A lot of great stories have been written this week in remembrance of ten years since the passing of Jack Buck and Darryl Kile. Here is my attempt to pay them homage and honor these two great men, as well as the 2002 St. Louis Cardinals that fought on bravely the rest of that season.
I like routines.
Baseball makes great fans of those who like routines. There is a game nearly everyday, and there is a beautiful order to things. Games will always have at least 27 outs, the visitors bat first followed by the home team, each player wears the same number each game, pitchers start every fifth game, and so on. You never have to go to the ballpark wondering how many innings will be played or if the first and third base lines will be 90 feet and chalked. There is a comfort in that routine.
In June of 2002, I was weeks away from turning 20 years old. I had just finished my second year of college. I have rooted passionately for the Cardinals since I can remember being alive. My father cheers for them, his father cheered for them, and his father cheered for the Birds on the Bat. I am a proud fourth generation Cardinals fan. But in the summers between 2000 and 2002, my love for both the team and the game of baseball deepened.
You see, those three summers were the years after my high school graduation and first two years of college. As friends moved to different cities, more and more small town summer nights (Rogersville, MO) turned to watching Cardinals games and less doing other things. I mentioned I liked routines, and I had a pretty good one down.
I had a great summer job, working for a small accounting firm in town that was just minutes from my house. Each morning when I arrived to work, the first thing I would do is write the score from the Cardinals game the night before, any interesting stats, the Cardinals record; then turn the page to the next day. Then at 11:30 on the dot, I would drive home to have lunch with my mom. She is a very kind soul, who would always have a hot meal ready, with a glass of tea, and that day’s sports page.
Even though it was 2002, I still hadn’t changed to reading box scores online. I preferred to do it the “old-fashioned way”, and read the daily newspaper. It was then that I would see where the Cardinals were in the standings based on the previous night’s contests, and pore over the box scores from each game.
Then I would head back to the office, chat briefly with my co-workers Jeff and Rodney about what I had read in those box scores, and get back to work. At 5 o’clock on the dot I left work and made the 15-minute drive to the Springfield Family Y to work out, and listen to SportsCenter while on the treadmill to prep for the upcoming night’s game. After the workout was done, I showered, and drove home to have dinner eaten and be ready to watch the Cardinal game.
I had quite the routine down.
As I have reflected this week on the events of June 2002, it makes me miss those days of being a fan. Don’t get me wrong, twitter and the internet has been a great tool for being a fan. The 24/7 news cycle had made information so readily available, and I feel connected to fans all over the world each night I watch a ball game.
But there was something beautiful about sitting down and watching a whole game start to finish, without reading one tweet or checking other box scores, or interacting with another human being online. Each game was its own story. Each game was an escape of sorts. Most nights, I would not even listen to the television broadcast. I would listen to Mike Shannon and Jack Buck while watching the game on the television. Of course, Buck was not able to call the games during the 2002 season because of his battle with Parkinson’s disease, but I still had the radio on during the games.
Listening to Jack Buck was a whole other escape in and of itself. He was the soundtrack of my childhood. Buck was the background noise for family get-together’s out on the farm. He accompanied me on my walkman radio while I mowed the yard on Sunday afternoon’s. He was on the radio beside my bed during West Coast games as a kid. He was on my radio during those fall nights riding the pep bus to high school football games. He was on in the dugout during baseball practices. He was always with me during summer car rides.
He was a part of my daily routine.
That all changed June 19, 2002.
When I heard the news of Buck’s passing, it was a milestone of sorts in my life. A milestone accompanied with great initial sadness. In a sense, it was saying goodbye to the baseball I knew as a boy, to the game I now follow as a man. Something purer was lost. Buck left us during the summer baseball almost had another strike. Nothing felt right. A hero had fallen.
The routine of fandom I loved so much felt all out of whack.
Then tragedy struck again a mere four days later. Another hero had fallen. A much younger hero with so much life ahead of him.
Cardinal Nation was still grieving deeply from the loss of Buck when news of Darryl Kile’s tragic death was reported. I remember sitting at my kitchen table in utter disbelief. Unable to move or absorb what had just happened.
And yet somehow, the 2002 Cardinals showed the same resilience our nation did in the wake of 9/11, by playing great baseball the rest of the season. 57 wins (Kile’s number) the rest of the way, to be exact. The players talked of how the daily grind, and motivation to win for Buck and Kile, kept them going through that extremely tough period. LaRussa said it was his most challenging season as a manger. They were playing with incredible heart and grit to go win a World Series for their fallen heroes.
Not every story has a Hollywood ending. After sweeping the defending World Champion Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLDS, the Cardinals lost in five games to the San Fransisco Giants. It seemed the series ended before it ever really got started. There was utter disbelief and disappointment amongst the players. It wasn’t supposed to end this way.
For me, I learned to adapt my routine as much I didn’t like life without Buck and Kile around. You have to change and adapt, and that’s not really the point of this story. The point of this story is how everything changed so quickly in just a week, but we have not quickly forgotten those men or that team.
Fox Sports Midwest had a video montage following the Game 5 loss to the Giants, to put a wrap on the 2002 season. It was a very fitting and touching tribute, that has stuck with me to this day. The video was filled with shots of Buck and Kile, and the heroic play of the Cardinals in the face of tragedy. The song chosen for the video was “Superman” by Five for Fighting.
To many, including myself, Superman was a pretty fitting term for Buck. And though he was only with the Cardinals a few short years, Kile was the man of steel the pitching staff relied upon to lead them.
It was a week that will not soon be forgotten. Two men that certainly never will be. And a team that battled bravely.
Nothing routine about any of that. Ten years later, we pause to remember just how deeply it touched us.