Cardinals Reliever Josh Hancock Killed In SUV Crash

Monday, April 30th 2007, 7:22 am

By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Three days earlier, St. Louis Cardinals teammates left anxious messages on Josh Hancock's cell phone and watched the clubhouse door as game-time approached and their middle reliever remained absent. No reason to worry, Hancock had simply overslept.

On Sunday, there was no relief. Instead, for the second time in five years, the Cardinals mourned the loss of a teammate.

Hancock, a key member of the bullpen on St. Louis' World Series championship team last fall, was killed early Sunday when his sport utility vehicle slammed into a tow truck parked on a highway to assist a motorist. The accident brought back painful memories of Darryl Kile's death in 2002.

``There's a big hole that's going to be there,'' 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.

``What words can you give somebody in a situation like this?'' Cubs manager Lou Piniella said. ``It's a terrible, terrible thing that happened.''

Hancock, 29, 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 behind a vehicle that had struck the median, and the driver said the emergency lights were flashing at the time of impact, 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 and was not injured. Mokwa said the truck driver thought Hancock's SUV swerved 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 scheduled an autopsy while police surveyed the accident scene while gathering details of Hancock's final hours. 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.

A Cardinals-Cubs game also was postponed nearly five years ago after Kile was found dead in his hotel room in Chicago. Kile, 33, died of a coronary artery blockage.

General manager Walt Jocketty said the Cardinals, who are off Thursday, plan to charter a plane to Hancock's funeral. The team begins a three-game series in Milwaukee on Monday 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.

``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 on 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. ``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 with St. Louis last year. ``It's a sad day. Your feelings go out toward his family and his teammates now.''

Atlanta Braves ace Tim Hudson played with Hancock at Auburn. They helped lead the school to the 1997 College World Series.

``It feels like being punched in the stomach right now,'' Hudson said. ``Josh was such a good person. I saw him a few times a year going back to Auburn for football games. It's really a shock.''

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, made his major league debut in September 2002 and 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, leading the bullpen in innings, 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 duty.

``We didn't get embarrassed because of him, and that was said several times,'' La Russa said.

Hancock made his offseason home in St. Louis. Other teammates scattered after the World Series parade, leaving him as the only player to attend the premiere of a DVD documenting the Cardinals' unlikely run to their 10th World Series championship. Typical for the unassuming pitcher, he dressed casually and tried to blend into the crowd.

Hancock joined the Cardinals in spring training last season after Cincinnati released him for violating a weight clause in his contract. He also pitched for Boston and Philadelphia.

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