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If a tree fell in the forest, and only a Washington Times reporter were in the woods, would anybody hear it fall?

Well, at the very least, a few folks. And at the very most, a few folks.

Thom Loverro is a columnist for the Times and as good a sportswriter as we’ve got in this city. But unless you’ve taken up the $12-a-year subscription offer from a telemarketer or have political leanings to the right of fascism to go with your love of sports, you may not know Loverro. His gifts were quite clear in a recent profile of Mark “Too Sharp” Johnson, a local boxer who would still be ruling the junior bantamweight world if he hadn’t treated his wife like a speed bag. And again in his needling of the Orioles’ medical staff for passing broken-down slugger Albert Belle after a physical.

“Albert can still swing a bat,” Loverro wrote. “But run? He runs like me, and the only physical I can pass is an autopsy.”

But Loverro’s greatest weakness is that he writes for a paper that is black and white but hardly read all over.

One local sports marketer tells me he gets the Times, at most, once a year: on Valentine’s Day. “If that’s what the flowers for my wife are wrapped in,” he says. That from a guy whose job is to plant stories with guys like Loverro. Guess the Washington Post gets first dibs.

All sorts of other anti-perks come with being a top columnist at what is essentially the No. 2 daily in a one-paper town. The game-day media credential that the Redskins issued Loverro this year, for example, didn’t even get him into the press box. It earned him a chair in the basement of FedEx Field, where he could catch the action on television. Alone.

And Loverro, despite his obvious talents and entertaining insights, never gets to appear on locally produced sports TV shows, such as George Michael’s Redskins Report and Full Court Press, which features the same two Post columnists, Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon, week after week. When Dan Snyder went on his recent self-promotional press junket, he skipped the Times, but Post editors and reporters got to host the Skins owner, along with Herr Schottenheimer, in their offices.

“That’s what we face every day at the Times,” Loverro says. “It happens in every level—in dealing with sources, in getting access to people and information, everything. That’s not complaining, because I don’t blame [any source] for going to the Washington Post first. The reality is the Post is the high-profile operation. Let’s face it: We’re not. We’re the ultimate Avis.”

Despite all the snubbings, Loverro says he’s living out a boyhood dream at the Times and has been ever since the paper offered him his first sportswriting gig, nine years ago.

“I wanted to be a sportswriter when I was 10,” he says. “Now I get to go to the Olympics. I got to go to Cuba to watch baseball. Honestly, I’m afraid at some point I’ll wake up and there’ll be somebody standing by the bed, and he’ll say, ‘OK, we’ve found you. You’ve been having a good time all these years, but now it’s back to reality!’”

Loverro was born in Brooklyn near Ebbets Field. About the same time the Dodgers headed for the West Coast, the Loverros and young Thom left Flatbush for East Stroudsburg, Pa., a legendarily tawdry honeymoon destination in the Poconos. “We didn’t have a heart-shaped tub, really,” he says with a laugh.

His first newspaper jobs came while studying at the local Jesuit school, the University of Scranton. He cranked out copy for 15 cents an inch for the Pocono Mountaineer. The Monroe County Sunday Herald, a weekly, then brought in Loverro to write up all the local stories, edit wire copy, lay out the pages, drive everything 40 miles to the printer, and deliver the papers to retailers. While Loverro was at the Easton Express, the only three topics worthy of ink were “Larry Holmes, Lafayette [College], and Crayola,” provincial institutions all.

In the mid-’80s, the Baltimore Sun offered Loverro a spot in its western Maryland bureau, where he wrote about poor, uneducated mountain folks who were poisoned by untreated water and had trash from out of state dumped near their homes. So he knew all about real second-class citizenry when the Sun closed that bureau and he came to the Times, in 1992.

The quality of his work since then has landed him deals to write books on the Redskins, female hockey star Cammy Granato, Negro League baseball, and pro football in the ’70s.

There are reasons for the Times’ exposure problems. Charges that Sun Myung Moon and his Unification Church control content still dog the paper. The right-wing bent of the front page—anybody with information that Hillary’s hairdresser killed Vince Foster, please call the Times—crimps its audience, too.

And beyond the editorial slant and even the writing, the product is often harder to read than the greens at Langston. Loverro’s editors, for example, ruined two feature stories that appeared while the world’s sporting press was in town for the NBA all-star game. The first several paragraphs of his advance, built around the return of local-boy-made-good Steve Francis, were amateurishly repeated on the jump page. His column hailing Allen Iverson’s late-game heroics was given the headline “League Finds a Savior After 55 Ugly Minutes.”

Oops. The all-star game, like all regulation NBA contests, was only 48 minutes long.

Other writers at the Times regularly slam the Post’s sports section for alleged coziness with those it’s charged with reporting on, particularly Snyder. (Not always without justification: The same week the owner of the 8-8 team lunched with Post editors, the Times broke the story about the huge price hikes that club-seat and luxury-suite lessees at FedEx were about to be hit with.) And a few columnists from around the country appear to think that the Post’s relative monopoly has softened its reporting. CBS SportsLine’s Len Pasquarelli, angered by the Post’s coverage of Snyder, wrote that the paper had “the nation’s most co-opted sports department.” The Chicago Sun-Times’ Ron Rapoport judged that the Post’s editing out even innocuous jabs at Snyder from Norman Chad’s syndicated football columns was worthy of a story. Bob Wolfley of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel chided the Post for letting Wilbon write about Michael Jordan even after Wilbon procured a six-figure deal to write a biography of the Wizards’ president.

Loverro, however, never slams the crosstown Goliath. He says he’s bothered by writers who “get closer to the people they cover than the people they write for,” but he quickly adds that he’s not referring only to local scribes. In fact, when it comes to speaking about the Other Paper, if Loverro can’t say something nice, he won’t say anything.

Not that he’s looking for a payback. Asked if he’d like to see how the upper half lives and work for the Post if the opportunity arose, Loverro pauses and says, “You know, I’ve worked at enough places to know the grass isn’t always greener. And I really like my job.”

—Dave McKenna