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Gone but not forgotten

MILWAUKEE – Late Monday afternoon, as he struggled to find the right words to describe life without Josh Hancock, St. Louis Cardinals manager Tony La Russa twirled a fungo bat.

He knew, in the coming hours, the stories would start leaking about the circumstances surrounding the 29-year-old reliever's death early Sunday morning in a one-car crash, and he wanted to do everything he could to protect Hancock's memory.

"The first time I hear insincerity, man, I'll start swinging this fungo," La Russa said.

By the end of the night, there was little La Russa or anyone else could do. Hancock spent Saturday night drinking alcohol at a downtown St. Louis bar, according to witnesses who spoke with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and when asked by the bar's manager whether he needed a ride or taxi, Hancock allegedly declined.

At the bar, according to the witnesses, Hancock told ESPN Radio baseball analyst Dave Campbell that he had been fined by La Russa – who was charged with DUI in Jupiter, Fla., during spring training – on Thursday for showing up late to a day game because of his drinking the previous night. Campbell told USA Today that he did meet Hancock but did not remember those specific details.

In addition, according to KSDK-TV, Hancock was involved in another car accident at 5:30 a.m. Thursday – the day he showed up late to Busch Stadium – in Sauget, Ill., an area rife with after-hours clubs. A tractor-trailer clipped his GMC Denali as Hancock edged into an intersection. Patrick Delaney, the Sauget police chief, told KSDK: "Both officers on the scene said he did not appear to be impaired whatsoever."

Following the Cardinals' 7-1 loss to the Milwaukee Brewers, La Russa declined to answer any non-baseball questions.

Most of the Cardinals, in fact, were loath to talk about Hancock. Some still were grieving. Some couldn't find the right words to describe him.

And none of the Cardinals wanted their permanent snapshot of him to include the details sure to come from the autopsy being performed and the toxicology report that will follow about a month later.

"His big smile is so memorable in my mind," Tyler Johnson said. "It sticks out so much."

"You go down to the 'pen, he ain't there," Russ Springer said. "You catch yourself looking up, looking around, and he ain't there. It sinks in at different points during the game."

"I miss my buddy," Randy Flores said. "I miss my teammate. And I feel for his family."

Johnson, Springer and Flores are relief pitchers. They spend every day together, and they spent every day with Hancock, cooped up in their own little area, whether it's a bench along the baseline or, as was the case Monday at Miller Park, a spacious cove in right field.

"The bullpen," La Russa said, "is like a family."

Which is why it just didn't feel right Monday. Something – someone – was missing. And all the Cardinals could do was hang Hancock's No. 32 jersey from the chain-link fence in front of the bench, a temporary reminder for something with devastating permanence.

They tried grieving through humor. When Brad Thompson warmed up by throwing a weighted ball filled with a liquid substance against the wall, it sprung a small leak. He handed it to Jason Isringhausen, the veteran of the bullpen, who put his face up to the pin-sized hole, sniffed it and tasted the discharge.

"Josh would have laughed," Johnson said.

Hancock joined the Cardinals last season after being cut by the Reds in spring training. St. Louis liberally used him, often in a mop-up role, and he led the team with 77 innings out of the bullpen on their way to a World Series victory.

"It wasn't a role that you get a lot of attention or a lot of fame from," Cardinals pitching coach Dave Duncan said. "It's a role that somebody has to play on the ball club, and when you have somebody that could play it as good as Josh could, and accepted the challenge of it, it makes for a great situation."

In the seventh inning of Monday's blowout, the Cardinals called on rookie Dennis Dove to replace starter Kip Wells. Dove had taken Hancock's roster spot, and now, for his big-league debut, he was taking what likely would have been his spot to pitch. The rest of the Cardinals' relievers clapped their hands, though they couldn't deny the sadness.

It was everywhere. Bullpen coach Marty Mason knowing that he'll never get the call for Hancock again. Bullpen catcher Jeff Murphy knowing that he'll never catch Hancock again. All of the relievers knowing that they'll never be able to supplant Hancock as the pumpkin-seed-flicking champion.

Before Hancock arrived in St. Louis, that time-killer hadn't made its way to the Cardinals' bullpen. From his time at Auburn to his time with the Red Sox, Phillies and Reds organizations, Hancock had learned a thing or two about making three hours zoom by, and he was Monet in the art of seed-flicking.

In the Cardinals' bullpen Monday night, no one flicked a seed. They loved Hancock for who he was, virtues, vices and all, and to do so just didn't seem right. They wanted to protect his memory, and that was the only way they knew.

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