I. Rick Hummel: The Commish
Earlier this year, long-time (really long-time!) St. Louis Post-Dispatch sportswriter Rick Hummel passed away.
Although Hummel occasionally covered other sports for the P-D, evidence that the Cardinals were his primary assignment for the better part of five (?!) decades includes  his 2007 election into the writers’ wing of the Baseball Hall of Fame, and  his nickname: “The Commish”…as in the Commissioner of Baseball.
Truth: actual MLB commissioners (Bud Selig and Rob Manfred) referred to Hummel, in person, as Commish…
Additional reminders of Hummel’s excellence (and legacy):  his name adorns the current Busch Stadium press box, and  the story that current Cardinals beat writer Derrick Goold tells on himself—for years, when the self-effacing Goold worked road games and arrived in various press boxes as a visiting sportswriter, on more than one occasion he was greeted by staffers and writers with a bit of a grimace and an ”oh, it’s you” comment—because media in other towns had expected, and even looked forward to, renewing Hummel’s acquaintance.
II. Beat Writer Rick Hummel: Tied for First
For most of his career, Rick Hummel was not a columnist. Rather, his specialty was the construction of informative and straightforward ‘game stories’, most of which were leavened with post-game quotes from that night’s notable performers.
In other words, in baseball-writing parlance, Rick Hummel was a ‘beat writer.’
The guy wrote thousands of game stories—a rather mundane task to some, but in fact, game stories, for decades, were the meat-and-potatoes of daily baseball journalism…especially prior to the rise of highlight shows such as ESPN SportsCenter.
It is tempting to say that Rick Hummel qualified as baseball’s best beat writer.
Or, as former Cardinals manager Tony La Russa might have said, perhaps Hummel was ‘Tied for first’ as baseball’s best beat writer.
It is hard to explain how well the hand of Rick Hummel fit into the glove that is major league baseball.
Umpires, team and league executives and staffers,
players and stadium employees…as well as his sportswriting and media
from all parts of North America—all willingly played starring roles in
summer’s edition of ‘The Rick Hummel Baseball Experience.’
III. The Baseball Wisdom of Rick Hummel: One Last Thank You
Of course there was no such thing as ‘The Rick Hummel Baseball Experience.’ His ballpark persona was far too humble for that.
But what Rick Hummel was able to offer his readers, from Spring Training through the World Series, was careful and judicious writing, based on his viewing of that night’s game, as well as decades of experience and true baseball wisdom. The man really did know the game of baseball, an essential trait when conversing on a near-daily basis with the likes of former Cardinals managers Whitey Herzog and Tony La Russa—neither of whom suffer fools.
It is with that in mind that I share my very last conversation with Rick Hummel, which took place after a March 2023 Grapefruit League game, within a virtually empty Roger Dean Stadium press box.
While each of us were collecting pens, notebooks, laptops and March Madness pools, our conversation turned to the Cardinals, and their prospects for the upcoming season.
“They don’t have enough pitching,” Hummel said.
He continued: “I was a little surprised they didn’t do more to address the pitching…in the off-season. Of course they did add some guys I don’t know a lot about, but it seems like they didn’t add enough pitching. They are going to have to acquire more pitching.”
As we left the press box and headed for the elevator, our chat turned to what I believed to be the singular take-home message offered by the 2023 Grapefruit League edition of the St. Louis Cardinals: the organization’s abundance of genuine position player prospects…young players who could be real stars.
Yours truly: “Rick, if you include some of the young players who made their first contributions last year (2022), I don’t think I’ve ever seen the Cardinals as well-stocked as they are now, in terms of prospects who look like they can really play. And some of these guys look like they will hit.”
Hummel: “You’re right. In all the years I’ve been doing this, I’ve never seen what is here right now, in terms of prospects. Yes, every year in March, the Cardinals might have one prospect to showcase. Some years they had none. This year is different. In (Jordan) Walker [67, left] and (Masyn) Winn [60, left], they have two. Two! Two superior prospects, both with legitimate chances to be star players…or more. I’ve not seen that here before. Ever.”
Masyn Winn was called up from AAA Memphis on August 18, and made his MLB debut vs. the NY Mets the next day.
As a big leaguer, Winn has already dazzled defensively and evidenced repeated hints that he possesses the combination of superlative athleticism and baseball skills that together, along with his jersey number (0), offer echoes of another Cardinals player who wore jersey number 1, and played shortstop in a sublime (wizardly?!) fashion.
Style and skills possessed by Wynn sell tickets…and win baseball games.
Masyn Winn (0) Busch Stadium (September 18, 2023) stlsports.com
Offensively, Winn’s growth as a hitter is happening as this is written. The hesitation displayed in his initial big league plate appearances is rapidly disappearing—the young man is learning fast and is likely to contribute in a significant way to the Cardinals 2024 batting order.
Spoiler: Masyn Winn batted lead-off in more than one 2023 Spring Training game.
Meanwhile, the 21 year old Jordan Walker recorded his 100th major league hit in mid-September of this, his rookie season. Wearing #18, Walker has settled into right field rather nicely.
Jordan Walker (18) Busch Stadium (April 3, 2023) stlsports.com
Whenever Winn is slotted in the line-up immediately behind Walker in Cards manager Oli Marmol’s batting order, I am reminded of Hummel’s words about the young duo, and their future possibilities as Cardinals.
It is a pleasant thought.
So…a final thank you to you, Rick.
IV. Rick Hummel and Tony La Russa: A Peek Behind the Curtain
Watching the man at work, it seemed to this observer that Rick Hummel viewed his job as one of gathering information while remaining as invisible as possible, a perspective that put Hummel in good stead as far as his sources were concerned.
Considering only the 21st century work of Rick Hummel: headline makers such as Jim Edmonds, Albert Pujols, Yadier Molina and Adam Wainwright; decision-makers such as former and current Cards executives Walt Jocketty and John Mozeliak; former and current managers Tony La Russa, Mike Matheny, Mike Shildt and Oli Marmol; as well as dozens of rarely-heard-from-again September call-ups…when Hummel needed a quote, he usually got what he needed from these gentlemen.
But in what should not qualify as news, not all big league ballplayers want to be quoted by sportswriters, even those with the pedigree and reputation of Rick Hummel.
For example, a half-hour or so after a spring training game in the early 2000s, Hummel entered the office of Tony La Russa, a modest room immediately adjacent to the team’s home clubhouse at Roger Dean Stadium. There was only one other visitor in said office at the time of Hummel’s entry: yours truly.
After a bit of small talk, Hummel shared with La Russa his reason for chatting: he desired some quotes from a player (Player X), and Player X, a rising part-time player the previous year who was thought to be ready to contribute as a regular in the upcoming season, was not cooperating.
No doubt a complicating factor was that English was not the first language of Player X.
As if he was shot out of a cannon, La Russa sprung out of his chair while telling Hummel, under his breath, that he would ‘take care of that.’
Hummel responded with a smile, a nod, and a ‘thank you.’
La Russa left his office for the clubhouse (leaving Hummel and I alone there) and returned, grinning, to the seat behind his desk, after only a couple of minutes.
Quotes from Player X were in Hummel’s Post-Dispatch piece the next day.
V. My Mother-in-Law Has Something In Common with Tony La Russa?
(AUTHOR’S NOTE: Dear reader—stay with me here!)
More than two decades ago, it became apparent to me that Betty, my mother-in-law, was a lot smarter than she let on.
For me, what tipped it in was when I figured out the genius of one of Betty’s favorite conversational techniques.
It goes like this:
If everyone in our group was ready to leave for a restaurant except for her husband Bob, who might have been in an upstairs bedroom getting ready…what did Betty say to the rest of us?
“Bob’s making himself even more handsome.”
Similarly, when her daughter or a granddaughter were a bit behind schedule for an event, what might she be doing?
The young lady in question was not said to be brushing her hair. Nor was she was applying make-up, fixing her coat, or maybe, dressing a child.
Instead…“She’s making herself even more beautiful.”
Betty’s explanations, always delivered with a sly smile, accomplished multiple goals.
After a while, the overall utility of “She’s making herself even more beautiful” came to mind whenever I thought of former Cards manager Tony La Russa uttering the phrase “Tied for first.”
And at times it seemed as if La Russa utilized this phrase a couple of times a month.
What happened was this—back in the heyday of major metropolitan daily newspapers and their deadlines, a given paper’s sportswriters needed quick post-game quotes from significant players as well as the team’s manager. Every night. After every game. Over and over.
As a result, a short-hand developed—if Player Y made a spectacular defensive play, the writer might say to the manager: “Talk about Player Y. Was that the best play you’ve ever seen?”
And the response was usually a ready-made quote for that night’s game story.
I first witnessed how this played out with Tony La Russa early in the 1996 season, his first as the St. Louis manager.
Remember, Tony La Russa had managed over 2,500 (!) baseball games prior to his hiring as the Cards manager.
As a result, La Russa’s standard answer to that sort of question was a bit different than most. Respecting his former players and their accomplishments seemed important to him. Therefore, he seldom referred to a given play made by a current player as THE best he had seen, but instead made nice with his current players while mentioning his former players as well…by uttering the phrase “Tied for first.”
So mother-in-law Betty (“She’s making herself even more beautiful.”) has something in common with Hall of Fame manager Tony (“Tied for first.”); they’re wordsmiths!
I must admit that, over the years, I’ve appropriated both of these phrases and used them as my own.
My oh my.
VI. A Wedding: Tied for First
Early last month, oldest daughter Emma and Eric were married in a ceremony that took place a few short blocks from Chicago’s United Center.
During the wedding ceremony, new bride Emma delivered heartfelt words to her invited gathering of nearly 200 family and friends.
She described the best days of her life and stated that there were two: the current day (her wedding day), and the day that her sister Hannah was born.
Knowing the room and her (mostly) Chicago audience, she reviewed the managerial career of Tony La Russa—starting and ending with Chicago’s own White Sox, stints which surrounded his decades managing the Oakland Athletics and the St. Louis Cardinals.
Emma had read the room correctly as it seemed most listening had at least some awareness of the man.
She then explained La Russa’s usage of the phrase ‘Tied for first.’
I had not seen a word of her remarks in advance of the wedding ceremony…but I knew what was coming.
How did her wedding day compare with the day that Hannah was born?
Emma said that these two days were ‘Tied for first.’
Emma’s words brought tears to my eyes.
My oh my.
Real life and sports.
Tied for first.
My oh my.
Real Life and Sports: Tied for First?!