My default recollection has always been that the notion to become a sports writer came to me late. Relatively. I’d dabbled in it loosely in high school, and for a few bucks for the first time as a college senior — a bored business major with a native ability to string words together, I’d noticed, better than a lot of my peers in English class.
Once I failed my life-long quest, to that point, to become a major-league ballplayer — getting into the race in the minors but barely off the starting line really — sports writing became a viable option that wound up being more than viable. But it seemed accidental. I would do it a while, have some fun, then get on with coaching college baseball, my real calling.
But when I found out earlier today that Stan Hochman, an all-time great, wise, savvy, prolific and ballsy Philadelphia sports columnist, had died at 86, it hit me that my recollection was faulty. I realized this because, out of the brain dust and cobwebs matted atop each other, I remembered my one and only brush with Stan Hochman.
I’m not here to say he was my hero or mentor. But looking back, he damn well might have been my inspiration. It only took me 45 years to figure that out.
As a kid, 9 or 10 maybe, I was at the Spectrum in Philly with my dad. We were at a 76ers game, although it actually might have been the NBA all-star game. I know I attended the latter around that time in the late ’60s, because I still have the game program in a box in the attic — um, unless I sold it a couple years ago. I think I might have sold it. I’m pretty sure it had Bob Lanier’s autograph on it and I thought, hell, that’s got to be worth a few bucks online. Yeah, I hate to think I sold it . . .
Anyway, why I bring this up: I was just a little kid but I full-well knew who Stan Hochman was. THE awesome columnist for the Philly Daily News, a raucous, tabloid, afternoon daily at the time that ran long stories and devoted pages and pages to sports coverage, many more pages than the Inquirer.
So I am at the game. I am walking by the court during warmups to sneak peeks at the players, perhaps the all-stars. I recognize Stan Hochman from the picture on his column. He is sitting at his seat on press row. I have never spoken to a sports writer in my life. I have no reason to speak to a sports writer. And I have no idea why something moved me, a shy kid with nothing to really say to anybody, to speak to Stan Hochman, of all people, at that moment. (And what would I say anyway?) But I did speak to him. I stopped at his seat. I don’t recall interrupting him, I think he was just sitting there. And my memory tells me I said something along the lines of “Excuse me, Mr. Hochman?” My memory tells me he turned and looked at me. He did not ignore me or tell me to get lost. “Yes, son?”
I told him I really liked his writing. What the hell? What? But he was gracious. He said thank you. And again, for some reason I didn’t quit while I was ahead but I continued: “May I ask you, how did you become a sports writer? How DO you become a sports writer?”
Foreshadowing? Where did THAT come from? I’d always thought I was big-leagues-or-bust. No Plan B. Having a Plan B meant you werent’t all in on Plan A. Who knew I was actually working on B as a pre-teen? Stan Hochman remained pleasant. Patient. I haven’t Googled this, so my memory could be exposed as very wrong and this was all a dream, in which case this would all be embarrassing. But Stan Hochman answered my question. My questions. My recollection is — again, I haven’t awoken Mr. Google — he said he had been in the Navy, and no, he had not gone to college to become a sports writer (I had asked him if he’d gone to college to become a sports writer). Somehow, it had just happened, he said. He started writing and soon enough he had become Stan Hochman, the sports writer (soon to be the Philly sports writing legend). And he said kid, you could do it, too. If you want to do it, why not? You could do it, too.
I thanked him and moved along, wary even then of over-staying my welcome and being a pain in the ass. But I had shared Stan Hochman’s space for maybe 60 seconds. He had encouraged me, some dumb kid bugging him before a game. I went on and continued to read his blunt, witty, bare-knuckle column in a bare-knuckle pro sports town for years and years.
And in the end, I did not go to school to become a sports writer. I just started writing, and soon enough I was a sports writer. Damn if Stan Hochman hadn’t said it could be so. Damn if he wasn’t right.