Once upon a time in Memphis, Rick Hummel treated a rookie baseball reporter like a prince. But before I tell you that story, let me put this on your plate first.
Baseball writers don’t have to play nice; it’s a choice made at the counter after a few articles in. Whether you cover the team from the stadium or from home, there’s an isolated effect that isn’t uncommon whenever writers gather. Friendliness isn’t a given at the door, so when “Commish,” a nickname given to the St. Louis Post Dispatch’s esteemed baseball columnist many moons ago, I didn’t take it for granted.
The year was 2015. I had been in Maumelle, Arkansas but had started to find my footing. In other words… I found a movie theater, a gym, and a coffee shop. All I need in a new town, one just a short drive from North Little Rock. What I also found was an exciting writing opportunity at Cardinals Farm. At the time, John Nagel’s now-retired baseball website featured the perfect balance of Cardinals coverage: Minor league baseball along with moderate big leagues commentary as well. When he brought me on that spring, I was elated. And my first out-of-town-ish assignment was covering Jaime Garcia’s rehab start for the Redbirds.
First off, AutoZone Park is gorgeous. If you weren’t told it was a Triple-A facility, one could believe it was a place for Major Leaguers. Interactive and playing to all types of fans, I found myself mentally drifting down to the field box level to hear the crack of the bat closer to home. I remember the former Southpaw pitched halfway decently, even very good at times. However, asking Garcia questions about his job was like asking Mark McGwire if it was okay to talk about the past: difficult to mildly complex.
Between “I just want to help my ball club” and “I felt good,” one could register the rumor that he was running for office–not just pitching for a team. Garcia didn’t want to be there but thankfully, Hummel sure did.
I’ve never seen a veteran writer show up to the park with such a joy to cover a sport in such an understated way. You won’t catch The Commish on a couch proclaiming his love for baseball, or see him carrying a boombox above his head down by muscle-bound Stan the Man–but he had that knowing smile that what we were doing in a press box wasn’t a waste of time. Since it’s one of my few times asking players questions at the ballpark, the details never get too foggy.
The ballpark may have been pretty, but the press room for questions felt like an interrogation room without the coffee and ash tray. Smaller than usual, it packed Garcia, Hummel, and myself-along with another young reporter-into the room like sardines. Questions were started by Hummel, and Garcia volleyed to me. I asked him what positives he took away from the start, and the pitcher quickly replied with something about as dry as half-opened Aldi’s deli meat before kicking it back to Hummel, who could tell I was wanting to follow up–yet lacked the words to actually spit out.
Instead of just going on and getting his quotes for the Post Dispatch, he pointed back to me and allowed me to serve up the second question. It landed better and Garcia only said “team” about six times, and it wrapped shortly later. We chatted on the way up about Garcia’s greatest hits for answers, and Hummel knew them all. It was casual, a few jokes were exchanged, and the evening swept us back to our respective homes.
I’m sorry, but this isn’t the part of the story where I tell you we exchanged numbers or contacts, and kept in touch via messenger to this day. You don’t have to know another writer well in order for him or her to have an effect on you. From the very first time I finished a Bernie Miklasz article and flipped to his column next, Hummel has always been a pro’s pro. From afar or close up, that standard was upheld.
He celebrated 50 years at the St. Louis Post Dispatch this week, a commitment and brand of loyalty that’s stronger than oak, especially in this ruggedly topsy-turvy industry. I’ve only spoken to him on a few occasions since our lonesome yet memorable Memphis trip, but it’s hard to miss his always-precise chat room answers or stories on the team that connect to real life. The pandemic also revealed the man has a few solid dance moves.
A lot of writers come and go. Some burn bright and crash hard. Others endure and stay on the ride. Hummel is the rare breed that simply never changes. He’s the gold standard when it comes to covering a baseball team.
Cheers to you, Commish. Let’s do 50 more. Okay, okay 15 is fine too. You’re still feeling young, right?
Photo Credit: Bill Greenblatt/UPI