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"I can't 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 that's fine."
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.
Jocketty, the 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 to say.
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.
Dean Hancock 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.