protect Tony on either one of those," Lamping says. "But one of the
reasons Tony has been as successful is that he has always believed that if
somebody takes a whack at you, you whack him back."
That's not a
Renaissance man response, but then the week after Hancock's death wasn't an
enlightening time. The Cardinals looked as if they were unraveling, perceiving
themselves under attack. Never mind that Hancock's death prompted important
questions or that La Russa wasn't actually the object of whacking in either
case. His mood only worsened when people began linking his drunken-driving
charge and Hancock's drunken-driving fatality. "They'll nail me
forever," La Russa says of the Post-Dispatch reporting corps, "and
On the Thursday
before his death Hancock showed up just minutes before a 12:10 p.m. start
against the Cincinnati Reds, telling La Russa that he'd overslept. The manager
says he chewed out Hancock in the few minutes left before game time--long
enough to be convinced that Hancock was not hung over, though a report
published five days later indicated that he was--then met with the pitcher in
his office the next day and "really jabbed him." Did La Russa's DUI
arrest undermine his authority with Hancock on the subject of drinking? Did the
the team's failure to sanction La Russa after his DUI lead Hancock to believe
that he could drink without risk of serious punishment?
La Russa allows
that he may have been "ineffective" in his chat with Hancock, but
"you're getting the best that I have," he says. "The conversation I
had with Josh was the toughest, the most honest that I can have. I can't do
better than that. And I couldn't have done better than that last year before
[my DUI] incident." La Russa fined Hancock for being late, and says he was
unaware that Hancock had misled him about why he'd been late. It turned out
that Hancock had been involved in a traffic accident at 5:30 a.m. that
Thursday, in the suburb of Sauget, Ill.
G.M., says that he learned of Hancock's first accident on the Saturday before
his fatal crash, but because Hancock wasn't ticketed he didn't consider the
accident significant. "It didn't sound like it was a big deal,"
Jocketty says, "but it turns out it was." Told of Jocketty's
information, La Russa says he might well have been harder on Hancock had he
known about the first accident. Whether a harsher punishment would have scared
Hancock out of drinking and driving on that Saturday, of course, is impossible
The only thing
certain is that the Cardinals remain an organization in pain. The players still
feel Hancock's presence--in the number 32 patch on their uniform sleeves, in
the locker emptied of everything but Hancock's jersey, a small straw cross and
a white piece of paper on which is printed the poem To an Athlete Dying Young.
Flores had been his pregame throwing partner for more than a year, always
apologizing because he had trouble catching the ball. "And every day I saw
his patience and heart and the fun he had with me just being out there,"
Flores says. Slowly, he and his bullpen mates are moving past their grief;
Flores has played catch with three pitchers since. "That's a reminder every
day," Flores says, "when I take that first throw."
La Russa needs no
reminder beyond the nearest phone. After Cardinals security director Joe Walsh
called him at around four that awful morning, he and Jocketty and Lamping spoke
about the call that had to be placed. La Russa became the logical choice; he'd
actually met Hancock's dad, Dean. So he sat a bit before the dawn broke,
wondering, What do I say? Please let me get through this.... He tried out a few
phrases, groping for the right words, but came up empty. Finally he dialed the
number of the home outside Tupelo, Miss., and listened to it ring.
picked up. And then La Russa, as he always has, managed it: how to wake a man
and tell him his son is dead.
The bruises keep
coming. It's Sunday morning, May 6, and La Russa is leaning on the rail in
front of his dugout. The night before, Carpenter learned that he needed surgery
to remove bone spurs from his right elbow and would be out three months;
Hancock's replacement, Dennis Dove, gave up a grand slam; and St. Louis went
down to its worst loss of the season, 13--0 to the Astros. Asked if, after all
these years, he's still managing as if dangling from a window ledge, La Russa
holds up his hands again and curls them into claws, slightly less clenched.
"Now it's a little bit more like this," he says. "I think I'll get
to the All-Star break this year."
DeWitt laughs at
this. To a man the St. Louis brass professes confidence in La Russa despite the
DUI, the media spats and Hancock's death, and says his leadership has in no way
been compromised. "I do believe he has the ability to rally this team
unlike anyone else," DeWitt says.