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No World Series title for Cards without Hancock

This isn't supposed to happen -- a baseball player, not yet 30 years old, dying on a highway just after midnight.

This isn't supposed to happen -- the St. Louis Cardinals waking up Sunday to the news that Josh Hancock was gone, that their Sunday night ESPN game with the Cubs was off, that their world was never going to be quite the same.

But in baseball, life happens, and death happens. And days like this never get any less shocking.

Not when it's Cory Lidle, losing his life in a New York plane crash. Not when it's Darryl Kile, losing his life in a Chicago hotel room. And not when it's Josh Hancock, losing his life in a tragic collision with a tow truck on a Missouri interstate.

You probably never knew Hancock. You probably knew very little about him.

He wasn't a star. He wasn't a magical baseball name. He wasn't one of those guys who make headlines every time they open their mouths.

But men like Hancock help stitch together the fabric of baseball. No team can get by without them. And this past October, the St. Louis Cardinals wouldn't have won a World Series without him.

He didn't find his way to the Cardinals last year as some monstrous free-agent signing. He found his way to the Cardinals in about the least likely way possible.

Released by the Reds on the first day of spring training 2006 for allegedly being overweight. Signed by the Cardinals a few days later, as just another non-roster arm to add to the spring training buffet line.

But Hancock became more than that. He pitched his way onto an Opening Day roster for the first time in his nine-year pro career, a career that already had bounced him from Boston to Philadelphia to Cincinnati to St. Louis.

He wound up working more innings (77) than any pitcher in a World Series-bound bullpen. He wound up being one of those invaluable little pieces that glue championship teams together. He threw strikes. He stayed healthy. He was ready if they needed him in the third inning. He was ready if they needed him in the 12th.

No group in sports is tighter than a group of men who spend seven months hanging out in a bullpen together. And that was especially true of the Cardinals' bullpen last year.

The men out there knew the scouts and we media geniuses didn't view them as particularly reliable, heading into October. Those insinuations pulled them together, provided just enough fuel to fire them through the October marathon. And Hancock was as easygoing and well-liked as any member of that group.

He didn't have a great October. He had an outing in the NLCS, in fact, in which he faced six Mets hitters and didn't retire any of them. He never threw a single pitch in the World Series.

But he did have one October moment for the scrapbook, the day he marched into a division series game against the Padres and struck out Mike Piazza with two men on. You MLB.TV subscribers can look up that one some time -- and remember Hancock at his best.

Because that's what we do at times like this. We grieve for what the St. Louis Cardinals have lost. We grieve for what Hancock meant to the people he loved. We grieve for what this man could have been.

But we can always cue up the video and remember him doing what he loved -- out there in the middle of a packed ballpark, blowing a third strike past a future Hall of Famer in the middle of the October stage.

When the tears dry, the memories remain as beautiful as that moment -- a moment that made Josh Hancock's life worth living.

Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.