By: Maggie Fipps
The number that Paul Hembekides, content producer for ESPN, wore when he played infield for Cedarville Baseball from 2008-2012. The sport, his first love, drew him to Cedarville.
Born in Baltimore in 1990, Hembekides grew up in the Orioles’ powerhouse era and looked up to stars like Cal “Iron Man” Ripken Jr. He vividly remembers watching in amazement as Ripken broke the consecutive games played streak.
As a high school senior, he wasn’t ready to put down the bat, so he came to Cedarville, Ohio to continue baseball and education as a business major. And although Iron Man was his hero, he found one obstacle that even a superhuman couldn’t conquer.
“Even though I’m considered the stats guru at ESPN now, I actually couldn’t do it,” Hembekides said. “It just didn’t match the contours of my brain. Playing baseball is a lot easier than taking business calculus.”
And although he wasn’t fluent in derivatives, quotients, and products, he was fluent in sports. That is the native tongue of every sports fan, deeply immersed in the minutia of every athlete.
“It’s not just about watching sports,” Hembekides said. “It’s about knowing that Lou Gehrig played in 2,130 consecutive games. It’s about knowing that Peyton Manning threw 55 touchdowns in 2013. It’s about knowing that Jack Nicholas won 18 majors and the Tiger Woods won 15. It’s about knowing that Michael Phelps won 28 medals and 23 of them were golds.”
The conversation usually reserved for sports bar bickering is what Hembekides thrives in at ESPN. As a content producer and show cohost, he crafts pieces of statistics and research that inform and entertain the audience.
“I’ve been at ESPN now almost 10 years,” Hembekides said. “And this morning when I sent along a note to Brian Windhorst that he wound up using on TV, it still stimulated me. It still inspired me.”
The place Hembekides’ new book, “Got Your Number: The Greatest Sports Legends and the Numbers They Own.” reached on the New York Times Best Seller’s list. Written with ESPN host Mike Greenberg, its 100 chapters develop research-saturated vignettes on the athletes that own each number.
In the early days of the pandemic and the book’s development, Hembekides sat on his couch, trapped inside death-scrolling the news. Randomly, he got a call from Greenberg, who launched into the book idea as soon as he picked up the phone.
“Obviously I thought the idea sounded great, but there was no obvious reason to believe at that point that this was gonna become a New York Times bestseller,” Hembekides said.
Three years later, the book is thriving. In 2012, a younger Hembekides would never believe how he improved as a writer and researcher.
“I remember sitting in [journalism professor] Jeff Gilbert’s office and I showed him this thing I had written,” Hembekides said. “He’s like, ‘Why is your lead at the very end of the piece? This thing needs to be the very beginning because she won the race. It doesn’t matter when and where the event was held, dude.’”
The past couple of months has been a wild ride for Hembekides, with a whirlwind of interviews, promotions, and a Good Morning America appearance thrown in for good measure. Even though he didn’t dream he would become an NYT best-selling author, he felt confident that the book would find its place.
“I’m not terribly surprised that sports fans are enjoying it as much as they are because, candidly, I enjoyed researching it as much as you are probably enjoying reading it. I wrote the book for people like us who love numbers.”
Maggie Fipps is a sophomore Journalism student and the Sports Editor of Cedars. She enjoys playing the piano and thrifting, and you may spot her around campus sporting Packers gear head to toe.
Photos: Paul Hembekides