This has been an awful week to be a Cardinals fan.
Last Wednesday, longtime Cardinals broadcaster Jack Buck passed away at the age of 77. While one never wants to see anyone die, I think that when someone older passes away after fighting horrible diseases, it isn't that much of a shock.
Then came the news, Saturday afternoon, that pitcher Darryl Kile had been found dead in a Chicago hotel room.
The differences in the two men's deaths could not be more striking. Buck had been a regional icon and national figure for much of his adult life. Towards the end of it, he had been quite ill, and while unpleasant to contemplate, his death was hardly unexpected. His children were all adults, and his work was complete. While it was terribly sad that Buck passed away, we are accustomed to the idea that old age eventually takes its toll on the human animal, and that knowledge softens the blow.
With Kile, I thought that the text under a front-page picture at ESPN.com captured the tragedy of his passing quite eloquently: "Darryl Kile, 33, was the father of three children." Unlike Buck, Kile never got to see his kids grow up. Given his skills and his team, it is quite possible that he could have reached his profession's pinnacle with a World Series victory.
At the time Jack Buck passed away, the best days of his life were behind him. At the time Darryl Kile passed away, the best days of his life should have been yet to come.
I grew up in Urbana, Ill., where the rivalry between Cardinals' fans and Cubs fans was fierce, but friendly. It was most definitely a National League town, with probably more Cubs fans than Cardinals fans, and very few White Sox fans. My father, having grown up in Rochester, N.Y., home of the Red Wings–then the Cardinals' Triple-A affiliate–had no trouble choosing which team to support when he ended up working in Central Illinois. Luckily for me, this meant enjoying the exploits of Bob Gibson, Lou Brock, Ozzie Smith, Keith Hernandez, Ted Simmons, Bruce Sutter (after the trade from the Cubs), etc., as opposed to coping with a bunch of losing teams. Even when the Cardinals were bad–and they were definitely bad during much of the 1970s–they still had Jack Buck.
I am a teacher by trade. One of my mentors was Brian Harvey, a marvelous computer science teacher at UC Berkeley, He once told me, "I can't force the students to like programming. What I can do is tell them why I love it, be enthusiastic, and hope some of that rubs off on them." I think that is what Buck did so well. He clearly enjoyed his environment and his work, and any member of the audience could appreciate that.
Jack Buck was a teacher, plying his trade almost every day during the summer. Baseball, of course, is not a subject in the traditional sense. (Let's face it, we are unlikely to see EqA or OPS on an AP test any time soon.) But baseball is something that engenders interest in millions of people. Jack Buck was able to teach what he loved to a wide audience that gobbled up his every word. Isn't that the dream of every educator?
Some of my favorite Jack Buck memories include:
In 1989, the Cubs edged the Cardinals for the NL East crown. I was at a Cubs/Cardinals game in St. Louis during the last week of the season, after the Cubs had clinched. Buck's voice came through the PA system before the game, asking Cardinals fans to give a standing ovation to the Cubs for their achievement. The Cubs came out of the dugout and got applause from the fans of their "bitter" rivals.
This, to me, is why the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry is better than any other. Somehow, the fact that it is just a game–as intense as it may be–was never lost on Buck. I never experienced the bitterness that I associate with some of the other great sports rivalries.
- Buck's call of Ozzie Smith's 1985 NLCS home run against the Dodgers is often cited as an exemplar of his work. ESPN.com recently provided a chance to listen to Buck calling Smith's home run. While the "Go crazy!" part of that excerpt remains the most famous, the part I really enjoyed was just prior to the home-run call. Buck was describing the game, recalling the Cardinals' missed scoring opportunities, and doing it seamlessly.
- In 1977, the Cardinals went through a ten-game losing streak. Their main three starters were Bob Forsch, John Denny, and Eric Rasmussen. I think the game in which they broke the losing streak was pitched by Denny, and it was also the game in which Buck started his trademark "That's a winner!" At that time, identifying something other than a loss required some form of precise, clear statement. There was a legitimate fear that the Cardinals could have a lead after nine innings and blow it.
- I remember a game the Cardinals played in San Francisco in which they led 8-1 going into the ninth inning. The Giants added baserunner after baserunner. Buck would calmly say, "It's not time to worry yet, folks" at each step of the way. When the Giants finally got the tying run to the plate (I think it was Jeffrey Leonard. Weren't all the Giants' players Jeffrey Leonard back then?), Buck said, "OK, now it's time to worry." The Giants won 9-8.
- During some game–I have no recollection of the opponent or the result–Buck kept talking about "Gacks and Lombagos." To this day, I have no idea what he meant, but I enjoyed listening to the Gacks play the Lombagos that evening. Part of what made Buck fun was that he could be goofy when the mood struck him.
- One year, on the last day of the season, the Cardinals went into extra innings in a game that was meaningless in the standings. Jack Buck kept saying that he hoped the game would go on forever. What else, after all, was there to do?
These days, I enjoy listening to Cardinals games over the Internet. After the post-game shows, a Cardinals broadcaster tapes a recording to be played the following day, including a brief review of the game. Jack Buck simply did not make mistakes. Every time, it seemed, he got every word right, spot on, first take.
While I have grown to like Vin Scully over time, I always liked Jack Buck better because of how he would get excited. Scully, for me, is terrific at painting a picture, but his voice doesn't necessarily reflect the excitement of events as they occur. When Harry Caray went to the Cubs and many of his games sounded like beerfests (even before his unfortunate stroke), Jack Buck always came across in a down-to-earth manner. I liked Caray, and I like Scully, but Jack Buck was who I wanted to hear.
Jack Buck was incredibly skilled at his profession. He was fair in assessing games and respectful of the opposing players and umpires. Perhaps he was be to baseball announcers as Bill Cosby is to comedians. He carried himself with dignity, he always found a way to capture and keep your attention, and he was a brilliant storyteller.
What Darryl Kile shared with Jack Buck was the esteem of the people around him. In the wake of his passing, all the testaments from other players indicate a great level of respect for him as a person. Many pitchers who played with Kile have stated that he helped them in their careers. Current and former teammates have paid tribute in the press.
It now seems that Kile's death was due to narrowing of the arteries near his heart. His father died of a heart attack in his mid-forties, so perhaps it was hereditary. It is nonetheless tragic and scary.
I think that when any professional athlete dies, it causes one to reflect upon one's own life. Athletes are generally in exceptional physical condition. They also have celebrity status which somehow permits us to feel like we know them more than we actually do. When someone of that physical stature and fame dies suddenly, it serves as a reminder of one's own mortality.
When that person has three kids, two of whom will barely know their father and one of whom won't, it is downright depressing. Kile's widow will now have to cope with the loss and move on.
Gary Huckabay wrote recently about a horrible accident after which he felt lucky to be alive. Darryl Kile's passing should reinforce the point, to serve notice to all of us to be grateful for what we have and to enjoy it while we have it.
Josh Paley (37) has a wife, Suzanne (35) and three kids, Allison (5), Karen (3), and Trevor (7 months).
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