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Cardinals reliever Hancock dies in early-morning crash

April 30th, 2007 12:00 am by R.B. FALLSTROM



ST. LOUIS - The St. Louis Cardinals are mourning a teammate for the second time in five years, and it isn't any easier this time.


Josh Hancock, a relief pitcher who helped the team win the World Series last season, died early Sunday when his sport utility vehicle slammed into the back of a tow truck, bringing back painful memories of Darryl Kile's death in June 2002.


"There's a big hole that's going to be there," St. Louis manager Tony La Russa said. "This is brutal to go through."


The Cardinals postponed their home game Sunday night against the Chicago Cubs. La Russa informed Hancock's family of the accident early Sunday.


"What words can you give somebody in a situation like this?" Cubs manager Lou Piniella said.


Police said the 29-year-old Hancock was alone in his 2007 Ford Explorer when the SUV struck the rear of a flatbed tow truck at 12:35 a.m. The tow truck was in the left lane with its lights flashing while assisting another car that had crashed, Police Chief Joe Mokwa said.


Hancock died upon impact, Mokwa said. The driver of the tow truck, whose name was not released by police, was in the truck at the time of the crash but was not injured. Mokwa said the truck driver saw Hancock's SUV swerve just before it hit the tow truck.


Mokwa said it appeared Hancock was driving at or just above the speed limit, and there were no alcohol containers in his vehicle.


"We may never know what occurred," Mokwa said. "It appears that he just merely didn't see the tow truck."


The medical examiner's office said an autopsy had been scheduled. Services were planned for Thursday in Tupelo, Miss., where Hancock's family lives. Hancock was single.


"All of baseball today mourns the tragic and untimely death of St. Louis pitcher Josh Hancock," baseball commissioner Bud Selig said. "He was a fine young pitcher who played an important role on last year's World Series championship team."


The Cardinals will wear patches with Hancock's No. 32 on their sleeves for the rest of the season. The team also planned a memorial for the bullpen, which already features a tribute to Kile, found dead in his hotel room in Chicago. The 33-year-old pitcher died of a coronary artery blockage.


General manager Walt Jocketty said the Cardinals, who are off Thursday, plan to charter a plane to the funeral. The team begins a three-game series in Milwaukee tonight and returns to St. Louis on Friday.


"Obviously, this is very difficult for all of us, especially those of us who were here five years ago when we lost Darryl Kile," said Jocketty, his eyes red. "There's no way we could have played tonight's game."


La Russa met with players shortly before a news conference Sunday afternoon to provide details of the accident and share memories. Late in the afternoon, two Cardinals jogged together in the outfield in a nearly empty Busch Stadium.


"This has obviously been a very difficult time," St. Louis pitcher Braden Looper said. "Josh was a great teammate and a great friend to everybody, and he was a key part of our success."


News of Hancock's death began to circulate around the majors Sunday morning. Seattle Mariners pitcher Jeff Weaver, who won the World Series clincher for St. Louis in October, got a call from Cardinals reliever Randy Flores. "I never really had a phone call like that before. It's kind of mind-boggling. Just a few days ago I had talked to him on the phone, touching base again because we were pretty good friends at the time," Weaver said. "We spent a lot of time together. It was just hard to believe."


Weaver said Hancock called him three or four days ago just to chat, and asked if Weaver had received his World Series ring yet. "He was quiet, kind of soft-spoken, but definitely a good guy," said Brewers pitcher Jeff Suppan, the NL championship series MVP last year. "It's a sad day. Your feelings go out toward his family and his teammates now. That's tough to get through."


Hancock was remembered at ballparks around the country. The Cleveland Indians observed a moment of silence before their game against the Baltimore Orioles, with Hancock's picture displayed on a giant scoreboard. There also was a moment of silence for Hancock at Yankee Stadium.


"It's terrible, another terrible event," said Rockies manager Clint Hurdle, who was the Colorado hitting coach when Kile was a part of the Rockies' staff in 1998 and 1999. "The young man had done so well last fall and had a promising career. It's just terrible." Hancock, who pitched three innings of relief in Saturday's 8-1 loss to the Cubs, played for four major league clubs. He went 3-3 with a 4.09 ERA in 62 regular-season appearances for the Cardinals last season and pitched in three postseason games. He was 0-1 with a 3.55 ERA in eight games this season.


La Russa said Hancock's final outing was typical of a reliever whose role frequently called for mop-up work. "We didn't get embarrassed because of him, and that was said several times," La Russa said. Three days before his death, the Cardinals got a scare that some teammates said reminded them of Kile's death - Hancock overslept and showed up late for a day game in St. Louis. Hancock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he thought the starting time was later and didn't get up until the "20th call" from anxious teammates. "We were all a little nervous," closer Jason Isringhausen said earlier this week. "We don't care if you're late. That happens. We want to know that you're OK." Hancock made his offseason home in St. Louis. He was the only player to attend the premiere of a DVD documenting the Cardinals' unlikely run to their 10th World Series championship after winning only 83 regular-season games. Hancock joined the Cardinals in spring training last season after the Cincinnati Reds released him for violating a weight clause in his contract. He had been a starter the previous year with Cincinnati, but missed 133 games because of groin and elbow injuries. He also pitched for Boston and Philadelphia. The Reds completed a three-game series in St. Louis on Thursday, and former teammates were shaken by the news. "It's kind of a little turn in your gut," pitcher Matt Belisle said. "It's one of those reality checks that you never know when your time is." Relief pitcher Todd Coffey said, "It's shocking. I can't even put it in words how I feel." In 1997, Hancock helped Auburn reach the College World Series.


"Josh was a part of arguably the best pitching staff and arguably the best team ever to play at Auburn," said Tigers coach Tom Slater, an assistant at the school when Hancock played there.

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