the Atlanta Falcons -- a hot ticket, since it was the first pigskin match-up in the Superdome since Hurricane Katrina turned the facility into a symbol of governmental callousness and ineptitude. Rather than fly directly to the Big Easy, however, Paige decided to stop in Denver beforehand, in order to deal with the contents of storage units he'd filled with books and Southwestern art before leaving Colorado. While in town, he stopped by to check out the Post's fancy new digs. Moore subsequently obliged him with a newsroom tour, and he also had a sit-down with Dean Singleton, the Post's owner. Nevertheless, he says these visits were unrelated to employment and shouldn't have been interpreted as a signal that he wanted to go forward into the past. Although he reiterated his desire to end his career in Denver and confirmed that Singleton had told him the door at the Post would always be open to him, he said he wouldn't be stepping through it anytime soon.
So what happened between then and November 2 to change everything? Paige says he really did consider his chats with Moore and Singleton to be casual and social, if lengthy; he guesses that the Singleton get-together lasted "three or four hours." Likewise, he swears that everything came together in the days before the announcement, long after he'd pooh-poohed the possibility that one would be necessary. "I had a binding contract," he maintains, "but I had my agent talk to ESPN, and we told them that writing was really important to me. And we worked something out that allows me to continue to work on Around the Horn and still do three things I love: return to Colorado, return to the Denver Post and write."
That's fine by Moore, who's pleased that he's got a marquee name to step in for George. Regarding the nuts and bolts of the Paige negotiations, the editor certainly thought they were having substantive conversations about the columnist job long before the deal was done. "We had a preliminary discussion about it two months ago," Moore recalls. "I told him, ŒIf you're serious about this, you need to let me know by a certain date.' And then I think he got serious about it, because that date was looming."
For his part, ESPN vice president of studio production Mike McQuade, who oversees Cold Pizza, wasn't surprised in the slightest by Paige's western movement. "He and I had been talking about it for a while," he says. "I knew it was coming." McQuade makes it clear that Paige wasn't pushed out, smacks down conjecture that Skip Bayless, the Woodman's on-screen sparring partner, will go away next, and dismisses whispers that Pizza is bound for the garbage disposal. According to him, "The last weekly ratings report we got had the show up 70 percent, and the big area of growth is in men 18-34 -- the demographic these shows are all about. That was up over 100 percent." Hence, the search is on for Paige's permanent replacement, who McQuade says might be either a sportswriter or a former athlete.
In the meantime, Paige is prepared to answer questions from ESPN types about why he's leaving a burgeoning medium like cable-sports television for print, which is widely considered to be on the wane. The main reason, he says, is because "I care passionately about newspapers, and I think I can be of help to the Denver Post. ESPN can survive with or without me. They've survived without Keith Olbermann. They can survive without me."
Some of Paige's recent statements may be dubious, but that one's indisputable. Woody Paige said his return to the Post wasn't imminent shortly before conceding that it was -- but he swears he didn't lie. Honest.
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