Sportswriters never root, root, root for the home team.
It’s Rule No. 1 of the job, something fans can’t wrap their minds around, how us former sports-loving folk can flip the switch to impartial observers and never look back. It’s easier for some of us than others.
But every now and then, more because of our experience on the job than in spite of it, we find a reason to start rooting again.
And believe me, I’m rooting for Liam Hendriks.
Of course, everyone will be rooting for the White Sox’ closer, who announced Sunday that he’ll be undergoing treatment for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That’s an easy thing for any empathetic human being to do. It should come as no surprise that the baseball community at large rallied around Hendriks on Sunday night.
But those of us who have gotten to know Hendriks, even a little, have a special rooting interest as he gears up for a fight much different and much more important than anything he’s had to go through on a baseball field.
People always want to know what it’s like to cover these guys, the behind-the-scenes behavior of real people who fans see as characters in their favorite show — and sometimes superheroes in their favorite big-budget blockbuster. The answers vary by subject, as you might imagine. But here’s a definitive one for you: There have been fewer players as enjoyable to cover as Hendriks.
From a doing-my-job standpoint, he’s a goldmine, brutally honest with no BS included. He’s always willing to talk, typically at length, about what’s going right or what’s going wrong with the team, depending on their fortunes in a given season. With things going so wrong in 2022, there was no one providing context like Hendriks. He was the one who said the White Sox were overconfident from the jump — and the one who shared that, in a midseason meeting of team leadership, José Abreu agreed.
But what makes Hendriks so easy to root for has very little, if anything, to do with baseball. He’s just a good guy.
Teammate, coach, reporter or clubhouse attendant, Hendriks greets them all every day with a hello and a “how ya doing?” Often, a conversation will follow — on whatever LEGO set he’s building, whatever cat he and his wife have adopted most recently, whatever thing he found interesting on the internet. In a sport where players spend little time chatting at their lockers, choosing instead to work out or socialize with teammates behind closed doors, Hendriks seems to find enjoyment out in the open, interacting with everyone and anyone every single day. Last summer, upon learning of my upcoming honeymoon to his home country of Australia, he spent 20 minutes after a game talking with me about what to expect; that’s pretty unusual, by the way, at a time of night when everyone wants to finish their work and head home.
So yes, Hendriks can gab with the best of them, but he walks the walk, too, a three-time nominee for the Roberto Clemente Award. He’s an ally and advocate for the LBGTQ+ community, vocal and out front in a sporting culture that is still fighting an uphill battle in terms of acceptance and inclusion, despite large strides being made in recent years. He’s extremely dedicated to charitable pursuits and made a point multiple times during his introductory press conference to say how important it was to him and his wife, Kristi, to be a part of the Chicago community. They’ve done it, with a milelong list of donations of money, meals, time and effort to various people, animals and causes around our city.
Hendriks has stepped up to defend his teammates time and time again, whether it was Abreu getting hit with tons of pitches during the 2021 season or Tim Anderson getting hit with a racially charged insult by Josh Donaldson. It’s no wonder teams Hendriks never played for voiced their support Sunday; they’ve probably got players who were happy to be his teammate.
The first thing I’ll tell Hendriks when I see him next, whether at spring training or after the regular season begins, is that I’ve been thinking about him, that I’ve been sending him good vibes, that I’ve been waiting to tell him how much I loved Australia. I’ll tell him that a close family member fought non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and won, that the same family member reached out to me within minutes of Hendriks’ announcement and reminded me the outlook is good.
See, even those who have never met Hendriks get it, are rooting for him because they’ve heard all these reasons before. Your fellow humans don’t have to earn your empathy when something like this happens to them, they just deserve it unconditionally, and few have displayed that type of mindset like Hendriks, who has stepped up as a voice and advocate for marginalized people. But though he didn’t have to, Hendriks has earned our empathy in this challenging moment.
Hendriks is a player, a player I cover, and I’m not supposed to care whether he throws strikes or gets outs or wins. But in this situation, with this player, I really, really care if he wins. In this case, I’m rooting for someone again.
When he gets back on the mound — and there’s nothing that can stop Hendriks from doing that — they’re going to have to relax that “no cheering in the press box” rule. On that day, I know I won’t be the only one breaking it.