Neil Hohlfeld, RIP

Way back in the day, when I was in law school, I also worked the Astros games. It seemed, in that first year-and-a-half or so, that I also had to read and prepare notes, and I always found myself bringing a satchel of law books with me to every game. I’d get up there before the game notes came out, and I would grab a seat on the last row of the press box and read cases while listening to the sounds of batting practice.

The Atlanta Braves were in town for a series, and I while I was reading a case – probably something like the law against perpetuities – I remember feeling someone approaching me. I turned to see Don Sutton, former pitcher and then Braves broadcaster, approaching me with his hand out, asking how I was doing. Shocked that Sutton was speaking to me – a mere DiamondVision video guy – I shook his hand and said I was fine. He said great and that he would talk to me later.

Amazingly, this went on for several seasons. Whenever the Braves would come into town, Sutton would come say hello. At first, I thought he was just being nice, then I learned the truth. He thought that I was Neil Hohlfeld, the Houston Chronicle beat writer for the Astros. Now Don Sutton never told me this, but not long after Sutton said hi to me one time, I was leaving a game with some of my coworkers. And we came out through the same doors as the players and the press. And as I walked out, some lady started shouting that I was mean. And she was calling me Neil, and wanting to know why I wrote what I did about the Astros booster club. I was puzzled, but I kept on walking toward my car. My coworker, however, walked over to find out why the lady was all upset.

“She thinks you’re Neil Hohlfeld,” he told me the next night. “And she doesn’t like what you wrote about the booster club signs.”

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That night, as I was walking out, the same thing happened. But this time I went over to her and introduced myself, and I told her that she was mistaken. She didn’t believe me, and I eventually had to show her my driver’s license to prove that I was who I said I was.

I write all of this as my attempt at a tribute to Neil Hohlfeld, who died on Saturday. I never really got to know him, even though we often sat only about 20 feet apart. For those of you who didn’t know Neil, or knew him only through his appearances on the Astros pre- and post-game shows on Fox Sports, he was, for years, the Astros beat writer. And he was great. Not good. Great. I never questioned what he wrote. I never felt he was protecting management or favoring certain players.

Did I mention that he was a great writer?

I remember this one Astros game, probably back in 1992. It was a day game during the middle of the week, and the Astros were playing the Montreal Expos. There was no Houston television coverage of the game, and the crowd was sparse. I remember a pop fly in foul territory over behind third base. And Ken Caminiti turned and ran after the ball. And ran after a ball that it looked like he would not get to. I remember that he launched himself into the air and caught the ball as he fell into the stands.

But what I really remember about that play is that the next day, when I read the game story in the Chron, Neil Hohlfeld’s description was vivid. I was there and witnessed the play. But Hohlfeld brought the play back to life -- an instant replay a day later without the video or the slo-mo, but just as revealing, just as intricate, and even more memorable.

I’ll leave it to the guys over at the Chron to tell you about Neil Hohlfeld the person, because I never knew that person, even if there were people out there who thought that I looked like him. But I wish that I would have known him because from what I’ve read, he would have loved to hear about the booster club giving me a hard time, or Don Sutton talking to me.

But I will miss Neil Hohlfeld most of all because I will miss his writing. I don’t know why he was removed from the Astros beat, but to me, he’s the best the beat writer the Chron ever had, for any sport.

I’m not much of a believer in that whole afterlife thing, but if there really is something out there after death, then I’m sure he’s there talking to all of the baseball greats, and asking them why they did what they did when they did it. Well that or telling a joke about Nolan Ryan.

Rest in peace. And to the Hohlfeld family – as well as my friends at the Chron – I am sorry for your loss. – John Royal

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