Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
20. Tommy Pham
For as triumphant as the last twenty-five years have been for the St. Louis Cardinals, there has also been more than its share of tragedy. Three players died while active members of the Cardinals roster–Darryl Kile in 2002, relief pitcher Josh Hancock in 2007, and outfielder Oscar Taveras in 2014. In addition to these three cases, there were the senseless, premature deaths of Mike Coolbaugh and Chris Duncan at far too young of ages.
It is impossible to tell the story of Darryl Kile’s impact with the St. Louis Cardinals without referencing his gut-punching death at the age of 33. Aces of Major League Baseball teams aren’t supposed to die four days after a 7 2/3 inning, one-run gem against the eventual World Series champion Anaheim Angels, and certainly not of a heart attack. When there was a postponement of a nationally televised Saturday afternoon game against the Chicago Cubs because of, as then-Cubs catcher Joe Girardi barely was able to muster before the crowd at Wrigley Field, “a tragedy in the Cardinal family”, many fans believed this was a grandiose tribute to Jack Buck, the long-time Cardinals announcer who had died on the same day as Kile’s last start. In retrospect, this was an irrational hypothesis, but the reality that most fans read slowly crawling on the bottom of their Fox screens was hardly more sensible.
Darryl Kile was a well-liked veteran who took younger pitchers, notably Matt Morris, under his wing. His death was immediately commemorated with a black “DK57” decal at Busch Stadium and was carried over to the new ballpark in 2006, where it remains today. None of the Houston Astros, Colorado Rockies, nor Cardinals have issued the number 57 since his death (Zack Thompson recently became the first Cardinal to be issued the number in so much as a Spring Training game since Kile’s passing). And while the Cardinals’ June 22, 2002 game was postponed, both of Kile’s former teams, each with rosters filled of his old teammates and friends, won on walkoffs.
It is impossible to discuss Darryl Kile without discussing his death. But now, it is time to discuss his life.
Darryl Kile was unceremoniously drafted in the 30th round of the 1987 MLB Amateur Draft by the Houston Astros. When he made it to the big leagues four years later, at 22, Kile pitched six no-hit innings in his debut (while the Astros eventually won the game in extra innings, the no-hitter, as with most good things, was ruined by Curt Schilling). In 1993, at 24, Kile earned his first of three career All-Star Game appearances and no-hit the New York Mets in a September 8 start. But his best season in Houston came in 1997, when he finished the season with a career-best 2.57 ERA to go with a 19-7 record, earning Cy Young votes in the process. Easily the best pitcher on the division champion Astros, Kile started Game 1 of the NLDS and, tasked with the unenviable task of facing Greg Maddux and the Atlanta Braves, he gave the Astros seven innings and allowed just two runs.
The next season, Kile signed with the Colorado Rockies. The offensive inflation brought on by playing in Denver was already a known factor in 1998, so the fact that Kile’s statistics were worse than in the climate-controlled Astrodome was hardly a surprise, but the degree to which Kile’s numbers exploded was impossible to forecast. In his first season in Colorado, Darryl Kile lost an NL-leading 17 games and his ERA nearly doubled, to 5.20. And while his home runs allowed rate increased, it was a relatively tranquil for 1998 1.1 per nine innings–the real culprits were his increasing walk rate and decreasing strikeout rate. In 1999, he was even worse–he allowed 140 earned runs on his way to a 6.61 ERA while walking 5.15 batters per nine innings and barely striking out that many. It would be one thing if Kile’s ERA had jumped into the fours at Coors–that was to be expected. It was starting to look like Kile’s career was falling apart. He needed a second chance.
In November 1999, in a textbook “buy low” transaction, the Cardinals traded for Kile and relief pitchers Dave Veres (also a formerly effective pitcher coming off a down season) and Luther Hackman, sending expendable relievers Manny Aybar and Rich Croushore, minor league infielder Brent Butler, and Jose Jimenez, who pitched mostly poorly in 1999 with a no-hitter sprinkled in for good measure. The Rockies, motivated by a desire to pursue free agent Chuck Finley, wanted to shed Kile’s salary and didn’t care much about the return. In a dark bit of irony, Kile’s spot as a crafty veteran at the top of the Cardinals’ rotation in 2002 was eventually filled by trade deadline acquisition Chuck Finley.
It’s impossible to know if Darryl Kile was rejuvenated by the relatively moderate environment of Busch Stadium, the coaching wizardry of Dave Duncan, being on a contender, the mere presence of a clean slate, or maybe even just plaid old luck, but results turned around for Darryl Kile in a hurry. In 2000, Kile won 20 games and even received a first-place Cy Young vote (which he absolutely should not have received, but nonetheless). In Game 2 of the NLDS, Kile defeated Tom Glavine with a seven-inning, two-run outing to continue an eventual sweep of the Atlanta Braves. In 2001, while he didn’t have the glossy win total (though a 16-11 record was still very good), he was arguably a better pitcher overall, with a 3.09 ERA. While Kile wasn’t a dominant strikeout pitcher by any means, he did rebound to more Houston-like peripheral statistics in conjunction with becoming a fairly typical Dave Duncan reclamation project, with an emphasis on weak contact. In 2002, his strikeouts were down a little bit, but on the whole, Darryl Kile appeared to be more or less the pitcher the Cardinals had come to expect.
Because of his death, Darryl Kile cracked the BBWAA Hall of Fame ballot in 2003 rather than five years after his final season in Major League Baseball, and he received 1.4% of the vote, therefore dropping him off the ballot. This was a fair result–Darryl Kile was a good pitcher, but he was not a Hall of Famer by any means. But that he was a very good pitcher is worth remembering. By JAWS, the popular metric of weighing Hall of Fame candidates by both overall body of work and peak (one which partly inspired the equation I used to calculate this list), Kile was a more worthy Hall of Fame candidate than the 2003 ballot cohort who came the next-closest to enshrinement, fellow former Cardinal Vince Coleman. Had Darryl Kile simply retired after the 2002 season, he would have still made the Hall of Fame ballot. The closer I come to the age of 33, the more acutely aware I am that this is far too young of an age for a person to die, but the small consolation we have is that Darryl Kile did get to live his Major League dream. He got to throw a no-hitter, he got to pitch in an All-Star Game, and he got to pitch in five playoff games.
What a life.