posted on June 18, 2012 00:00
In June of 2002, the St. Louis Cardinals were a team trying to find a way to make a third straight postseason appearance. And while that goal was ultimately realized, that season a decade ago can never be mentioned without somber tones and sad memories from the middle of June, when the Cardinal Family endured the losses of legendary broadcaster Jack Buck and starting pitcher Darryl Kile.
It hardly seems like it’s been 10 years. Buck battled a long illness and had spent months in the hospital before finally giving up the fight. Kile, on the other hand, was a professional athlete still at or near the top of his game and died in his sleep in his Chicago hotel room. It certainly was a study in loss: on the one hand, you had an old man whose health was failing so his death, while sad, was somewhat expected; on the other hand, you had the death of a young man that was shocking, tragic, and completely out of the blue.
And as if to add insult to injury, the Cardinals and their fans had to endure both gut-punch losses less than a week apart: Buck passed on June 18; Kile was found on June 22.
I remember hearing the news about Buck at a sports bar somewhere. The TV had SportsCenter playing without sound, and a picture of the legend flashed up on the screen with his birth and death years below. Immediately, his voice ran through my head. It was the more famous calls, like a World Series winner or “Go Crazy Folks” and things like that. But Buck hadn’t broadcast a single game in that 2002 season; he spent most of not all that time in the hospital. In essence, his legendary voice had already been silenced. And that was a sobering dose of reality, because regardless if it was a famous line or just a random weeknight game against the Pittsburgh Pirates, having Jack Buck paint the picture felt as automatic as the sun coming up the next morning. Upon his death, it really set in that we’d never get to hear that gravelly voice calling a Cardinal game—and make it sound like your grandpa was telling you a story about baseball—ever again.
Four days later, I was driving home from an office picnic or something when an announcement came over the radio that the Cards game had been cancelled because of a death on the team. I immediately flipped over to KMOX and heard the news about Kile. But it just didn’t seem like reality. How does a pro athlete die in his sleep from natural causes? A guy with a young family, and a great career doing what he loves…how is it his time? Of course, we would learn that Kile had an undiagnosed heart condition. But no matter the cause, the Cardinals and Major League Baseball were rocked by Kile’s death. And not only did the Cards have to endure this loss of a friend and teammate; they also had to keep playing ball and do so without one of their best pitchers. On the field, Kile made huge contributions to the team’s success. Now that was gone, too.
Busch Memorial became one big center of tribute that year. When Buck passed, his statue outside the stadium became adorned with flowers, photos, cards, notes. And when Kile passed, the same thing happened in an area not too far away. Players wore patches on their jerseys to remember both men, and inside the stadium larger replicas adorned various parts of the park. A pall seemed to hang over the team for most of the rest of that season. It’s hard to believe they were able to play at all.
But the 2002 Cardinals did carry on. They acquired Chuck Finley to fill out the rotation, and the team made it to the NLCS where they were beaten by the San Francisco Giants. Considering everything they went through that season, the end result was a heavy-hearted success.
So 10 years have gone by since the saddest of weeks in Cardinals history. Fortunately, through the magic of the internet it isn’t hard to find photos and videos of some of Buck’s best calls or Kile’s best highlights. Buck once said baseball, among other things, was about memories. How prophetic, since both he and Kile are forever linked as an unforgettable part of Cardinal baseball history.
Chris Reed is a freelance writer who also appears on I-70 Baseball Saturdays and Bird Brained whenever he feels like it. Follow him on Twitter @birdbrained.