As Mike Matheny and Darryl Kile rode to the airport for a Chicago flight, they talked about life, and they talked about death.
Earlier that 2002 day, they attended the memorial service for Jack Buck, the legendary radio voice of their team, the St. Louis Cardinals.
“Whenever you’re faced with the fragile nature of life, you just kind of have those conversations,” said Matheny, the manager of the Kansas City Royals, by phone this past week. “And I’ll never forget, I was just talking about the impact that Mr. Jack Buck had on so many different people and how in this game we have that opportunity. …
“It just stuck out in my mind that we were having a conversation about life. Baseball players normally don’t slow down enough to talk about stuff like that. But we did. And that’s why it’s stuck out, because who would have ever thought during that conversation that one of us would not be making that trip back.”
It’s been 20 years. Two decades since June of 2002, when the pitcher Kile unexpectedly died in his Chicago hotel room on June 22, four days after Buck passed. The loss of Buck was anticipated but still gut-wrenching; the loss of Kile was a sucker punch to the gut — a pain from which many haven’t fully recovered.
Buck was 77. Kile was 33. Both were husbands and fathers. For St. Louis fans, there was simultaneous mourning — a gripping grief and disbelief. It was one of those times where you remember where you were when you heard.
Buck’s voice from the ballpark was this conduit of innocence. Over the KMOX airwaves, he connected the Cardinals to the fans and families. Buck himself felt like family. He was the orator of history, the narrator of lullabies.
And Kile was an active Cardinal, the lifeblood of the pitching staff. In his third season for St. Louis, he had been an All-Star, a 20-game winner and partly responsible for the resuscitation of franchise excellence. See, from 1988-1999, the Cardinals made the playoffs just once, but they made the playoffs in all three seasons Kile pitched for the club (2000-2002).
The third postseason appearance was an homage to No. 57 himself — the Cards took over first place the day before Buck died, and after they lost Kile, they won 57 games en route to October. St. Louis won the National League Division Series against Arizona, but lost the pennant to San Francisco.
“When we got to the field that year, it was like — we’re playing this one for Darryl,” said 2002 closer Jason Isringhausen by phone this past week. “This is the way Darryl would want us to play. Because I don’t think Darryl ever missed a start, to be honest with you. So it was just a different vibe, something that we’re playing for, something extra.”