Before he could make it in safely to one dream profession, Jeremy Rutherford, St. Louis Blues writer for The Athletic, had to be thrown out of another.
Once upon a time, Rutherford’s ambition was to play baseball for the St. Louis Cardinals. But a single up the middle crystallized a painful reality for the young man.
“I knew at a young age that I wanted to be a sportswriter, but first I was a St. Louis kid that wanted to be a Cardinal. I was 10 or 12 years old, and I got a base hit up the middle, out to center field,” Rutherford recalled. “I was so slow that my last step to first base is when I heard the first baseman’s mitt snap. The centerfield had thrown me out. At that moment, I knew if I was going to be involved in sports, it better not be playing.”
Little did Rutherford know that the Cardinals would come back into play later, helping him find his true calling.
A love for writing and English helped a young Rutherford parlay that change of pace into a longstanding career in sportswriting that began with a tenacious desire and a stroke of luck while living with his grandparents during high school. Rutherford’s grandparents listened to KMOX daily, and a radio segment about getting into your field as early as possible spurned Rutherford to call the St. Louis Post-Dispatch about a job. The phone call didn’t go well.
“They asked me how old I was, and I said 17. They hung up on me. I can still remember the dial tone,” Rutherford said. The next day, he called the Suburban Journal, pledging to answer phones or mop floors to get a shot. It turns out they did need somebody.
“They wanted to get the young kids’ names in the paper. These sportswriters who went to Mizzou and got a journalism degree, it was the last thing they wanted to do. It’s what I wanted to be doing, so I went to Affton Athletic Association and climbed in a tree, cramming as many names into the story as I could.”
Rutherford went down to the field after a game and talked to the coach, Mike Smith, who happened to be Deputy Editor of the Post-Dispatch. Smith informed the 18-year-old Rutherford that the Post needed some help with their high school sports coverage and asked him to bring some clips in on Monday.
Over the weekend, a rain delay hampered a Cardinals game that Rutherford attended, but led to a chance discovery. “We had nothing to do in the rain delay, so we went to the Hall of Fame, which was inside the old Busch Stadium,” Rutherford said. “I’m walking through there, and there’s an old template newspaper with a Mike Smith story on it. I memorized the lead.”
When Rutherford read Smith that lead on his old story during his interview, the job was his.
What followed is sportswriter history, but it was the rugged ambition and grounded attitude that helps Rutherford to this day on the job. The first story he did was a feature on a Eureka wide receiver, and he would eventually acquire the Blues beat from Derrick Goold, who was moving to the Cardinals beat.
“I covered the University of Illinois for four years, and one day I’m driving to Champaign, Illinois, and they say Derrick is taking the Cardinals job and asked me if I wanted the Blues beat,” Rutherford said. He would go from six-hour round trips covering college football to the ice rink in his old backyard.
“Never in a million years would I imagine I’d be covering the Blues. I never played hockey. It’s just one day you get a phone call, and that is the direction your life is going,” Rutherford added.
Rutherford got the job during the 2004-05 lockout season, and it may have helped that the job didn’t look too appealing at that time. “Here you have a team…the league is locked out, they’re selling the team, stripping the roster, and trading Chris Pronger,” Rutherford said. It is his belief that the Post asked four guys before him, and they all said no. Rutherford jumped at the opportunity, and his first season covering the team was during the 2005-06 season.
As social media, precisely Twitter, has evolved over the past decade from being a cool new startup to be where real hockey news is released, Rutherford’s job has become a 24/7/365 grind that never stops. “The bottom line is you are on all the time. I’ve had my phone buzz at six in the morning, and I need to blog or tweet,” Rutherford said. “I’ve been at a funeral and had to leave to go write a blog in my car. You must be on all the time. It’s the 24-hour news cycle.”
Developing an instinctive knowledge of what could happen and what’s real or not in covering the Blues is something Rutherford has sharpened over the years. “If Brayden Schenn goes down the tunnel, my phone is going to beat with friends and acquaintances asking what happened. It’s a constant thing.”
A trip to the gym one time was bombarded with questions from people. A vacation on the beach with his family saw him sequestered inside the hotel blogging. The job never ends, but it’s also one Rutherford loves to this day and sometimes must pinch himself to believe is his. It’s what the kid in that tree in Afton dreamed of.
In my next dose, part two of the interview, Rutherford dishes on The Athletic, professionalism on the job, and how the Pat Maroon signing this past summer brought out the tempestuous nature of Blues fans.
Until then, buy more bourbon.
**Both parts of the interview will appear in the wonderful St. Louis Game Time paper, sold outside Enterprise Center before every home game. Part one appeared in Wednesday’s paper. If you can’t wait for Part two of this interview online, subscribe to the STLGT paper before Sunday’s game. It’ll make for great reading material as you sip your Bloody Mary. Email firstname.lastname@example.org for details.