After compiling the All-Decade team for the Cardinals, I couldn’t stop thinking about one player in particular. No, it wasn’t Albert. Or The Ace. Or Mr. Edmonds. Or even the Head Man. It was Darryl Kile. This year it will be eight years since the pitcher passed away. In researching the All-Decade team, it was the first time in a long time that I thought about Darryl Kile. Immediately one memory hit me.
I was 12-years-old, a recent graduate from Little League baseball. Little League baseball. You know, that political machine run churning out crazy parents that all think his or her kid is a superstar. The next big thing in baseball. He better start every game, play on every all-star team because he’s going straight to the pros. The Little League experience was fresh in my mind.
I had gone through the all-star tryouts. I heard about the kid on this team and that team that was “the best.” Little League is filled with them. And It’s funny to think about it now. I remember the speeches before tryouts about the process. The process was a joke. It really is funny now. Ten dads walking around an indoor complex watching kids run, field, throw – on carpet and rating them in each aspect of the game. How do you decide this kid is a “10” and that kid is a “7” on carpet. I thought baseball was played on grass. And yet, this process was taken seriously, like we were all fighting for a spot on the big league club. Except, we were 12.
When the ratings and notes were taken, the coaches would gather and actually draft each kid in the league to build their team. Coaches would fight for the first pick to get that ringer, so they could go all the way to…wait, there weren’t even playoffs. Still, they wanted to prove their baseball genius – from scouting to drafting to coaching (somehow for as good as they were at the first two, they were awful when it came to coaching). It’s sad, considering when the parents sign up, they sign up to coach. That means helping each kid from the novice that struggles to make contact to the advanced. Teaching them the basics of the game and the respect for the game, while keeping it fun and relaxed at the same time. Not exactly easy, right. Yet, every parent is the next Tony La Russa, Theo Epstein, and George Steinbrenner wrapped into one. And their kid is the next Derek Jeter, Albert Pujols, and Joe Mauer.
When Darryl Kile died, my dad was struck by one article in particular. He thought it contained an important lesson and had me read it. I still remember it today. From the recognizable picture of Jon Saraceno featured in the column to the valuable message in the story. A story for the underdog to persevere and prove everyone wrong. My brother and I were small when we were young, and often dismissed because of it. No matter what we did, people made assumptions based on our size. We were good, but we would never be on the level of the best kids.
So, my dad had me read Saraceno’s USA Today column on Darryl Kile. Two days after his death, the article had a positive message for the doubted kids in the cruel world of youth sports. “They should study the Darryl Kile story.” The story’s message: keep plugging. For some reason, reading that article stuck with me – burned in my memory – all these years later. When I thought about Darryl Kile yesterday, I thought about the article. I wanted to read it again.
After some Internet research, I found it on the ProQuest database up here at Syracuse University. I’d like to share the entire article with you. The message is still relevant today.
(From ProQuest, copyright USA Today)
Copyright USA Today Information Network Jun 24, 2002
I did not know Darryl Kile. I wish I had.
He was my favorite kind of baseball player — a grinder. It’s always entertaining to watch a superstar dominate with natural talent and immutable flair. It’s infinitely more interesting, instructive and, yes, inspiring to watch what can happen when an everyday athlete believes in himself, particularly when it seems like no one else in the world does.
Kile’s shocking death during the weekend reminds us that yesterday is a canceled check, tomorrow nothing but an IOU. In reality, today is the most precious currency we possess. Perhaps no one spent it more wisely than the 33-year-old St. Louis Cardinals pitcher who was found in his Chicago hotel room, dead of a probable coronary attack.
Suddenly, a looming baseball strike and talk of rampant steroid use don’t seem so important.
Kile had been scheduled to pitch Sunday night against the Cubs at Wrigley Field, a game that rightly proceeded without him, even as players, coaches and fans continued to grieve. By all accounts, he was a terrific teammate, a devoted husband and father of three, a loving son and brother, and a loyal friend. He knew it was his responsibility to pitch every fifth day, and he did, pain or not, in his right shoulder. Kile, utterly reliable and responsible, treated excuses like terrorists — they were not to be tolerated.
His passing will be mourned. Not only in baseball, but by the emotionally whipsawed city of St. Louis, a town that only three days ago buried a legend, broadcaster Jack Buck. Likewise, while the sport wears a black veil, we should not forget to celebrate the uplifting lessons the pitcher left behind. Anyone could’ve learned something about baseball, and of life’s daily disappointments and struggles, from this man. That is particularly true for young people, who can easily become distracted, discouraged and demoralized before they have a chance to excel.
They should study the Darryl Kile story.
Kile was a late-bloomer. He looked like a scraggly dandelion in those early years, but by the time he had conquered self-doubt, he blossomed into quite the rose. By 23, with that signature drop-off- the-table curveball, Kile pitched a no-hitter and became an All- Star. “There’s a couple of different kind of players in this game,” he told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch two years ago after a pair of difficult seasons in Colorado.
“There (are) the kids who, from the day they were born, they were more talented, bigger, faster, stronger. And then there’s the late- bloomer kind of guy. . . . Those are the guys somebody says, ‘I can’t believe he made it because I remember when he was 12 years old and I used to dominate him.’ “
He didn’t make the varsity baseball team in high school until he was a junior. No college offered the Californian a scholarship, so average were his pitching skills, and no professional organization drafted him. Kile went off to junior college and was drafted in the 30th round by Houston after his freshman season. He fell into the “draft-and-follow” category of junior college player, a marginal talent that the Astros kept tabs on for another year before they decided to sign him. By then, he had grown bigger and stronger.
He advanced quickly in the minors but seemed to hit a wall when he reached the majors. Prior to the 1993 season, he had compiled a losing record with the Astros and was not considered a lock to make the team. Then something traumatic occurred. His father, one of his best friends, died of a heart attack. He was 44. Kile seized the moment, and with it the realization that there are more important things than baseball. He relaxed a little bit and fulfilled his potential.
When athletes die prematurely, particularly without reckless lifestyle implications, the loss seems all the more unnerving. We feel like we know the person because they operated in the public arena. In reality, we know very little about them. We naively assume they are invincible athletic warriors immune from “civilian” concerns.
Baseball players live a childhood dream. They are rich and famous. Aside from confronting injury or salary arbitration, what could go badly for them?
How wrong we are.
They are as fragile as the rest of us.
The message is true. I watched as the anointed superstars flamed out. Little League was it for them. They didn’t continue playing for one reason or another. And by the time senior year of high school came, few were left from the Little League circuit in any sport. In basketball, my 7th grade team was 44-1 and finished fifth in the state. By the time high school rolled around, only three of us started at the varsity level. Most stopped playing when high school hit. So, when this Little League season starts, parents and coaches just do your job: teach the kids and have some fun.
Because no one cares if you were a Little League superstar. Darryl Kile wasn’t. It all works out eventually, so don’t alienate that late-bloomer and stick him in left field. Let him play shortstop, pitch, experience the joy of baseball. He could be the next Darryl Kile. Every team needs a “grinder,” a glue guy that had to scratch and claw for everything he ever got.