‘Rat Chat’ was never about taking the high road

‘Rat Chat’ was never about taking the high road

As a newspaper writer, you have never lived until you inspired a letter-to-the-editor headline that reads “Fire these idiots.”

Matt Vincent and I really lived.

That headline ran in The Montana Standard on Wednesday, November 26, 2003. I stumbled upon it when I searched the name of the grandfather I was named after into a website.

The letter was written by Montana State Bobcats fan Paul Morrison of Bozeman. It was one of more than 100 letters that were sent to the paper regarding a particular column written by Matt Vincent. It was one of more than a dozen that were fit to print.

Vincent, better known as Vinny, and I wrote a column we called “Rat Chat” in the Standard for about seven years, beginning in December of 1998. We wrote the columns on an old laptop computer in a bar, mostly Maloney’s.

In the column, we made fun of everything. In particular, we made fun of Packers fans and Bob Gannon, the man who ran the Montana Power Company into the ground.

We made famous the name “Boz Angeles,” a nickname for Bozeman coined by Maloney’s regular Mike Roche.

On Nov. 20, 2003, we targeted the Bobcats with a column titled “Griz Eye for the Cat Guy,” two days before they played the University of Montana in Bozeman.

We were stealing a bit from a new hit television show “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy.”

A year earlier, the Bobcats snapped a 16-game losing streak to Montana, but the Griz still dominated the state.

We pointed out that the coach Mike Kramer’s Bobcats dominated another state.

The MSU team had almost as many players from California as it did from Montana, and we poked fun under the guise of offering advice. We also pointed out an assistant coach’s multiple brushes with the law and his boss who looked the other way.

That is when I wrote my favorite line of all time when we discussed whether or not we should rise above and not take juvenile shots at the Cats: “Who are we to take the high road?”

Reading the column again 13 and a half years later, it still makes me laugh out loud. It was probably our best work together.

Grizzly fans loved it. When Vinny and I walked into the Butte Country Club for a Grizzly party that included head coach Bobby Hauck the night the column ran, we received such a rousing ovation that you would have thought were Beatles.

Bobcat fans, on the other hand, well, they hated the column, and they hated us.

Immediately, the letters and emails began pouring in.

You know, as a newspaper writer, you have never lived until you messed with people sending you hate mail.

Matt Vincent and I really lived.

At the time of the column, I was reading a book by comedian Al Franken, before he went into politics. He gave us a great idea of replying to each piece of hate mail with a form letter thanking the writer for his or her support.

It was so much fun.

One Bobcat fan kept sending us emails back saying things like “you two idiots know I didn’t send you a fan letter.”

We kept replying with our form letter thanking him for his support, and he kept getting madder. It went on all night long.

When I got to work the next afternoon, editor Gerry O’Brien called me into his office and said, “Would you please leave Gary Corbin alone?”

On Dec. 17, sports editor Bruce Sayler, who always supported us no matter how ridiculous we were, posted a note at the end of another batch of letters saying it was time to move on.

Our good advice to the Bobcats about Kramer did not seem so crazy or juvenile four years later when Sports Illustrated took notice with a story titled “Trouble in Paradise.”

Today, the Bobcats are among the class of the Big Sky Conference. Head coach Jeff Choate has a tremendous coaching staff that wins with character, class and a lot of Montana players.

The Bobcats signed another nice batch from Montana earlier this year, including a couple studs from Butte. It really seems like MSU is about to take its success to the next level, and the Cats are doing it the right way.

The Sports Illustrated story came just after the end of the Mike Kramer years, when decency took a back seat to winning, and the wins did not exactly pile up.

One Kramer win I will never forget, however, came two days after the “Griz Eye for the Cat Guy” column. Suddenly, all the Grizzly fans who said they were going to write letters to support us disappeared faster than a Cowboys fan after a Thanksgiving loss.

Bobcat fans were emboldened by the win, and they sent letter after letter. Some of the criticism was fair, even if the writers just could not see that were merely trying to have some fun.

A lot of the criticism was misguided, and many told us that we got our facts wrong when the “facts” they were writing about were actually opinions.

Either way, those letter writers got to the paper’s then publisher, Heidi Wright.

The night before the column ran, Wright stood by my desk and laughed as she told me how funny the column was. She got a sneak preview because O’Brien wanted to cover his back.

Wright also laughed as she watched me try to make the headline look like the logo from the television show.

When the letters reached a boiling point, though, Wright was going to cancel our column for good to appease the Bobcat critics. In a meeting, she said she could see no “journalist value” in the column.

Sayler stood up for us, and the column was not canceled … until we offended the next publisher.

In June of 2004, Vinny and I won an award from the Montana Newspaper Association for our “Rat Chat” columns. One of the three columns we submitted for the award was titled “Griz Eye for the Cat Guy.”

I found Wright’s email at her new job and sent her a link to the story about the award. I also wrote, “No journalistic value, eh?”

Wright said she did not remember making that comment.

In her defense, she was probably worn down by years of defending us, and she did defend us.

She really went to bat for us when Vinny and I got into hot water in June of 2002 for sneaking into the Berkeley Pit to hit golf balls into the toxic lake for our column about ways the city could profit from the Superfund site.

The mine boss, who is related to my mother, started a meeting with the publisher by mentioning my mom and grandparents and asking me how he would like if he was informing them that I had just died in an accident in the Pit.

I replied by saying, “Yeah, well how would you like it if the column was about the irresponsible mine boss who left open the gate to the world’s largest Superfund site?”

As you can imagine, the meeting did not go well.

Still, Wright stood behind us and gave us her support. For that, I will always be grateful.

Being forced into a position of having to defend us for so many years could not be easy. Especially when the mine boss was looking to press charges.

You know, as a newspaper writer, you have never lived until a mine boss tries to have you thrown in jail.

Matt Vincent and I really lived.

— Bill Foley, who is never a big hit at family reunions, writes a column that usually appears Tuesdays on ButteSports.com. He is writing more frequently during the coronavirus lockdown. Email him at foley@buttesports.com. Follow him at twitter.com/Foles74.

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