On covering St. Louis sports during a pandemic: A conversation with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist
A Clayton, Mo., native, Benjamin Hochman has long followed St. Louis sports with a passion. As a St. Louis Post-Dispatch sports columnist since 2015, he has had the opportunity to see his childhood dream through to fruition, writing about everything from the Rams’ departure to the Blues’ Stanley Cup championship last season. But Hochman had no idea he would be spending this spring covering the sports from afar. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic has borne down on the region, he has kept at it, with stories ranging from a local runner wrestling with the postponed Olympics to a profile of the 1918 Washington University football team. I caught up with Hochman to talk about what it’s been like to report on sports during the last few weeks.
Student Life: I wanted to start by asking what it’s been like for you to do reporting remotely. I’m not sure if you’ve had experience with that in the past, but how has it changed your approach to writing?
Benjamin Hochman: I’ve had an experience like this in my career. I was with the New Orleans Times-Picayune in the year 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit the city hard. That late summer and fall and into the next year and years, it really altered the way we had to approach sports stories. At first you feel a little guilty writing about sports. I mean, there were other reporters literally rowing canoe boats around New Orleans reporting from the city [whereas] I’m traveling with Tulane University’s football team and was interviewing them. You begin to realize that the athletes are humans too, and there are so many stories to tell. Whether it’s the quarterback or the worst player on the team, everybody was a New Orleanian and everybody had a connection to the city. A lot of people lost their homes and, well I don’t think anybody lost a family member but they were definitely scared. So I’m not saying I’m well prepared or anything to do this now in 2020, but I do have some experience where I understand what it’s like to cover sports when there aren’t sports.
SL: How is it different when you can’t actually be interacting with the people you’re writing about? Beyond the logistical challenges, just in terms of the conversations that you’re having with athletes or people from the community, how has the style or vibe of those discussions changed?
BH: As a sports columnist I have the neat opportunity to write about every sport. I normally just choose what I want to write about with the understanding that our readers here in town normally want to hear about the Cardinals or the Stanley Cup champion Blues. But in the past week, it’s funny, you could just look down my calls made list and you’ve got everything from the Cardinals top prospect to an Olympic runner to a high school athlete. Everybody’s got an interesting story right now, that’s not the same story. In sports right now, we’re dealing with people who have had dreams derailed. We’re dealing with seasons in flux and we’re doing it with the understanding that really, these sports that are so important to us are small in the grand scheme of things. Like a woman from St. Louis who is a runner and was trying to go to the 2020 Olympics. But now there aren’t 2020 Olympics. She also puts it in perspective and uses eloquent words to describe that this is not a time to be thinking about sports. This is a time of making sure that Americans are safe and getting healthy as fast as possible but also knowing that sports can be good therapy at some point.
SL: How do you find that balance of making sure that you’re not putting too much emphasis on the sports side of things and really focusing on the stories themselves and the human interest aspect of it?
BH: It’s a challenge and it’s a responsibility. I know that right now I’m writing for the sports section of our newspaper, so I’m not suddenly going to be writing something that doesn’t have a sports angle. For me, it’s finding pieces that I think will resonate with our readers, that possibly have news in them, and also sometimes pieces that I think will be an escape for readers, pieces that I maybe wouldn’t have done at other times. Like look-back pieces such as this former St. Louis Browns major league baseball player who was a top prospect who became infamous for being pinch-hit for by the 3 foot 7 player Eddie Gaedel. But then he became a renowned oilman down in Texas in Oklahoma who lived a fun life. Just trying to tell stories that for 10 minutes or five minutes people can escape into. Every day I’ve tried to provide something different in that regard in my column space.
SL: What do you miss the most, then, from the wide variety of coverage that you’re normally doing?
BH: For me, it’s just going to Busch Stadium. We’ve got a special thing in our town here. It’s a baseball town. In very few cities in America is the number one sport baseball anymore these days, and St. Louis is a baseball town first. There’s so much to going to that stadium. Everything from the anticipation of walking in to the stadium and you know, I’m 39 and suddenly I’m nine, just excited about going to the ballpark. Then you get in there and there’s the resplendent green grass and then Clydesdales on Opening Day, the organ player. And there they are, the major leaguers, playing baseball. And then from my perch in the press box, I get to decide if I want to do a kind of a fun story that day or an analysis piece or maybe even an opinion piece about a decision the manager made. There’s all these options and all these possibilities with sports writing and covering a Cardinals game and, you know, I’m not doing that right now. But again, every time we say anything like this it’s also with the caveat of like, I’m just happy to be healthy and with my wife and that my family is okay. There are bigger things going on right now.
SL: One angle that we’re doing a story on this week is about how college athletes are staying in shape from home. I imagine you’ve had some sorts of conversations like that with professional athletes—what have you heard from them in terms of how they’re staying healthy?
BH: It’s a mixed bag, for sure. Depends on the athlete and depends on the sport. I did one piece about Colleen Quigley, who was an Olympian in 2016 and she’s from St. Louis. She was on pace to make the team in 2020. And now she’s riding a Peloton in the middle of her living room and she’s running by herself outside and doing Instagram Live aerobics workouts. So it’s just a matter of maximizing opportunity, time and energy. It’s so weird for these athletes, who every day have this meticulous schedule of eating certain things and working out in certain places and exerting a certain amount of energy and pushing themselves in a certain realm. And now, it’s like, alright you’re in your living room: figure it out and do a similar workout. It’s clearly a challenge but also the reality, and if you have Olympic dreams like her, you’re [not] going to just Netflix binge the entire time. You’re going to keep working hard on your body to make sure that by 2021 you’re ready for the 2021 Olympics.
SL: I guess once you’ve been working toward something that long it’s not the kind of thing that you can really relinquish that easily, like you said.
BH: Yeah. I mean psychologically, mentally, personal pride. All of the above.
SL: I know at this point no one really knows when sports are going to be coming back. But when they do, if they do, what sort of legitimacy do you think there’s going to be for teams that win national titles and for teams that make deep runs into the playoffs? Especially for a team like the Blues that was having a great season and was primed to repeat, maybe, what would it be like for them in terms of that legitimacy?
BH: I’ll get to that question but first there’s actually something I’d like to say from earlier. You’re asking about what I miss and everything. I know other cities can lay this claim, but for sports just to stop in St. Louis in March of 2020 was really—of all the cities, they might have had the most opportunities taken away. Point being that the St. Louis Blues, the defending Stanley Cup champions, were in first place in the conference heading right towards the playoffs. Will they even have a playoffs now? And then of course the Cardinals were having Opening Day and their season was going to begin. The NCAA tournament was supposed to be in St. Louis—they were supposed to have games here—that would have been huge. Even the Battlehawks of the—it’s weird to say this—the now-defunct XFL, just a month ago they were a huge thing. Everyone was into it. This football-hungry town suddenly had this team and they had a winning record. They had an upcoming game against the Los Angeles team, they had literally started to sell the upper deck at the Dome and they were talking about having 40 to 50 thousand people when 30,000 was already the league record for attendance. There was so much optimism and excitement and civic pride, city pride, stick-it-to-Stan Kroenke pride. To think that a month later there is no Battlehawks, there is no league, it’s just very mind-boggling. It’s very surreal but it’s also very real in this coronavirus world we’re living in. I guess I wanted to say that but then what was the actual question.
SL: I was just curious if you had thoughts about the legitimacy that a national title will find right now in this situation.
BH: I’m not trying to dodge the question, but I do think that it’s too early to have that debate because we just don’t know how many games will be played. But the reality is, once sports gets going, I think it’s not going to be as much about champions—maybe I’m gonna regret saying this because it’s always about champions and playing for a championship—but there’s going to be something more special about games in general: the games existing, the idea of us having our daily routines back, whether it’s the athletes themselves, the fans or even the media members. Just having sports back in our daily lives is something we yearn for and it provides a normalcy for so many of us. It’s hard to say, ‘Okay, if they start having hockey in August and some team wins the Stanley Cup because they got hot or whatever.’ I mean, I don’t know. It’s hard to put legitimacy or not-legitimacy on something that we don’t know what it is yet, if that’s fair.
SL: Yeah that’s fair. I didn’t mean to trap you with that question. I think it’s a good point you make about how while people are still going to be vying for that championship, at the same time they will feel grateful, I’m sure, to go back to those daily routines.
BH: No question about it. I mean, when were you born, like 2003?
SL: 2000. So right at the start of the millennium.
BH: Yeah so I’m sure some of your family, especially being in New York, would have interesting memories of 9/11 and sports right after it. I’m sure you’ve heard all about it and the Mike Piazza home run and the George Bush first pitch and all that. But really, sports after 9/11 was a therapeutic thing for New York City and the United States. I can imagine we’ll have similar feelings and emotions whenever they get going again in our country. Editor’s note: Matthew Friedman is from New York City, hence Hochman bringing up the topic.
SL: Right I think that’s a really good analogy. I hadn’t thought about it that way but I’ve always heard people talk about sports in New York in September 2001 with that therapeutic tone. And especially the Mike Piazza home run, as a Mets fan growing up I’ve probably seen that video hundreds of times. I think it’s definitely one of the more inspirational things out there in sports.
BH: Totally. Inevitably, there will be moments like that. Again, it’s not apples to apples, but some athlete will provide new memories that in 20 years, 30 years, you and I, the people like you and me, will be talking about.
SL: I mentioned to my dad about 10 minutes before we got on the phone that I was going to be talking to a sports columnist from the Post-Dispatch and I asked him what questions he thought I should ask. He wanted to ask if you have any intention of covering ESports in the near future.
BH: That’s a brilliant question and I don’t know the answer right now. I don’t know the answer even if there wasn’t coronavirus. The point being that sports reporters and journalists are in an interesting spot just in general—how do you perceive ESports? Does it matter to our readers? Is there interest? Well I guess it is clear that there is interest, but there are so many questions about it in general. Now we have a situation where, heck, it might be the only thing for a few minutes. So that’s a great question and I don’t have the answer but what I can say is that it’s something I will have to start thinking harder about and have discussions with my colleagues and editor about.
SL: Definitely quite a conundrum. I’m very interested to see how you guys handle it going forward. I guess it all depends on how long it seems like we’re going to be without those normal sports.
BH: Yeah I mean there it was: On ESPN the other day they were showing NBA players playing an NBA video game.
SL: Hahaha exactly. Well, that was the last of my questions. Are there other things I should be asking about or other pieces of the conversation that you think are interesting?
BH: I just really think that this is a time as a journalist that is pivotal in this century. We’re gonna look back at this century and we’re going to talk about 9/11, we’ll talk about Hurricane Katrina and we’ll talk about the coronavirus pandemic. It’s up to us as journalists to just do our best to serve the readers. Clearly, we’re not doctors, nurses, first responders, but we have a responsibility to work hard and get stories to the masses. Whether it’s a news story of your favorite athlete revealing information about their workouts and their frustrations and their sadness, or if its a story that’s an escape, a fun read, we’re continuing to work hard, perhaps even harder, because of the current climate and circumstances.