June 22 and 23, 2002, and beyond — some memories
Pardon kind of a freeform post here. Not that they all aren’t, I guess.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, 2002 was my first year on the beat, and in fact the first year I ever held a beat of any kind. As everyone knows, that’s the year Darryl Kile and Jack Buck died. But it was also the year Tino Martinez stepped in for Mark McGwire, the year that 11 different pitchers started a game for the Cardinals before the end of May, the year the Cards traded for Chuck Finley and Scott Rolen, and the year that Ozzie Smith was inducted into the Hall of Fame. It was the most eventful season out of my 10 covering the team.
To top it off, I finagled my way into covering the College World Series for MLB.com that year as well. I was out of town when Jack Buck passed away, and I was out of town when the club held a memorial service for Buck.
And on Saturday, June 22, I was sitting in the press box at old Rosenblatt Stadium one more time, covering the national championship game between Texas and South Carolina, when I heard-but-didn’t-hear something. Surely you all know how that is. Something is said in a crowded room, and somewhere in the back of your brain you’re aware that it was said, but you don’t really hear it. You don’t really process it.
Someone said, “Darryl Kile died.” And I didn’t process it. Then somebody else said it, and I came a little closer to actually hearing it. By the third or fourth time, I actually processed it. This was something that had happened. This was something real.
I got to the work part of things as quickly as I could, but there wasn’t much that I could do. The Cardinals were in Chicago, and my esteemed colleague Carrie Muskat was covering the series. Carrie was on top of everything, and honestly I owe her a huge debt to this day. I remember being in the press box, hearing the news and finally processing it, like it was yesterday. I literally remember nothing else about that day. I’m sure I wrote something off the game. I’m sure I had dinner. I know for a fact that I rearranged my travel plans, but I don’t remember doing that either.
But I know I did it, because I got on a much earlier flight on Sunday than I had intended. I had been scheduled to come back from Omaha sometime in the afternoon. Instead, I adjusted things so I could get on an early morning departure. Flew back to St. Louis, rushed back to my apartment in the Central West End to grab a change of clothes, and made straight for Chicago.
I pulled into a parking lot somewhere near Wrigley at about 3:15 p.m. Rushed to pick up my credential, hustled up to the press box (if you’ve never done that, it’s an endeavor. You take the stairs, and it’s not real close), and basically walked in there right at the moment that the clubhouse was to open.
I walked up to Carrie, tried to take a minute to thank her for carrying the load the day before, and she stopped me before I could even finish. There was work to be done. This is why I love working with Carrie, by the way.
Mercifully, the Cardinals did not open the clubhouse that night. The players didn’t want it, the coaching staff didn’t want it, and I assure you I didn’t want it. I can’t speak for anyone else in the media, but I was extremely relieved. Five years later I was in the clubhouse pregame the day after Josh Hancock died, and I wish I hadn’t been.
They brought a couple of people out to talk to us, and everyone was just in a haze. The game was played in a haze, truth be told. Jason Simontacchi had the unenviable task of pitching on what would have been Kile’s day, and he handled himself as well as could be asked. Kile took pride in the fact that he never missed a start in the big leagues. Taking his spot, under the lights on ESPN no less, was unfair to ask of anyone.
The ensuing days were scarcely any better. We had to write about Kile, but humans grieve in a lot of different ways, and some of these guys simply didn’t want to talk about him — understandably. Matt Morris, who counted Kile as one of his closest friends, just didn’t want to talk about it. As I’ve mentioned here before, Dave Veres was a godsend, because he wanted to talk about his friend. It helped him.
The rest of the season, of course, continued to be tremendously memorable for better and worse. The Cardinals weren’t done losing members of their family; Darrell Porter and Enos Slaughter both passed away in August. The Rolen and Finley trades were huge boosts to a team that played inspired baseball through the summer. The playoff win against the Diamondbacks was uplifting.
And then there’s one last memory I have of that team and that season. I’ve been in a lot of losing locker rooms, including World Series and LCS. I’ve seen some teams take some hits. And I have never, in my time covering baseball, been in a clubhouse as silent, as dejected, as punched in the stomach over the outcome of a game, as the Cardinals after the 2002 NLCS.
They sincerely believed, like no team I’ve been around, that they were destined. They were playing for Darryl and Jack, and for the fans who had their back throughout the season, and for each other with all they went through. There’s always disappointment when a season ends, but that team wasn’t just disappointed. I really feel like they thought they had let people down.
They didn’t, of course. Quite the opposite. That was a remarkable team, and among other things for my money it was the best managing job TLR ever did. But there was no hearing it that night. No “we gave it a good run.” It wasn’t the time for appreciating what they’d done, as far as they were concerned.
Anyway, this is long and rambling, so I’ll stop now. Thanks for reading.