Kile's impact felt five years later
Cardinals starter was a cherished friend, teammate
ST. LOUIS -- The tattoo on Jim Edmonds' wrist reminds him every day, five years later, of what he and his Cardinals teammates lost on June 22, 2002. Edmonds, the dean of the roster, has the simple ink inscription "DK 57" on the inside of his right wrist.
Not that he needs to be reminded.
Edmonds remembers his old teammate constantly, as do Jason Isringhausen, Matt Morris and Woody Williams. Manager Tony La Russa has a Kile jersey on a bookshelf in his office in new Busch Stadium. Kile's widow, Flynn, and his children still visit the club on occasion, and son Kannon remains a good-luck charm for the Cards.
Kile's number and initials adorn the bullpen, and his name is on one of the team's most prestigious annual awards. The Darryl Kile Award is voted on by players and awarded by St. Louis' baseball writers. It recognizes the Cardinal who best exemplifies Kile's qualities as "a good teammate, a great friend, a fine father and a humble man."
To his teammates and friends, Kile was a towering presence. He made them laugh, and he made them take notice. He bridged gaps on the roster, between starters and relievers, and between pitchers and hitters.
Friday marks the fifth anniversary of Kile's death. His presence is still felt at Busch Stadium, even though it's not even the same stadium where he played.
"The memories are so fresh that it feels like it was much more recent than that," said La Russa.
He was not just one of 25 -- he was much more important than that. Yet he always made sure that teammates, young and old, knew he considered them every bit as important as he was.
"He was a really good guy, but he was a really good teammate," Edmonds said. "He was a teacher. He was a leader. He was like a captain. He was a guy who all the young pitchers went to. He was a guy who would rally the troops for the national anthem or a bullpen session or whatever."
Edmonds is one of three Cardinals remaining on the team from the day Kile died, along with Isringhausen and Albert Pujols. He is the only one who played on all three of Kile's Cardinals teams with him.
"He was one of those unique people that had the personality that you couldn't help to love him," Edmonds said. "He was a character. He was a great parent and family man. You could see the genuine person that he was, day in and day out. He was very open about his wife and his kids. Some people are married. He was excited to be married and excited to be in love with his wife."
Over 12 seasons in the Major Leagues, Kile never missed a start. He took the ball every single time, never going on the disabled list and never complaining at the times when he was in pain. He was a rock for others to lean on.
So when he didn't show up at Wrigley Field on the morning of Saturday, June 22, 2002, it didn't take long at all for his teammates to worry. Their fears were soon confirmed when Kile was found dead in his Chicago hotel room.
The scheduled afternoon game was postponed, and the teams returned to the field on Sunday night. The entire day was so shocking, so profoundly disturbing, that the Cardinals still do not return to the hotel where Kile passed away.
Accidents happen. Acts of violence happen. Thirty-three year old athletes passing away in their sleep? That doesn't just happen.
|"He was one of those unique people that had the personality that you couldn't help to love him. He was a character. He was a great parent and family man. You could see the genuine person that he was, day in and day out. He was very open about his wife and his kids. Some people are married. He was excited to be married and excited to be in love with his wife."|
|-- Jim Edmonds|
Williams filled some of the leadership void that was left when Kile passed on. But it's a rare player and a rare person who can really do what Kile did, making friends and making an impact all over the roster.
"It was hard on a lot of people," said Isringhausen, who was only Kile's teammate for the first half of 2002. "As I get to know [Mike] Matheny more and more, and I got to know Matty Mo [Morris] more and more, I just realized how they were affected by it. He must have been a really, really special man. The people who showed up from the memorial, most of them weren't even pitchers. Most of them were hitters."
Morris counted Kile as one of his best friends. In Kile's first season in St. Louis, Morris was coming off of elbow surgery and pitching in the bullpen. In their second season as teammates, Kile won 16 games and Morris enjoyed a career year with a 22-8 record, a 3.16 ERA and a third-place finish in the Cy Young voting.
"It's really crazy how many things I still am learning from him," said Morris. "He just had a huge impact on a lot of people. I was lucky enough to spend some time with him and really get close to him. It was only a couple of years. But he was the only [player] I visited in the offseason. He was just a special guy. When you weren't around him, you thought of him."
In 2002, Kile became the first active Major Leaguer to die during the season since 1979, when the Yankees lost Thurman Munson. Achingly, he wasn't the last for nearly so long. The Cardinals lost a second teammate less than five years later, when Josh Hancock was killed in a wreck on April 29 of this year.
"It's been five years, but it doesn't seem like five years," Isringhausen said. "It seems like last week, and the same with Josh. Sometimes with Josh, I think, 'Oh, he got sent down.' It hasn't really sunk in that he's not coming back."
Days before Hancock's passing, the Cardinals felt a chill of déjà vu regarding Kile. On the Thursday before his fatal wreck, Hancock arrived at the ballpark very late, approaching game time. Those who were around in 2002 couldn't help remembering the awful day nearly five years earlier.
So when Hancock died in a crash soon after, the memories had already been stirred from the back of the brain. Isringhausen drew on his recollections of Kile in helping his young teammates cope with the second loss.
"I just tried to get everybody through it," Isringhausen said. "They tried to ask me questions, like 'What are we supposed to do?' I said, 'Well, what do you think Josh would want you to do?'
"Darryl's big thing was that he never missed a start. And Josh was a guy that took on all tasks, the same way Darryl was. That's what he'd want us to do, and that's what I told them. 'Do you think he'd want you to just lie down and not do anything? No. He'd want you to go out and pitch better.'"
The 2002 Cardinals took that sort of message to heart. Kile's last game, a June 18, 2002, win over the Angels, put St. Louis alone in first place. The club would not relinquish that spot, and in fact ran away with a division title.
La Russa still ranks it as one of his greatest heartbreaks as a manager that the '02 Cards couldn't finish the deal, losing to San Francisco in the National League Championship Series. But simply to get it back together, and to blow away all competition in the second half, was an enormous feat.
For everyone who played on the 2002 Cardinals, the club stands out as a special group. In the midst of a long run of success, that team's accomplishments and spirit stand out.
"The first three or four years I was here," said Edmonds, "we had an unusually close group of guys. ... I'm not saying we're not close [now], but that nucleus was together for four years and I think that was the reason why we were able to overcome so much adversity.
"Just the quality of people we had was second to none. You can never say enough about the guys we had in this organization. ... We just had a quality group of guys. I still feel like those were some of the best years of my life."
Thanks, in part, to a man he still remembers to this day.
Matthew Leach is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.