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Former Times columnist T.J. Simers, known for a confrontational style, dies

June 4th, 2024

There was no middle ground with T.J. Simers.

If you were a sports fan in Southern California, if you were a big-time athlete or coach — if you were anyone who read his Page 2 column — you either loved him or hated him.

And that was exactly what he wanted.

The acerbic, controversial Simers, who spent 23 years at The Times before leaving in trademark fashion, battling with editors and suing the paper, died Sunday from a brain tumor. He was 73.

“T.J. would turn left when everyone else turned right,” former Times sports editor Bill Dwyre said. “People read him. It was something different.”

A series of newspaper jobs — including stints at the Rocky Mountain News in Denver and San Diego Union-Tribune — led Simers to the Times’ San Diego edition in 1990. He started as the Chargers beat writer, then switched to covering the Rams.

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Athletes, coaches and team owners came to know the big guy with glasses, the one who liked to poke fun, the one who could take over a news conference by asking blunt, if sometimes bombastic, questions. He liked to confront people, then write about their responses.

To no surprise, his relationships with sports figures were often rocky.

In 2000, Dwyre and former assistant sports editor Randy Harvey wondered if this unconventional style might be a good fit for the Page 2 spot that had been home to Allan Malamud’s beloved Notes on a Scorecard.

Simers started picking fights with his very first column.

T.J. Simers

T.J. Simers (Los Angeles Times)

“It’s punishing duty, going to Dodger losses, Clipper losses and events in Orange County,” he wrote. “Someone suggested going to a Sparks game too, but I don’t like being alone in big gyms.”

Arrogant was the word he usually attached to USC athletic director Mike Garrett’s name. Dodger player F.P. Santangelo was prodded incessantly despite having a minor role with the team. Chargers quarterback Ryan Leaf was labeled “the punk.”

No one escaped unscathed. Not his family, which included a son-in-law dubbed “The Grocery Store Bagger.” Not his editors, his colleagues or writers at other newspapers.

“TJ Simers was acerbic, witty, cranky and knew how to get a rise out of people,” Southern California sportswriter Janis Carr tweeted Monday. “When he put me in one of his columns I felt honored even though he ripped me.”

Others took offense. Though Simers was named California Sportswriter of the Year in 2000, critics accused him of going after people who weren’t in position to fight back, of crossing the line between humor and being mean-spirited.

“The pushback was incredible throughout the community and the local teams,” Dwyre recalled.

Simers’ abrasiveness also rankled ESPN, which had hired him as a panelist for a new show called “Around the Horn” in 2002. Within a year, Simers publicly blasted the program — “I hate that show. But I hear the cash register going off in my head when I do it” — and was dropped from the lineup.

Still, his columns in The Times each week remained a destination spot for readers who either enjoyed or detested them. It wasn’t until 2013 that a rift arose with the newspaper’s editors, who cut him back to writing twice a week with the stated intention of improving the quality of his work. Some of his pieces, they said, were “poorly written or reflected poorly” on the newspaper.

Simers was then suspended with pay for violating ethics by not fully disclosing a deal to develop a television comedy based loosely on his life. Editors subsequently took away his column, demoting him to reporter. They later offered him a one-year deal to resume the column on the condition that he abide by ethical guidelines.

Instead, Simers resigned on Sept. 6, 2013, after accepting a job at the Orange County Register. He sued The Times for age and disability discrimination, claiming his troubles began after he suffered what was initially diagnosed as a mini-stroke while covering spring training in Arizona. He was later diagnosed with complex migraine syndrome.

The case went to trial three times over several years, with juries awarding him millions in damages, but twice those awards were overturned by a judge. At the time the lawsuit was filed, The Times was part of Tribune Publishing. When The Times was sold to Dr. Patrick Soon-Shiong in 2018, Tribune Publishing assumed liability for the Simers case as part of the sale. The case is currently on appeal.

Once his journalism career ended — he left the Register in 2014 — Simers devoted himself to his wife, Ginny, his two daughters and four granddaughters. He also continued a long-standing support of children’s healthcare.

“We scrapped throughout my Dodgers days,” former Dodgers general manager Dan Evans posted on social media. “But later we found a common bond through [Children’s Hospital L.A.] that completely mended things.”

Last fall, when Simers’ health began to fail, doctors found a tumor in his brain. He spent the final months of his life at home in hospice care, still jabbing at friends and former colleagues through social media.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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