Once a Cardinal, Always a Cardinal

Josh Hancock, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, dead at 29

I didn't have much of a connection to the late Josh Hancock, other than that he played for the St. Louis Cardinals, a Major League Baseball team close to my heart. He came to the club only after being cut by the Cincinnati Redlegs during spring training 2006 for being 17 pounds overweight. I have been at least 17 pounds overweight for my entire life. (I know what you're thinking: yes, even as a zygote.) So, there's that. He was 29 and single. I'm 29 and single. He loved baseball. I love baseball. He made money playing it, while I just cried a little bit as I stood over my toilet pouring hydrogen peroxide on a skinned knee after a spirited Sunday of softball at Ramsey Park. I guess right around there is where we head our separate ways.

Hancock died at about 12:30 Sunday morning in an auto accident on a stretch of U.S. 64/Highway 40
(or, as longtime St. Louisians might say in our flat Midwestern accent with an unfortunate twist, Highway "Farty"), not far from Busch Stadium III. It was there that Hancock pitched in his last game, going three innings and allowing an earned run while striking out two and walking one in an 8-1 loss to the arch rival Chicago Cubs on Saturday. It was a typical outing for the right-handed Hancock, a middle reliever who has seen a lot of mop-up and fort-holding duty this season as the Cards have struggled to score runs and, lately, stop other teams from doing so too early and often.

(Their patchwork pitching staff has been inconsistent but by no means bad: Daisuke Matsuzaka might have the gyroball, but it's my contention that the Redbird rotation has the Duncanball, courtesy of inscrutable Svengali pitching coach, Dave.)

Hancock was the type of solid but unspectacular right-handed reliever that would be described as serviceable. In other words, when it came to stopping teams from scoring runs, there were some who did it better and some more who did it worse. He managed to amass decent numbers amid unenviable situations:

1) with his team down by a bunch – as on Saturday – when his job is to basically groove the ball to avoid more baserunners via walks while simultaneously, somehow, preventing more from crossing the plate, thus compounding the rout sans little-league mercy rule;

2) with his team up by a bunch, when his job is similar to above but complicated by the need to preserve a comfortable lead and the comfort of the starting pitcher in line for the win;

3) with the early departure of an injured starter with the game 0-0 or 10-0 or whatever other score your little heart might hypothetically desire;

and

4) with his team in a close game, quite possibly one that finds them in extra innings and battling attrition.

I watch and listen to a lot of baseball games. A lot of Cardinals games. Hancock was a guy I had mixed feelings about, mostly because he went out to the mound in such a mix of scenarios and possible outcomes. If I dreaded his appearances, I would say so. I didn't. He appeared to me to be a laid-back guy with perspective and a sense of humor. He smiled and seemed to have fun being a pro ballplayer. He took losses hard and lived up to the Cardinal way, which, I'm sorry, is just not worth explaining to Houston Astros and Texas Rangers fans.

Before earning a World Series ring with St. Louis in 2006 (and earning is the right word, as he threw 77 innings in 62 games with an earned run average of 4.09), he had played for the Boston Red Sox, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the aforementioned Reds. His lifetime numbers – there is something tough to take in that statistical terminology when you're talking about a guy who probably had another 10 years or so in his arm – are nine wins, seven losses, and an ERA of 4.46.

In June 2002, I was sitting with my dad at Shoal Creek Saloon. He was in for business, and we were eating lunch. It was a Saturday. We were waiting for the Cards-Cubs game to start. The only thing on in the meantime was the College World Series. It couldn't have been the final(s), because I recall UT winning the whole thing that year, and the place was relatively empty. My kid brother called. My dad spoke with him briefly and hung up, which was odd, because custom dictated he pass the phone to me, in order that we could all get drunk together, however briefly, as we anticipated a CubDrub (if I knew how to type the Trademark symbol, rest assured I would).

But there was news, and it wasn't good: De facto Cardinal ace and former Astro and Colorado Rockie pitcher Darryl Kile had been found dead at 33 in his Chicago hotel room. This was just days after the death of beloved Hall of Fame broadcaster Jack Buck. The Cardinals and their fans were sent reeling. I don't remember what my dad and I did for the rest of that day. I strongly suspect we got more drunk and watched something and/or went somewhere else, but I can't be certain. I know we were bummed out and remained so even as the Cardinals improbably cracked the postseason without one of their leaders and then the National League Championship Series without one of their leaders before melting down against the San Francisco Giants without one of their leaders.

I know I drove up to St. Louis on Oct. 14, 2002, during that NLCS, for my maternal grandpa's funeral taking place the following day. The guy, my grandpa Dick, was the greatest Cardinal fan and just general fella I ever knew, aside from my own father. He was a bombardier in the Pacific theatre during World War II. He was classy, cool, and drank scotch with milk. Built motherfucking helicopters or somesuch. Fixed watches as a hobby. Put up with my grandma, a wonderful flirt who could out drink to this day you and me put together.

I was to read a little something with my aunt. En route – from Denton through Vinita and at a Wendy's drive-through in Joplin – I got lucky getting KMOX reception all the way. Pregame, game, postgame. KMOX is legendary in its Midwestern reach: It carried Redbirds broadcasts far and wide for more than a half-century (if you're reading this, chances are you're a Cards fan, and not just because you're a Cards fan, if you know what I mean … for this next part, you'll need a library and a family tree and a lock of hair) until it was outbid by a weak-signaled but Cardinals-backed station in 2006. I have no comment on this old news, other than that KTRS blows, and the Cards should return to KMOX if they have any integrity – which I know they do – not to mention respect for their fans – which I know they do. But, anyway, back to my story: Yeah, leaves were swirling and the air was brisk and there was no chance the Cardinals would go to the World Series.

There was no Jack Buck, for starters, whose voice I heard in my head every time I got a hit in the alley behind my dad's house in South City or in my mom's driveway in Affton; in American Legion; the few I managed on Heine Meine fields, the erstwhile home of the St. Louis University High School Junior Billikens; way out in St. Charles or across the river in Waterloo, Ill.; and when I went to sleep at night on a waterbed with the radio on as a 12-year-old, Buck's semiblind lapses miraculously covered by he himself within the split second, as he at the same time brilliantly covered the lapses of his own blind-drunk color man, Cardinal great Mike Shannon (himself still going strong). Buck might as well have done backflips on the way to the booth, à la the great Cardinal shortstop Ozzie Smith on the way to his position before home games. He was just that good.

As recently as five years ago, Cards starter Matt Morris could have done just the same. Drafted high by St. Louis in the mid-Nineties out of Seton Hall, he was an ace by 2001 after major elbow surgery. That season, he went 22-8 with a 3.16 ERA, finishing third in Cy Young balloting. Against the Arizona Diamondbacks in the National League Division Series, he took on Curt Schilling in two classics, losing 1-0 and 2-1 in games 1 and 5 respectively, if I'm not mistaken. Kile – not just a bulldog, but a bulldog with the talent to compete well and win more often than he lost – was clearly an influence. A year later, against the Giants in the deciding game 5, Morris – along with centerfielder Jim Edmonds one of Kile's closest friends – did his very best again, losing 2-1 after going 8 and 2/3. San Francisco had beaten a Scott Rolen-less – and, of course, Kile-less – St. Louis four games to one and would play the Anaheim Angels in the World Series.

I have never heard Shannon sound more sad, lonely, and defeated.

Morris is gone now. He signed with the Giants two offseasons ago.

At around 10:30 this morning, I woke up to word at Viva el Birdos of Hancock's passing.

Hancock was a human being, and his death was undeserved. Few are those whose is. He pitched for the Cardinals, and we who love the Cardinals will miss him, although we'll get over his departure long before his family and friends will. This is a fact. The team will have to fill his spot. The rookie Kelvin Jimenez, for instance, was Hancock-like in his Major League debut Friday night: one inning, no runs, one hit, one walk, and one strikeout. He kept the Cards in a game they should have won against the Cubs (but lost 5-3). He wasn't lights out, but he wasn't lights on, either. Jimenez took Randy Keisler's roster spot. Keisler, a lefty, was sent down after doing a subpar job spotting the injured ace Chris Carpenter. Hopefully Carpenter, 2005 Cy Young winner, will be back off of the disabled list in a week, but who knows?

The one drawback to being a Cardinals fan lately is that the organization shrouds its injuries in mystery (see: Mark Mulder, 2006). The status of Carpenter's elbow is a real question, and the sting for me comes in knowing that under similar circumstances – a starter out, his replacement sent down, a capable reliever up, some doubt as to said starter's return, a committee effort a probable necessity in the interim when considering how to fill that last precious roster spot – Hancock would've been a strong contender to lead a bullpen start or an outright rotational one. He was drafted as a starter, after all, and he made his way as a long reliever. I'm pretty sure he could have pulled it off.

But Hancock is no longer an option, and that is a painful reality. Weird story: A few days before he died, the kid was late to the clubhouse on the day of a game – I call Hancock a kid, but he was only a few months younger than me – because he "overslept on his new comfortable bed." His teammates were a little nervous. "With righthander Darryl Kile dying before a game in Chicago five years ago," wrote 2007 HOF inductee Rick Hummel in the April 27 St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "the Cardinals don't take it lightly when a player doesn't show up at the park on time."

I ran three miles this morning, thought about Hancock a lot along the way – thought about dropping dead as I jogged – and then went to get coffee at the Thunderbird on Koening. Sat at a table outside and read about Doc Pomus. Two girls and a guy sat at the table to my left, three women and three kids on my right, although two of the kids ostensibly belonged to one woman, leaving the one left to another, while the third woman was just a friend or possibly a nanny. One of the mothers spoke of her son Elliot, himself in attendance, a first-grader reading at a fifth-grade level. "No, no," Elliot insisted. "They said I read at an eighth-grade level."

"Now, Elliot," said his mom, "let's not blow it out of proportion. The truth explains it enough."

At the other table, the two girls – I say girls, but they were probably in their mid-20s – talked about Hancock for 10 minutes. At least one of them was a Cardinals fan and probably from St. Louis, from what I could gather. "My dad called me," she said. The guy said, "Oh, really?" They got up, and I casually but pointedly placed my Cardinals Velcro wallet on the table like a badge as they passed. We had maybe better talk this over is what I was trying to say. They didn't hear me.

"I left the Gram Parsons CD in your car," the other girl said to the guy.

"You what?" he said.

"I left the Gram Parsons CD in your car," she repeated.

"Oh, really?" the guy said, climbing into the driver's seat of what must have been the car.

An hour later, I was playing softball at Ramsey. Played left field and went 2-4 with 2 RBI and 2 runs scored. Got a bruise on my thigh in a collision at home plate. Made fun of a Cubs fan named Amanda because she sucked. Got into two arguments. Had two conversations about Hancock. Drank two Gatorades. Put my backpack in the car when it rained. Called a 12-year-old begging to play "son." Came home, took a shower, phoned my mom just back from a cruise, and wrote this.

Tony LaRussa, Walt Jocketty, and the Cardinals spent Sunday grieving publicly. Again. If an uninspired start hasn't soured an inspired run to the World Series title in 2006 (for me, personally, it hasn't come close), this loss definitely has. But what can you do? Hancock's teammates have to go back out there. The only response – the only tribute – is to start putting some wins together while there's still time. Or to just go out there and try while there's still time.

UPDATE: As expected, there's more news on Hancock, who will be buried on Thursday in Tupelo, Miss., with his teammates in attendance. As expected, it's not good.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS POST

Josh Hancock, St. Louis Cardinals, Darryl Kile, Jack Buck, Matt Morris

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