NOTE: The BND has endeavored to identify an objective list of the top 100 St. Louis Cardinals players of all time, based on statistical formulas developed through sabermetrics. We’ll count down the list daily, player by player, until April 4, the day of the Cardinals’ 2019 home opener. The running list and player bios can be found at bnd.com.
NO. 52: DARRYL KILE
Darryl Kile didn’t carry himself with The Duke’s swagger, instead nitpicking his own perceived failures and humbly deferring any credit that came his way. Cardinals players and coaches nonetheless liked to refer to him as “John Wayne” in deference to his toughness both in character and as a competitor.
Kile pitched in a spring training game days after his father died and once refused to come out of a game even after being struck in the face by a line drive. And he was fiercely proud that, in his 12 seasons in the major leagues, he hadn’t spent a day on the disabled list while averaging 213 innings per year.
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The hard-throwing right-hander out of Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, California, was drafted in 1987, a 30th-round pick of the Houston Astros. He won 15 games in 1993, but still hadn’t been able to put a lasso on that hard-biting curveball of his. It all came together in 1997, his last season in Houston, when he went 19-7 with a 2.57 ERA.
The breakout season landed the 28-year-old a breakout free agent contract with the Colorado Rockies worth three years and $24 million. But that mile-high air in Denver took the bite out of his breaking ball. A year after finishing in the top five of the Cy Young Award balloting, Kile’s ERA had ballooned to 5.20 and he led the National League with 17 losses. The next season he surrendered a league-leading 140 earned runs.
The Rockies made him available and the Cardinals took a chance. They sent Colorado a pair of disappointing prospects for relievers Dave Veres, Luther Hackman, and the final year of that big contract with Kile.
St. Louis manager Tony La Russa couldn’t be sure which Darryl Kile he’d be getting — the 19-game winner or the 17-game loser — but figured that getting him and his curveball away from the mountain air at Coors Field could only help. Plus, he had trusted pitching coach Dave Duncan on his staff. In their nearly 20 years together, going back through the Oakland years to the Chicago White Sox, Duncan had earned a reputation for reclaiming the careers of lost pitchers.
What La Russa didn’t know was if Kile was tough enough to rebound from those two terrible seasons in Colorado.
Over the next two seasons, Kile won 36 games, including a career-high 20 in 2000. He placed fifth in the Cy Young voting, started an All-Star Game and helped kick-start a sustained run of success during which the Cardinals reached the postseason 12 of the next 16 years.
Moreover, he very quickly emerged as one of La Russa’s most-trusted clubhouse leaders and mentor to a cadre of young pitchers that included Matt Morris, Bud Smith and Rick Ankiel.
In the offseason of 2002, Kile had arthroscopic surgery on his throwing shoulder. It was nothing serious, but it cost him some spring training work. Despite LaRussa’s offer of extended rehab time in Florida, Kile successfully worked his way back into the rotation by the second week of the season without going to the DL.
La Russa and Duncan were pleased with the progress he had made on a shortened schedule, but Kile clearly wasn’t. His record slipped to 4-4 after he dished up home runs to Mark McLemore and John Olerud in a 5-0 loss at Seattle on June 12. In “3 Nights in August,” by Buzz Bissinger, La Russa said Kile had become unfocused, quiet and otherwise “off his stride.”
Following a bullpen session that week, La Russa pinned down his troubled pitcher to reassert his trust in him.
“We can’t make it without you,” the manager told him.
Two days after that conversation, on June 18, Kile returned to the mound at Busch Stadium and mowed down the Anaheim Angels through 7 2/3 innings, allowing just one run on six scattered hits. The victory put the Cardinals into sole possession of first place, where they stayed for the remainder of the season.
Just hours after the game, long-time broadcaster Jack Buck succumbed to lung cancer at the age of 77. It was the beginning of the darkest week in Cardinals history.
On June 23, Kile was scheduled to start the second of a three-game series in Chicago. It was a mild and sunny Saturday at Wrigley Field, but the capacity crowd could see that something was amiss. The game was in delay as Cubs manager Don Baylor and members of the umpiring crew appeared to console La Russa near the St. Louis dugout.
Then, at 2:37 p.m., Cubs catcher Joe Girardi stepped to a microphone near home plate.
“I thank you for your patience,” he said with his voice cracking. “We regret to inform you because of a tragedy in the Cardinal family, that the commissioner has canceled the game today … I ask that you say a prayer for the Cardinals family.”
Kile never arrived at the ballpark. He had retired early to his hotel room the night before, having mentioned feeling weakness and some tightness in his chest and shoulder. Team officials, including General Manager Walt Jocketty, found him dead in his bed.
It was a genetic coronary defect that had killed his father at age 44. It took Kile when he was 33.
The postponed game was finally played on Aug. 31. Jason Simontacchi, starting in place of Kile, battled through heavy emotions, but lost to the Cubs, 10-4.
Still, St. Louis, just eight games above .500 at the time of Kile’s death, rallied around his memory. Whether by coincidence or by some spiritual influence, the Cardinals sprinted to the finish with 57 more wins, matching the number worn first by their fallen teammate and then on the black patches sewn onto their jersey sleeves.
When the Cardinals clinched the division championship, Albert Pujols carried Kile’s jersey onto the field to join in the celebration. Back in the clubhouse, it was showered with champagne.
Later, the St. Louis baseball writers established the Darryl Kile Award, which is voted on by the players and presented annually to a teammate who best exemplifies Kile’s example as a “good teammate, a great friend, a fine father and a humble man.”
SEASONS IN ST. LOUIS: 2000-2002
41-24 (.631) with Cardinals | 3.54 ERA in St. Louis | 9.6 WAR
TOP 100 SCORE: 3.0