Gone, but not forgotten: Kile's impact persists
Cardinals remember former pitcher 10 years after his passing
ST. LOUIS -- Al Hrabosky called it a feeling, presumably the same one felt by more than two dozen others in the Wrigley Field visiting clubhouse on that Saturday in June, 10 years ago this week.
The Cardinals broadcaster didn't make this particular trip to Chicago, but he had plans to watch the game from his St. Louis home. Chicago's Kerry Wood was set to face St. Louis' Jason Simontacchi. The Cardinals were hanging on to a two-game division lead.
Hrabosky turned on the TV to watch the pregame show, then turned to his wife, June, and told her that something didn't feel right. Eerie, he described it.
He picked up the phone, called Jim Edmonds.
Also away from the ballpark that day was longtime Cubs broadcaster Steve Stone. A bout of Valley Fever kept Stone out of the broadcast booth for that entire 2002 season. But this was a Cubs-Cards game. He may not be able to be there, but he certainly wasn't going to miss it.
Game time was set for 2:20 p.m. CT. As it approached, no one was warming up. When it arrived, no one took the field.
"There's baseball through wars. There's baseball through depressions. There's baseball through recessions," Stone said. "There's baseball through seemingly everything. And then that one day, suddenly there was no baseball -- especially no Cubs-Cardinals baseball."
It was 17 minutes after that scheduled first pitch when Cubs catcher Joe Girardi solemnly stepped in front of a microphone, flanked by teammates, heart hurting as he knew what needed to be said.
Inside the Cardinals' clubhouse, the news had already been shared. It was manager Tony La Russa who gathered the team together and confirmed what some already feared. Concerns about Darryl Kile's non-arrival that morning had led to a search of his hotel room.
There, Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty was among those who found Kile dead. A heart attack had taken the distinguished right-hander at the age of 33.
Edmonds broke the news to Hrabosky. Mike Matheny -- now the Cardinals' manager, then teammate and close friend of Kile's -- led his team in prayer. There were tears and questions and anger and concern about so much more than baseball.
Already dealing with one recent loss, the organization found itself shaken.
"It's there," former Cardinal reliever Jason Isringhausen said last week, when asked to reflect upon that day. "Losing guys like that in the middle of the season, it puts a lot of things in perspective, of how valuable your time is here and how precious every single day is."
A tragedy that left the Cardinals reeling sent baseball into mourning. Kile's Major League career had already traversed through Houston and Colorado, where he won 92 games before really finding his way in St. Louis.
"It hurt a lot of people badly," Hrabosky said. "I think ballplayers think they're invincible. They think that nothing is going to happen to them. For the first time, a lot of guys faced the reality that death is there. It can touch you at any time."
The Days Before
The friendship built between Kile and Matheny, while founded in respect, sprouted through a shared desire to make the other better. On the field, of course. Off the field, more so.
Intimate discussions weren't uncommon between the two, but the thoughts exchanged between them on this particular Thursday afternoon were different. They were deep, prompted, in particular, by recent events. And they came inside a car, as the two chose to skip the ride on the team bus and instead carpool to the airport, where they would catch a flight to Chicago.
They passed the time talking about life and death and family, about the importance of maximizing moments, cherishing the now.
Those were topics forced upon everyone in the organization just two days earlier, when the longtime voice of the Cardinals, Jack Buck, died in the hospital. He was 77.
Matheny never has been one to shy away from talking about significant life issues, and Buck's passing opened such opportunities. Kile was one of several teammates who, like Matheny, found comfort in talking. And so they did.
Matheny had long been an admirer of Kile, a respect grown out of much more than the unique catcher-pitcher relationship. What Matheny saw in the veteran starter was a selflessness unmatched.
"He was a giver," Matheny said, "like nobody I had ever seen on a baseball field."
When Kile showed up at the ballpark each day, he did so with an agenda -- it was actually written out, too -- that identified who he would seek out to encourage that day. His hope was that the attention would make someone better, that his love would make a difference.
Rarely insightful with the media, Kile handled interviews in the only way he knew how. He'd take any available blame. He'd praise everyone around him. His intent, as it was with that daily list, was to lift everyone around him up.
"So much in this game is about individuals that you can easily lose sight of the importance of team and the importance of others," Matheny said. "But not that guy. If there was a trainer that gave him water for seven innings and he threw seven shutout innings, it was because he got good water."
It was that impartiality in generosity that struck Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak as especially unique.
"He was one of those types of players who touched everybody," said Mozeliak, who, in '02, was working as the Cardinals' director of baseball operations. "I think to his teammates, he was as great with rookies as he was with veterans. He was a very popular player. You could see why."
With an irony that no one knew at the time, Kile was on the mound Tuesday, June 18, the night Buck passed away. Calling that game from the Busch Stadium booth was Joe Buck, who turned to partner Hrabosky at one point to tell him that his father was going to die that night. The family had decided to take Buck, who had long been slowed by illnesses, off life support.
Asked by Hrabosky why he wasn't at the hospital, Joe Buck deferred to what he believed would be his father's wishes.
"He'd want me," Buck said, "to do the game."
Kile, with Matheny catching, pitched 7 2/3 innings that night, limiting the Angels to one run and three hits. The Cardinals earned a 7-2 victory.
It would be the 133rd and final win of Kile's 12-year career.
Over the next few days, the organization celebrated Buck's life and legacy. There was a memorial service on Thursday, during which Matheny spoke on behalf of his teammates. Others spoke publicly, as well. Thousands more surely shared their own stories at the dinner table.
"He's just one of the guys that when you think of St. Louis Cardinals, automatically you think of Jack Buck," Stone said. "That particular legacy is something that, I think, a lot of young broadcasters strive for. I'm not sure many of them will be able to do that again."
For decades, Buck had entered the homes of Cardinal fans, where he would often give them permission to "go crazy." There was something settling about his presence when he stepped in front of a microphone on Sept. 17, 2001. And it seemed just perfect when he told his audience, "Excuse me while I stand up and applaud," as Mark McGwire rounded the bases for the 61st time in 1998.
"It's something that I'll never forget," McGwire says of that call now. "He's one of the most charismatic, funny human beings that I have ever been around. I'm glad to say that he was a friend of mine."
The ceremony at Busch Stadium that Thursday ended with a 21-gun salute.
"I don't think anybody ever did that job any better anywhere," Joe Buck said, last week, of his father. "I would put his body of work up ... I'd put it up against anybody's career in the history of this game. I get tapped on the shoulder once a day, it seems like, with somebody that has a story about my dad that I always can't wait to hear. I know what's coming next and I don't run. I want to hear it."
It was such celebration of life that turned out to be the overwhelming theme those first few days after Buck passed. Buck's death wasn't unexpected, and there was a sense of peace that the legendary sportscaster was finally resting. The team continued playing, taking that Interleague series against the Angels.
A weekend series in Chicago was on the docket next, and Jon Lieber outdueled Woody Williams to give the Cubs Game 1, 2-1, on Friday.
Kile went out to dinner that night with his brother, Dan, and others. He complained of some minor shoulder pain and weakness that night -- symptoms that seemed mostly innocuous at the time -- and eventually returned to his 11th-floor Westin hotel room.
Kile went to bed. He never woke up.
An autopsy later confirmed that Kile, whose father had died of a heart attack in his 40s, had 80-90 percent narrowing in two of his three coronary arteries.
The Day After
The decision to cancel Saturday's game was unanimous. The decision to play on Sunday was not.
La Russa felt it the right thing to do, telling reporters at the time that it was what Kile "did his whole career -- take his turn."
Though shying away from talking about the tragedy publicly at the time, Matheny didn't see the benefit in carrying mourning into a competitive setting. It was, he says now, the only time in his career when he came to the park unprepared and unwilling to play.
And so he didn't.
"It all just seemed to happen too fast, and I was having trouble getting my head around the whole thing," Matheny said. "I'm thinking about how we can help [Kile's widow] Flynn, and then while I'm thinking about that, oh yeah, we have to play a game right now. It just didn't seem right."
Kile had once told La Russa that if Matheny didn't catch him, he wouldn't pitch. Matheny turned around that line on this Sunday, which was scheduled as Kile's start. And so, if Kile couldn't pitch, Matheny wouldn't catch.
The Cardinals lost to the Cubs that night, 8-3.
A pair of Kile's jerseys hung in the Cardinals' dugout for the entirety of the game.
The Days that Followed
Much has happened to the organization in the 10 years since it endured arguably its most trying week in franchise history. A new ballpark was erected, another destroyed. Two more world championships have been won. A Hall of Fame manager stepped away, and Kile's former battery mate has taken La Russa's place.
There are, though, still reminders.
In the tangible sense, placards at Busch Stadium prevent anyone from forgetting the contributions both Kile and Buck made in St. Louis. Buck's name is inscribed below a microphone decal and silhouette in left field. In the Cardinals' bullpen, a "DK 57" sign still hangs.
Legacies live on, too.
How fitting it seemed that the Cardinals followed Kile's death by winning 57 more games -- yes, equaling Kile's uniform number -- en route to winning the National League Central in 2002. That team trailed in the division for just two days after resuming play in Chicago.
There were never chants of "Doing it for Darryl" -- such a mantra would have been forced. But there was a team, united through tragedy, that became bonded as family while advancing to within three wins of a World Series berth.
"There were some deep things that people had never dealt with before," Matheny said. "We needed each other. You just didn't expect someone on the outside to get it."
And truly, no one else still can.
While the pair of deaths didn't morph into superficial motivation, both opened the door for more discussions like the one Matheny and Kile had shared in that car ride. Time turned precious. Hugs were more actively sought out. They still are from those, inside the clubhouse and out, who were struck by the suddenness and finality of death.
"That's why I always just take it one day at a time," Isringhausen said. "I don't try to look too far ahead, never have, especially in my baseball career, because I know with injuries, or anything else that can happen, it can just disappear in any instant."
Jenifer Langosch is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, By Gosh, It's Langosch, and follow her on Twitter @LangoschMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.