No games? No drama? No problem for P-D sportswriter

Benjamin Hochman sheltering at home.

Bill Motchan, Special to the Jewish Light

It’s been more than two months since a professional sport was played in the U.S., and it may be late summer before Major League Baseball considers playing a regular season game. Now, imagine you’re a sportswriter who needs to churn out five columns a week.

That’s the task Benjamin Hochman faces. The veteran St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist has a beat that’s particularly challenging to cover right now. It requires summoning up his creative spirit and thinking way outside the batter’s box.

Most days, Hochman can be found on his couch, sheltering at home with a laptop and cell phone, interviewing sports personalities and finding new ways to tell stories. In his newfound free time, Hochman and his wife, Angela, are catching up with TV shows including “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel.” He’s writing a young adult novel, of course with a sports theme. And for fun, Hochman has been posting his quarantine celebrity lookalikes on social media (he’s a dead-ringer for a bearded Robin Williams).

To find out how a sportswriter works in this unusual environment, we sat down with Hochman via Zoom. His responses have been edited for space.

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Is this a tough time to come up with sports story ideas?

It’s a challenge that I’ve had to accept. I cannot go to a Blues practice or a Billiken shoot-around, but I can sure come up with creative ways to capture sports. I’ve done numerous stories that have a news peg that are looking at the coronavirus through a sports prism, like interviewing the Blues’ Carl Gunnarsson,  whose wife just had a baby. What was it like going to a hospital and giving birth and delivering your baby during the coronavirus? 

I was happy with the one where I went for five days, at 5 p.m. to five different sports venues in St. Louis. I went to a soccer field in Maryland Heights, and a tennis court in U. City, and my old high school baseball field at Clayton high. And I captured the absence of action with my eyes.

 

What are some other creative approaches you’ve used for storytelling a during the pandemic?

I wrote about a former Mizzou basketball player who is now a doctor outside Atlanta, treating COVID-19 patients. 

Just the other day was an emotional one to write about Tim McCarver, the former Cardinal all-star and of course famous broadcaster. McCarver had this great line he’d always say: “Being a grandparent is the greatest racket there is.” It just stuck in my brain and, during the coronavirus, I’ve thought about Tim McCarver, who clearly loves being a grandparent and cannot interact with these kids and he can’t leave his house. 

And oh, by the way, the coronavirus is negatively affecting many people of his age. There’s so many emotions involved. So I got Tim McCarver on the phone and talked to him about that. It wasn’t an easy column to write. It wasn’t a fun one. But it was one that I think was relatable for many generations of our readers.

 

You’ve also been able to delve into some introspective looks at sports, like the column about the intricacies of the game of baseball. Do these topics just spring from your imagination?

Yeah, I’ve now done nine of those. I guess you could say it’s a series called “What I missed about sports today.” It’s everything from pretzels at the games to Vladimir Tarasenko’s offense to the wizardry of Kolten Wong and the Cardinals infielders to just watching NBA games on TV. 

This one was about one of my favorite parts of baseball, which is the chaos after an extra base hit when you’ve got multiple guys on base. There’s just so many opportunities and so many possibilities. Your eyeballs are pinballing around the stadium. You’re trying to follow the ball and the baserunners. You’re excited because your team is scoring one, maybe two runs. The crowd’s going nuts, and it’s just chaos.

 

Do you find there are opportunities to tell stories in different ways than you have ever before?

The other day was the one-year anniversary of the famous Patrick Maroon double-overtime goal in Game 7 for the Blues to go on to the Western Conference Finals. I wanted to write about it, but I’ve written 73 things about it already. I’ve interviewed Patrick. I’ve interviewed Robert Thomas about the assist. I’ve interviewed the coach. I’ve interviewed the fiancé. I’ve interviewed the son. 

What’s a way to tell the story that hadn’t been told? And I thought, “I’ll interview the guy that pressed the button to play the air horn when the goal was scored, you know that URRRRRRR! sound.” And turns out it’s also the guy who plays the song “Gloria” at the end of the game. 

So it was this perfect combination, a rare instance where the goal was scored and the game ended. He had some crazy fun stories about how he got in trouble at the previous game, because he accidentally pressed the button too soon. He’s also a die-hard Blues fan, and his grandfather was I.C. Mittleman, the Cardinals team physician in the 1940s through the 1960s and Stan Musial’s personal doctor. It was stuff I didn’t know about. 

And inevitably, many of the readers didn’t know about it either. I just thought it was a neat way to approach a story a different way.

 

If no one had ever heard of the coronavirus and the baseball season were in full swing, what would you be doing now?

Hopefully at the Enterprise Center covering Game 2 of the Western Conference finals for the St. Louis Blues. I have to preface everything by pointing out the real-world implications: the thousands of deaths and the sickness and illness. That’s the true sad effects of the pandemic. 

So now we’re looking at our little sports world. Some of the effects are that our hockey team isn’t playing. It’s possible there won’t be a Stanley Cup champion. And that means that some team was going to have the amazing experience of winning it all, and that team won’t get to experience it. 

Every year, some basketball player becomes a hero for his or her accomplishments in the men’s or women’s NCAA Tournament. Well, it never happened. You know that whoever that person was going to be never got to experience his or her moment of greatness.

 

You recently wrote a nonsports story about the prayer “Hashkiveinu” and (Central Reform Congregation) Rabbi Randy Fleischer’s interpretation of it. Did writing that story offer some sense of comfort to you in a difficult time?

No question, that was an opportunity for a story I could tell that would maybe touch some readers. I’ve always thought that Randy Fleisher’s version of this prayer “Hashkiveinu” is a therapeutic experience to hear him singing. And I’m talking about before the pandemic. It was always a nourishing experience. An emotional experience. 

So now that we’re going through this terrible, terrible time, I have found that listening to him sing the song in this version can help you feel just a tad better. And so I thought, “Oh, here’s my opportunity to capture this and share it with St. Louis.” I wanted to tell the story the evolution of the song, because it starts out as a prayer from hundreds of years ago.

 

One of your recent stories was a look at the potential for the designated hitter rule to begin this year in the National League, an idea that some baseball purists scoff at. As a fan, what are your thoughts on the DH?

I’m kind of on the fence although I’m leaning toward being OK with the designated hitter. Baseball is getting more boring, and I don’t like that. I don’t think many of us like that. There’s fewer balls in play. With strategy, trying to hit home runs, whatever it is, strikeouts are up, walks are up and home runs are up. Everything else isn’t. 

I just like the idea of having a dude up there that might actually be able to hit a double, as opposed to a pitcher who whiffs. They may use the DH this year to prevent pitcher injuries. And I think that may be a nice way to ease into it. Because having the DH in 2020 at least tells us, “Hey, that means there’s some sort of baseball.”

 

You wrote recently about a youth baseball tournament in St. Charles County in which you asked questions about the safety of allowing kids to get out and play ball. Was that an intentional approach to asking readers some thought-provoking questions?

This scenario was one where I was able to write about an actual topic: Should youth baseball players be playing games if the people running the games are having a social distance conscience, and the kids have to be six feet away from each other in the dugout, and the fans have to be six feet away, and the baseballs are sanitized every inning? 

I’ll paint the picture for the readers and then let their brains twirl. And the response was big. I’m just trying to do my little part. 

I’ll do many look-back stories. These are fun to write, the stories of anniversaries. But if I can write something that’s relevant to the sports world, something that gets St. Louis talking, of course, I’m going to try to do that.