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Playing In Pain Six weeks after the death of team leader Darryl Kile, Matt Morris and the Cardinals are chasing a division title with heavy hearts

Aug. 12, 2002
Aug. 12, 2002

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Aug. 12, 2002

College Football 2002

Playing In Pain Six weeks after the death of team leader Darryl Kile, Matt Morris and the Cardinals are chasing a division title with heavy hearts

The jersey, uniform pants, undershirt and warmup jacket of
deceased St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile are still in
his locker in the home clubhouse at Busch Stadium. His polished
red spikes are still there too. The locker is as he left it
before his death on June 22, except for some personal effects
that were sent home to his widow, Flynn, and three children, and
a memorial plaque affixed to the top of it that reads DARRYL
KILE, 1968-2002, HUSBAND, FATHER, TEAMMATE AND FRIEND.

This is an article from the Aug. 12, 2002 issue Original Layout

Reminders of Kile's passing are never far from the Cardinals, be
they his preserved locker, the black circles reading DK 57 sewn
on their right uniform sleeves or the 57 written in indelible
marker on their caps. Pitcher Matt Morris, for whom Kile was a
mentor over the past three seasons, telephones Flynn every week
or so. "I wind up sobbing, and then she winds up sobbing," Morris
said last Saturday, after the Braves beat him 6-1 in Atlanta, "so
I'm not sure how much help I am. But sometimes we all need a
shoulder to cry on. I know I do.

"Lately I've been trying to think about all the good stuff, some
of the fun times. The thoughts always pop up at weird times.
Anytime. Anyplace. During a game. When you go to lunch before a
night game and he's not there. When you go to dinner after a day
game. Hanging out in the [hotel] room. It's everywhere. There's a
missing piece right now, and you can feel it."

Saturday's defeat, too, lingered as yet another reminder of
Kile's passing. It wasn't just that Morris, on a day when he
brought an electric fastball and a sharp curveball to the mound,
had failed to follow his teacher's wisdom when he grooved two
first-pitch fastballs to Chipper Jones, who crushed both for
two-run home runs. "Meatballs," Morris called the pitches. "DK
always told me that the days you feel good physically are the
days you have to concentrate the hardest. He said those are the
days you have a chance to do something special. I didn't do
that." More ominously, the defeat also brought Kile to mind
because it underscored how a depleted St. Louis rotation has
placed a greater burden on Morris and jeopardized the team's grip
on first place in the National League Central, a standing it has
maintained since Kile won his final start, on June 18.

With a 2-1 loss on Sunday night the Cardinals fell to 1-5 against
Atlanta this season and matched their season-worst losing streak
of five games as they tried to stay ahead of the Cincinnati Reds
(two games out) and the Houston Astros (three games back). At
week's end St. Louis was 19-18 since Kile's death; while the
Cards had maintained their lead over the Reds, the Astros, 25-12
over that span, had pulled six games closer.

"This club is so, so special," says manager Tony La Russa. "I
really hope that after all they've been through, there's that
prize at the end of the year."

To get to October the Cardinals are putting their faith in a
favorable schedule and a return to health of pitcher Woody
Williams. St. Louis was scheduled to play only 16 of its final 52
games against teams with a winning record through Sunday--with
just seven of those games on the road (three in Cincinnati and
four in Houston). The Cardinals finish the season with a 10-game
home stand. Williams, who is expected to return this month from a
strained muscle in his side, is 13-4 in 23 starts for St. Louis
since he was acquired from the San Diego Padres last August for
outfielder Ray Lankford. In his six big league seasons Williams
is 15-8 in September and October. "Woody is huge for us," La
Russa says.

La Russa has juggled a National League-high 13 starting pitchers
this season, an improvisation so frenetic that through Sunday,
only Morris (12-7, 3.44) had thrown more innings for the
Cardinals than Kile's 84 2/3. Of the team's six top starters
entering the spring, only Morris remained in the rotation last
week. Williams, Garrett Stephenson (hamstring surgery) and Rick
Ankiel (left elbow tendinitis) were out with injuries, and an
ineffective Bud Smith was shipped to the Philadelphia Phillies in
the July 29 trade for third baseman Scott Rolen.

Lefthander Chuck Finley, 39, won two of his first three starts
after arriving in a July 19 trade with the Cleveland Indians, but
the rest of the rotation was suspect, particularly without the
reliable Kile, who averaged 15 wins and 226 innings from 1996
through 2001 with Houston, the Colorado Rockies and St. Louis.
Gimpy-kneed Andy Benes, 34, who nearly retired in April, was a
wobbly stopgap measure, and rookies Travis Smith and Jason
Simontacchi struggled. Smith was optioned to Triple A Memphis
after 10 starts and a 7.17 ERA. Simontacchi, a former Italian
Olympian, slumped badly after a surprising 7-1 start. Including
an 11-5 pasting last Friday in Atlanta, he was 0-2 with an 8.22
ERA in five starts since the All-Star break.

Stephenson, like Williams, could return to the rotation by
mid-August. Morris has resisted the notion that he must carry the
staff in the meantime. "It's been the same question since DK
passed away," Morris says. "I'm just trying to go out there and
get outs. What does putting more pressure on yourself mean? That
you're trying to win? I try to do that anyway."

The Cards were 11-5 in Morris's starts before Kile's death. They
were 4-4 in his starts since that dreadful day in Chicago, which
came only four days after the death of beloved broadcaster Jack
Buck, 77. The players learned about Kile's death from La Russa,
who broke the news to them in the visiting clubhouse at Wrigley
Field about 30 minutes before they were scheduled to play the
Cubs. At the time La Russa knew only that Kile had been found
dead in his hotel room. (An autopsy later determined that he died
from acute hardening of the arteries around his heart.) After
telling the players, the shaken manager retreated to his tiny
office. Then Cubs team president Andy MacPhail suddenly walked
in.

"What are we going to do about the game?" MacPhail asked. "It's a
national TV game. There are a lot of people in the stands."

"Andy," La Russa said, "my team is in no condition to play. Go
look at them."

MacPhail walked down the short hallway into the clubhouse, where
players were weeping and shaking their heads in disbelief.
MacPhail turned around and reentered La Russa's office. "You're
right," he said. "There's no way."

Among the most shaken players was Morris, who blossomed into a
22-game winner last year with the help of Kile, becoming the
franchise's biggest winner since Bob Gibson. In the week
following Kile's death a mournful Morris lost 20 pounds. "After
that you forget about all the little things--like eating," says
Morris, who has since regained the weight.

Kile was not only a reliable pitcher but also a respected
teammate who regularly counseled young players. "He wasn't the
kind of leader who spoke up just to hear the sound of his voice,"
outfielder Albert Pujols says. "He was a quiet leader who would
take players aside and help them. I remember this year in
Seattle, I made a mistake in the outfield. He came up to me and
said, 'Don't worry about it. That was a tough line drive. Next
time you'll do it.'"

St. Louis lost five of seven games immediately after Kile's
death. "Those first games were really tough," first baseman Tino
Martinez says. "We were going through the motions. We came in,
put on our uniforms, went out and played, and whatever happened,
happened. We didn't really care. But then we hit a certain point
where we had to find a way to have fun playing baseball again."

On July 28 the Cardinals scored six runs in the ninth inning to
stun the Cubs 10-9. "That was the first time I saw them really
enjoy themselves again," La Russa says. The next day, while
flying to Florida, many of them erupted with shouts of joy upon
hearing that St. Louis had obtained Rolen, the All-Star third
baseman who was bent on leaving Philadelphia as a free agent
after the season. Cardinals general manager Walt Jocketty,
burnishing his reputation as a shrewd trader, made the deal
without disturbing the core of the team or yielding a premium
prospect. In addition to Bud Smith, a slight and soft-tossing
lefty, he gave up Placido Polanco, a utility player with little
power, and Mike Timlin, a journeyman reliever.

Since 1997 Jocketty has traded for Mark McGwire, Edgar Renteria,
Kile, Fernando Vina, Jim Edmonds, Will Clark, Williams and Rolen
without giving up a frontline player. (The best of the departed
bunch are Anaheim Angels second baseman Adam Kennedy and Rockies
closer Jose Jimenez.) McGwire, Renteria, Kile, Vina and Edmonds
all signed contract extensions to stay in St. Louis after their
trades, largely because of the team's famed fan support and its
pronounced commitment to staying competitive. The Cardinals
figure Rolen will want to stay too.

"Let the fans in St. Louis do their magic," Jocketty says,
alluding to the enormous ovations they gave McGwire upon his
arrival in 1997. Forgoing free agency, McGwire signed six weeks
after his trade from the Oakland A's.

Rolen doesn't appear to be a tough sell. As a child he watched
Cardinals games from the upper deck of Busch Stadium with his
parents, who drove three hours from their home in Jasper, Ind.
"The people there are so excited, I bet they could make it in two
hours now," Rolen says. His parents, who now live in Bradenton,
Fla., drove a mobile home to the weekend series in Atlanta and
planned to continue to St. Louis to see his home debut on
Tuesday.

"Even if I had finished out the year in Philadelphia, this would
have been first or second on my list," Rolen says of St. Louis.
"I don't think there's a better place to play. The support is
great and they're committed to winning, and that's what I'm
looking for. If they want to talk to me about a contract, I'm
more than willing to listen."

Rolen banged out four hits in his first eight at bats with the
Cardinals, then fell into an 0-for-15 funk. "Nobody's putting any
extra pressure on me," he says. "I know that. But it's human
nature to put a little pressure on yourself to show everybody
with a new team what you can do. I'm guilty of that."

St. Louis wore the look of a weary team last week. Sunday's game
ended a 23-day span in which the Cardinals had played only five
games at home. In one stretch of their losing streak they did not
have a lead for 38 consecutive innings. Before Saturday's loss
several St. Louis players sniped at one another about the choice
of music playing on the clubhouse stereo before somebody snapped
it off.

A healthy pitcher or two--particularly the battle-tested
Williams--or an outside acquisition such as the Kansas City
Royals' Paul Byrd would be the shot in the arm that the Cardinals
need, but as far as Morris is concerned, no one can fill Kile's
shoes.

"You can't take the place of somebody like that," Morris says.
"We can make a trade, and somebody could come in here and go
undefeated. And you know what? He still won't replace Darryl
Kile."

Read more baseball from Tom Verducci every Tuesday in his
exclusive online column at cnnsi.com/baseball.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY BOB ROSATO BURDENED Morris, Kile's protege, has had to shoulder not only his grief but also the pressure of carrying the staff.COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT ROVAK UNTOUCHABLE Kile's locker at Busch Stadium remains much as he left it, save for the plaque that hangs above it.COLOR PHOTO: TOM DIPACE SHUFFLING THE CARDS Jocketty, as usual, improved his hand with the July acquisitions of Finley (above), who started off strong, and Rolen, who did not.COLOR PHOTO: AL TIELEMANS (LEFT) [See caption above]COLOR PHOTO: BILL GREENBLATT/UPI (LEFT) MEMENTO As Morris (with Kannon Kile, 5) and the Cards go about their work, their teammate's memory is always close at hand. COLOR PHOTO: BOB ROSATO [See caption above]
Of the Cardinals' six top starting pitchers entering the spring,
only Morris remains in the rotation.
After Kile's death, says Martinez, the Cards "hit a point where
we had to find a way to have fun playing baseball again."