St. Louis, Cardinals suffer another painful tragedy

ST. LOUIS -- On a cloudless, sun-smooched April Sunday -- a day meant for baseball, not mourning -- a father stood outside the black, wrought iron gate on the third-base side of Busch Stadium and tried to explain to his young son why the St. Louis Cardinals wouldn't be playing that evening.

Behind them, a half dozen bouquets of red roses leaned hard against the gate railings. A pair of tethered red and white balloons fluttered in the hot breeze and someone had stuffed their Cardinals fitted ballcap in the opening between the iron bars. On the cap, in black magic marker, was written #32: Josh Hancock's Cardinals jersey number.

Less than 13 hours earlier, on an expressway that runs directly past the stadium, Hancock drove his 2007 Ford Explorer into the back of a parked, 26,000-pound flatbed tow truck. Fate and physics did the rest. He died, said St. Louis Police Chief Joe Mokwa, instantaneously, and only 18 days removed from his 29th birthday.

By late Sunday morning and early afternoon, baseball's most supportive fans began dropping off the flowers and handwritten notes at Gate 3, just beyond the statue of Cardinals legend Stan Musial. Then again, Cardinals fans, and the team they adore, have had much too much practice with grieving.

"RIP #32 Josh Hancock," read one note attached to the plastic pouch holding a handful of roses. "You will be missed -- The Aitken Family."

"We will miss you Josh Hancock," read another note. "You were a great guy and a wonderful pitcher. We all love you. Love -- The Martin Family."

For the second time in less than five years, the Cardinals will bury one of their own. In June 2002 it was veteran pitcher Darryl Kile, who died in a Chicago hotel room of coronary atherosclerosis (the narrowing of the arteries leading to the heart). This Thursday, at a funeral service in Tupelo, Miss., it will be a journeyman reliever whose beaming face can be seen in the framed team photograph hanging just inside the entrance to the Busch Stadium press box. There Hancock is, in the back row, just to the left of third baseman Scott Rolen. The photo was taken inside the St. Louis clubhouse immediately after the Cardinals had won the 2006 World Series and it is a picture of undistilled joy.

On Sunday, however, there was only the numb realization that the line between life and death is much thinner than we'd like to believe. Kile was 33. Hancock was 29. The Cardinals are weary of doing the math.

"The pain our organization feels today is unspeakable," said Bill DeWitt Jr., the team's chairman of the board and general partner.

Hancock was no star. But he was a Cardinal, and better yet, he appreciated being a Cardinal. A night earlier, in a blowout loss to the Chicago Cubs, it was Hancock who pitched three innings of one-run relief. It doesn't sound like much -- garbage time is garbage time -- but it meant something to the men in the Cardinals dugout.

"We didn't get embarrassed yesterday," said manager Tony LaRussa on Sunday, "and that was because of him."

Maybe it was because he signed as a minor league free agent in 2006 after the Cincinnati Reds released him, or because he had spent the better part of 10 years in the minors, but Hancock savored every nanosecond of his time with the Cardinals. He appeared in 62 regular-season games in 2006, made brief appearances in the division and league championship series, made the World Series roster, but didn't pitch against the Detroit Tigers. You should see him in that clubhouse photo, his smile as wide as the pitching rubber, his right forefinger raised happily in the air.

As I was driving to St. Louis on Sunday morning, I heard a guest on KFNS-590 tell a story about Hancock and his World Series share. Hancock, who made $430,000 a season ago, would call his bank's automated phone service just to listen to the computer-generated voice detail his most recent deposit: the $362,173.07 World Series paycheck.

Pure innocence.

The accident investigation isn't complete, but Mokwa, who appeared with LaRussa, DeWitt and Cards general manager Walt Jocketty at Sunday's news conference, said there were no alcoholic containers found in Hancock's vehicle. And the evidence indicates that moments before impact, Hancock tried to swerve away from the tow truck, which was parked with its warning lights flashing in the speed lane while attending to an earlier accident.

"We may never know exactly what happened," Mokwa said.

It was only proper that Sunday evening's game against the Cubs was postponed. A security guard was stationed outside the two glass doors leading into the Cardinals clubhouse as the team held a players/staff-only meeting to share stories and remembrances about Hancock. Afterward, his voice seemingly breaking at times, Jocketty announced the team will wear No. 32 patches on its uniform sleeves and some type of memorial soon will be placed in the Cardinals bullpen.

"Josh had a lot of friends in that clubhouse," Jocketty said.

LaRussa was the last Cardinals official to speak. Remember, it was LaRussa who held his team's hand after Kile's death ("His finest hour," said St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Bernie Miklasz). It was LaRussa who made the heartbreaking phone call to Hancock's father in the wee hours of Sunday. And it will be LaRussa who must help his team through yet another devastating human loss.

"Trust me," said LaRussa, "this is brutal to go through."

And then, before he returned to his seat, LaRussa made a small plea on behalf of Hancock's memory -- and his own team.

"Whenever you can, I ask for some help," he said.

For now, the roses will have to do.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com.