Remembering Darryl Kile 10 years later

ST. LOUIS — Mike Matheny leans against a rail near a dugout at Busch Stadium, a decade removed from the loss of a friend. Darryl Kile’s legacy lives through the memory of the former catcher and other members of the 2002 St. Louis Cardinals. But on this recent Saturday morning, the first-year manager is reminded how the former pitcher’s death hurts despite the gifts Kile left behind.

Matheny is asked about lessons from that afternoon on June 22 in Chicago, where Kile was found dead in his 11th-floor room at the Westin Michigan Avenue. The former pitcher suffered a heart attack in his sleep before the Cardinals were scheduled to play the Chicago Cubs. He was 33.

Matheny pauses. There’s no easy response. A teammate who made the world better with his passion for life left too soon.

“There’s a long answer to that question,” Matheny says, his voice trailing off.

Nothing is simple when revisiting one of the darkest moments in Cardinals history. Kile’s death came four days after the passing of beloved announcer Jack Buck, and St. Louis’ baseball community mourned the Garden Grove, Calif., native at the same time it lost its voice.

But to those in the clubhouse, “DK” was kind and compassionate, a loyal husband to wife, Flynn, and a devoted father of three. He was known as a 12th-year veteran who placed others’ interests above his own.

That selflessness has endured. Time has placed distance between Kile, the man, and the memory he has become. The transition is seen on the recent morning with Matheny living another pregame routine seven months into his new role. He shifts a bat between his fingers. He looks toward an empty outfield through dark visors.

Matheny’s position has changed, but Kile’s humility has stayed with him. It’s the legacy that remains 10 years after then-Cubs catcher Joe Girardi announced through tears to the Wrigley Field crowd that baseball would not be played that afternoon.

“I ask that you say a prayer for the St. Louis Cardinals family,” Girardi said then.

The anniversary of that tragic day means different things to Kile’s former teammates. To some, it’s a reason to reflect. For others, the pain still is raw.

“DK” taught them many life lessons. But the greatest one of all is perhaps this: It’s a gift to be treasured.

“For a lot of us on that team, it was something that was extremely difficult,” Matheny says. “That’s life.”

***

Kile would thrive in St. Louis. That was the prediction Jim Leyland — Kile’s manager during his last of two seasons with the Colorado Rockies — developed after the right-hander was traded to the Cardinals in November 1999.
 
Leyland’s outlook was wise, because Kile experienced a career renaissance under pitching coach Dave Duncan. The Houston Astros selected him in the 30th round of the 1987 Major League Baseball amateur draft, and he earned a 71-65 regular-season record with a 3.79 ERA from 1991 to ’97 with the club. But his pitches had less pop in the thin air in Denver, where he posted a 21-30 mark with a 5.84 ERA.

Kile’s turnaround with the Cardinals was swift. He went 20-9 with a 3.91 ERA in his first regular season with the team. He followed that effort with a 16-11 record with a 3.09 ERA during the 2001 regular season.

Kile’s recovery led to anticipation for the 2002 campaign. He was part of a group of six starters on the rotation who won 11 or more games in at least one of the past two seasons. The 36 victories he earned over the past two campaigns were the most for his career — surpassing the 32 he produced from 1997 to 1998.

Through it all, he kept his sense of humor. He was known for his loose personality — “He made everybody feel good about themselves,” says Cardinals general manager John Mozeliak, the team’s director of baseball operations in 2002 — and it helped him manage the major-league grind.
 
“I’ve always been a little bit goofy,” Kile told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 2000. “You’ve got to have that side or the stress and pressure of having to compete here can break you down.”

The approach worked throughout much of Kile’s time with the Cardinals, and his 2002 season began with potential. He recovered from a 1-3 start to win four of his next five decisions. After his last appearance — a one-run, five-strikeout outing in 7 2/3 innings during a victory over the Anaheim Angels on June 18 — he walked off the field at Busch Stadium to applause from what was left of the 39,386 in attendance.

“Darryl Kile should receive a nice hand,” Joe Buck said on the FOX Sports Midwest broadcast that night. “Another strong start.”

However, that would be the last glimpse St. Louis would receive of the 6-foot-5, 185-pound hurler before a somber weekend. Four days later, hotel staff members forced their way into Kile’s room at about 12:30 p.m. local time. The pitcher lay lifeless in bed with no signs of struggle. About four miles to the north, the Cardinals took batting practice at Wrigley Field.

The shocking discovery came a little less than nine years after Kile’s father, David, died of a heart attack at age 44. Word spread throughout the venerable ballpark on West Addison Street: “DK” was gone.

Teammates had lost an inspiration.

“I don’t think there were lessons to be learned in the sense of ‘What could we have done differently?'” says Mozeliak, who was in St. Louis attending his sister’s wedding when he learned of Kile’s death. “In terms of dealing with player losses, you hope you’ll never have to experience it. Unfortunately, we did.”

***

Kile taught former pitcher Andy Benes that life is delicate. On a recent Tuesday afternoon, Benes settles into a chair at a suburban St. Louis coffee shop and speaks about how his former teammate inspired him to end a 14-year career by making a memory.

Benes, a right-hander, grew up in the game by pitching against Kile. The two met as opponents during Kile’s time in Houston when Benes spent the early part of his career with the San Diego Padres.

They played their first season together as part of the Cardinals’ staff in 2000. (Benes had spent the 1996 and ’97 seasons with St. Louis before signing with the Arizona Diamondbacks as a free agent.) With time, the two veterans formed a bond.
   
“Unfortunately, we’re all going to die at some point,” says Benes, who had a 52-37 record with a 4.25 ERA in five regular seasons with the Cardinals. “Life is very fragile. … I know for me, I took for granted that I would be playing for a while. There’s always tomorrow. But Darryl was the kind of guy who didn’t look toward tomorrow. He was looking at today and enjoying today for what it was.”

That focus was part of Kile’s personality as a competitor. He was someone who kept chemistry light off the field but approached the mound with intensity. The duality was a large reason why “DK” became a trusted winner — he went 41-24 with a 3.54 ERA in two-plus seasons with St. Louis.
 
Kile never missed a chance to improve his craft either. Benes witnessed Kile fidget with the ball even when he was away from the mound. Kile turned the seams in his hands, always searching for the perfect feel.

There were other moments like that as well. Sometimes, Benes played catch with Kile in the outfield. Benes anticipated a smooth toss — only to receive a breaking ball that smacked him in the shin.
 
“It was always in a fun spirit,” Benes says, smiling.

While heartbreaking, Kile’s death gave Benes motivation to finish his career strong. Benes learned of Kile’s death when on a rehab assignment with Triple-A Memphis after problems with an arthritic right knee.

Coincidentally, Benes wore No. 57 — Kile’s number — during his time in Tennessee. (The number choice stunned Benes when he approached his clubhouse stall for the first time in early June.) Benes was in the last year of his contract, so he knew he would help fill Kile’s spot in the rotation in the season’s second half.

After shock became resolve, Benes decided to honor Kile with his play when he rejoined the Cardinals that July. Calm in his purpose, he went 5-2 in the regular season and made two postseason starts after his return.  

“It gave me a lot of peace,” Benes says. “I thought, ‘You know what, I’m doing it for my buddy. I’m going to finish out the season, and then my career is going to be over. And I’m good with that, because I am ready to be.’

“There wasn’t a time when I went out there that I wasn’t thinking about that.”

***

Kile taught former pitcher Woody Williams that life is fleeting. Williams admired Kile because he was always around. No, Kile’s drive wasn’t contained to nine innings: He talked strategy with those who were curious; he made bets at batting practice even if he knew he would lose the wager.

Kile kept pushing to improve others. Williams thought Kile’s influence would continue for years to come. After all, baseball is a lifestyle grounded in routine. Williams never imagined a daily rhythm made better by Kile would change.

“Just cherish every moment and be thankful for what you have,” says Williams, who went 45-22 with a 3.53 ERA in four regular seasons in St. Louis. “It’s sad it takes something like this to put things in perspective for a lot of people. He’s here one day in good health, and the next day he’s not. You never know when your time is up.”

Before Kile left, though, Williams remembers his former teammate had a career goal: He wanted to appear on ESPN Classic. To Kile, the channel was the height of achievement: You had made it if you were shown among some of the greatest feats in sports throughout the past century.

It was typical Kile. He was confident, yet never satisfied. He wanted to be remembered.

Kile accomplished many things during an 11-plus year major-league career that produced a 133-119 regular-season record with a 4.12 ERA. But his proudest moment came in September 1993, when he threw a no-hitter for the Astros against the New York Mets in Houston.

That night, a crowd of 15,684 at the Astrodome roared when Kile retired Todd Hundley, Tito Navarro and Chico Walker to clinch his nine-strikeout, one-walk performance. Kile pumped his right fist and lifted both arms above his head when the excitement washed over him.  

“The only thing I can think of that would be more exciting would be to win the seventh game of the World Series,” Kile told the Associated Press then.  

Eventually, Williams saw Kile receive his wish. In July 2002, nine days after Kile’s passing, ESPN Classic aired the pitcher’s no-hitter against the Mets.

To Williams, though, Kile had made it long before.

“I always try to live my life as good as I can in helping others,” Williams says. “But you never know who you’re going to touch. I’m sure if Darryl were alive today, and he heard all the things people were saying about him by everyone he meant something to or had a special place in their heart, he would be shocked. He didn’t do it to count numbers. He did it out of the goodness of his heart.”

***

Kile taught Matheny that life is precious. The manager leans back in a chair in his office on a recent Sunday morning, signs of another day’s work around him. A red Cardinals cap is placed on the desk to his right. Game notes and a scratched lineup card sit in front of him. A television beams highlights from the previous night’s action across the way.

Matheny’s white No. 22 jersey hangs on a hook on a restroom door to his left. Soon he will walk into the Cardinals dugout wearing that uniform again. Life will continue, as it does for us all until we reach our end. Kile taught Matheny and others close to him legacies live in the people left behind.

“Just the way he went about treating his family and his wife and treating the guys around here,” Matheny says when asked about Kile’s greatest lesson. “He made a lasting impact on everybody who played with him.”

Matheny and others who mourned June 22, 2002, still feel that connection. Matheny refused to play the day after the pitcher’s passing, on what would have been Kile’s time to throw. He told then-manager Tony La Russa that if Kile was absent from the mound, he wasn’t catching.

Instead, Matheny watched the eventual Cubs’ victory wearing Kile’s No. 57 on his arm and cap. He remained out of the lineup until four days after the tragedy.

Ten years later, Kile’s legacy continues to teach. There’s still reason to reflect. There’s still reason to feel pain.

But there’s also reason to treasure the gifts “DK” left behind. That’s why his memory lives.

“That’s the weird thing about death — there’s no right or wrong way to mourn,” says former Cardinals pitcher Jason Simontacchi, who threw in Kile’s place at Wrigley Field. “You do what you do and try to plug through it. … Even the leaders on the team — Matheny, (outfielder) Jimmy (Edmonds) — it was like, ‘What do you say?’ No one has been through that. No one has had that happen before. It was like, ‘How do you react? How do you mourn and get through it?’

“That was the great thing about baseball, though. You could go 0-for-5 with four punchouts and make the game-losing error. But you show up the next day, and the slate’s clean again, and you better keep your head in the game and forget about what happened yesterday and move on. That’s kind of what the game did — we had that four, five, six hours at the ballpark where we had to stay focused on our job. That helped us get through it.”