Sports media is an often far too self-serious business. While most other subsections of the media landscape view sports journalism as access-based propaganda (often true) and no more dignified than entertainment reporting (almost always true), its practitioners frequently treat what they are doing as though asking Giovanny Gallegos what he was thinking when Christian Yelich came up in the top of the ninth is akin to Woodward and Bernstein meeting a shadowy FBI figure in a dark D.C. parking garage to investigate President Nixon. But then there is Rick Hummel.
Rick Hummel has been a reporter at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch since 1971. The seventy-five year-old Hummel remains vibrant but is also delightfully old-school in approach and manner. Nicknamed “The Commish”, Hummel is widely revered among local sports media as their elder statesman. The press box at Busch Stadium even bears his name. And it turns out that he is also a clever troll in a proto-Online way. God bless Rick Hummel.
Last night, it was announced that Bryce Harper had edged out Juan Soto, among others, for the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Harper and Soto, in some order, would have been my top two, so no arguments from me (ultimately I think I would’ve flipped the two, but it’s really close). Among the St. Louis delegation, Derrick Goold voted for Harper first, Soto second, and a relatively straightforward 3-10, including deserving down-ballot votes for Paul Goldschmidt and Tyler O’Neill.
Rick Hummel voted for Brandon Crawford–he wouldn’t have been my pick, but I get it. I understand the desire, in the event of an otherwise close race, to defer to a player on a winning team, and among position players who spent their entire season on National League playoff teams, the San Francisco Giants shortstop was #1 in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement and #1 in Baseball Reference WAR if you operate under the “second Wild Card one-and-done teams don’t count” (he is second to Paul Goldschmidt if they do). I would’ve put Crawford somewhere closer to mid-ballot, but whatever. This vote wasn’t going to raise any eyebrows.
Most of Hummel’s ballot was somewhat routine. There was a little bit of home cooking–he ranked Goldschmidt higher than most (4th–only Jim Salisbury out of Philadelphia had him higher, at third), though given his proclivity for voting for playoff players it makes ideological sense, and he was the lone voter to put Adam Wainwright on their MVP ballot (though he omitted Tyler O’Neill, a move I consider highly questionable but which is not exactly evidence of a St. Louis homer). But then at #10 comes Washington Nationals-turned-Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Trea Turner.
Turner was a moderately divisive candidate, receiving a first place vote and three second-place votes but also being omitted from two ballots altogether. I lean closer to the former group–I think I would’ve put Turner at third, behind Soto and Harper–but he is also the kind of player that doesn’t necessarily excite the old-school voter: Turner is a very good hitter, though his 28 home runs and 142 wRC+ don’t quite put him in the super-duper-star class of his former Washington Nationals teammates, but he is also a slick fielder (who made a mid-season shift from shortstop to second base in order to be accommodating to Corey Seager) who is among the sport’s most effective baserunners. But to rank Turner tenth suggests some bizarre level of intentionality, an understanding that he belongs at least on the periphery of this conversation but not that he is the guy.
Or, in the case of Hummel, perhaps it’s just for the lulz.
Trea Turner was absent from Hummel’s 2020 NL MVP ballot; Hummel was one of just three voters to exclude him altogether. But this wasn’t because he didn’t consider Turner worthy–Hummel, along with four others, thought he was the NL’s tenth most deserving candidate. But instead, Rick Hummel voted for Chicago Cubs reliever Ryan Tepera. The middle reliever, who had spent most of his career with the Toronto Blue Jays, had a perfectly decent season, with a sub-4 ERA and a 3.34 FIP that suggested better things ahead (indeed, Tepera was sub-3 in both categories in 2021). But why would Rick Hummel vote for Ryan Tepera over Trea Turner? What qualities did Tepera have? Well, it turns out that primarily it was that their names were pretty close together on an alphabetical list. The vote, done electronically due to COVID-19 concerns, was a computing snafu by the old-school reporter. And that is the story of how 33 year-old Ryan Tepera, coming off a season in which he made as many MLB starts and converted as many MLB saves as I did, notched his first, and probably final, MVP vote.
Hummel’s snafu was ultimately harmless–Tepera got a good laugh out of it and Turner, who finished in seventh, was not a single tenth place vote away from sixth place, much less victory. And with Hummel’s presumed stunt-voting for Trea Turner finally earning his tenth place MVP vote in 2021, Turner still wasn’t materially impacted–even if Hummel had pushed Brandon Crawford down to second place and given Trea Turner his first place vote, Crawford still would have finished in fourth place with Trea Turner still finishing in fifth overall. But with this troll move, Rick Hummel has brought Trea Turner full circle.
But where does Rick Hummel’s Turner Odyssey rank in comparison to perhaps the strangest quirk in his arsenal–his Twitter account. As of press time, Rick Hummel has 28 tweets. One of them happened just yesterday, when at 10:20 p.m. Central he tweeted “I’m with you”, perhaps a knowing nod to anyone who would criticize his Trea Turner performance art. Most of Hummel’s tweets were thank-yous to fellow media folks who congratulated him on July 3 of this year on his 50th anniversary at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. On June 5, 2020, nearly eleven years after creating @cmshhummel, he penned his first ever Twitter reply, a mild defense of Lou Brock’s defense tweeted at New York Times baseball reporter Tyler Kepner and sabermetrics godfather Bill James. On February 19, 2020 and August 20, 2019, Hummel tweeted out somewhat routine news bulletins–that Jack Flaherty would start the team’s Spring Training opener and that Randy Arozarena had been demoted, respectively. But then, there are the four tweets prior to that.
Matt Cain, who in what I presume cannot be a coincidence appeared on the front page of Baseball Reference when I logged in to extract some basic information, was a fine pitcher for the San Francisco Giants: he was a three-time All-Star who also received Cy Young votes on three occasions. But he never played for the St. Louis Cardinals. He has never lived in the St. Louis area. My best guess for why Rick Hummel felt the need to exclusively tweet about Matt Cain over a full decade, aside from “he is the most idiosyncratic American artist since Andy Warhol”, is that Cain grew up not too terribly far from Memphis and that Hummel came across him via the AAA Memphis Redbirds?
My guess would be that Rick Hummel does actively use Twitter in the way that most of its users do–sparingly to actually post but rather as a way of monitoring the news and broader chatter. But I would also guess that he was at least moderately annoyed when someone first suggested to him that in his 38th year of covering the Cardinals for a professional outlet, he suddenly needed to start dispensing his observations for free on the internet. I can’t say I blame him. So Hummel tweeted an extremely generic description of the baseball game he was covering (and it turned out an extremely inaccurate one–while the Cardinals did attack Cain in the first inning on July 1, 2009, Cain went seven innings and only allowed one run, in a game the Cardinals eventually won via Colby Rasmus walk-off in the bottom of the tenth inning) and decided “Twitter is the place where I go to tweet about the Cardinals as it relates to Matt Cain”. And he did.
Ultimately, I still prefer the Matt Cain bit. I think it’s more subtle–if you saw Rick Hummel retweeted into your timeline with any of his first three tweets and arguably even his fourth tweet, you wouldn’t think anything of it if you were not aware of his backstory (or the fact that he tweeted so sparingly, and never to report anything meaningful or exceptional). It rewarded patience–it wasn’t “Hummel’s Matt Cain bit” until eight years after it started. And it was naturally harmless–maybe in a world where Matt Cain becomes problematic it seems bad in retrospect, but that’s about it. Had Trea Turner missed out on some contract incentive or an MVP award based on Rick Hummel’s gimmicks, it would have been uncomfortable for all involved, and if he proceeds to vote for Ryan Tepera (despite now being in the American League) next year, he might just get stripped of his vote.
I hope this is the end of the Trea Turner bit, not because I’m mad at Rick Hummel for it, but because it has reached its logical endpoint. I can’t wait to see what he does next–it’s like when news of a new Martin Scorsese film drops (which also happened yesterday!). You can’t not respect the absolute legend.