After Jovan Belcher: Tony La Russa on How a Team Comes Back From Tragedy
On Saturday morning Jovan Belcher, a linebacker for the Kansas City Chiefs, shot and killed his girlfriend Kasandra Perkins, the mother of his child. He then drove to the team’s practice facility, where he killed himself in front of, among others, his coach, Romeo Crennel. On Sunday, Crennel coached the Chiefs against the Carolina Panthers at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. They won. What felt startling was that they played at all.
Ten and a half years ago, major-league pitcher Darryl Kile, 33-year-old ace of a terrific St. Louis Cardinals team, went out to dinner with his brother and friends in Chicago the night before a Saturday day game at Wrigley Field. He then went to sleep in his room at the Westin on Michigan Avenue and never woke up. His teammates were taking batting practice in front of the ivy when hotel staff broke down his door and found his body, at about half past noon. Two hours later, Chicago Cubs catcher Joe Girardi tearfully announced to the Wrigley crowd that the game had been canceled “due to a tragedy in the Cardinals’ family”—the first in-season death of a ballplayer since Thurman Munson in 1979.
“There’s a lot of times where it feels like fantasy island,” says Tony La Russa, who managed the Cardinals that day, of professional sports. But death, he says, “brings the hardest reality of real life onto that island. And it jars you.”
As different as Kiles’s death was from Belcher’s, it was the closest thing you could think of as the awful news reeled this weekend, La Russa the man closest to being in the position that Crennel is in right now. Kile was a family man and team leader who died in his sleep and in his prime of a hereditary heart disease, and Belcher a murderer; the Cardinals played the day after a death in their family because the leaders of their team felt it was the right thing to do, while the Chiefs, whatever their feelings, seem to have played because the men who run their sport thought they should.
Still, as La Russa sees it—and he is one of the very few men who has had to work through a situation remotely like this—the fundamental dissimilarities don’t change the facts that there are essential obligations that players have to their work, that a team and players have to each other, and that people paid to provide entertainment have to the masses.
“They think about their mortality,” says La Russa of players dealing with the death of a co-worker and friend. “But you do have a responsibility to separate the personal and the professional, and I think what the team tries to do is respectfully and caringly remind [the players] of that. You can’t be rude and abrupt—’Hey, that’s the way it goes; he’s gone; let’s go; this next game is the most important thing.’ That’s not true. You’d be a fool to go about it that way. But you do have to make the point at some point that you do have a professional responsibility.
“The normal man on the street, he can’t come in and say, ‘Hey, I’m not going to go to work for a week. I’m going to be devastated for two weeks.’”
In certain situations, the man on the street—provided he’s fortunate enough to have a job that allows for bereavement leave—might be able to do that. The Cardinals, though, having canceled their game with the Cubs the day they learned of their teammate’s death, were scheduled the next day for a nationally broadcast game that Kile had been slotted to start. They played it.
“We played Sunday,” says LaRussa, “and every day after that. We were not ourselves for a week to 10 days. Two weeks. Slowly.
“In our case, it was very straightforward,” he says. “You had Darryl Kile, this great family man, father, friend, teammate. And his signature was, he had never been on the disabled list. In fact, that particular year, he had come in to spring training, and his arm wasn’t right, and there was a good chance he would be disabled, and he fought to get in shape, and he convinced us that he could take the ball.”
The Chiefs will not be able to convince themselves that playing on will do anything to honor a dead comrade or draw the kind of inspiration that the Cardinals did from the memory of their friend. They’ll want, if anything, to forget Belcher, the opposite of what the Cardinals wanted and want for Kile, to this day a revered figure. In some ways, though, that may make things easier. La Russa recalls another Cardinals player, Josh Hancock, who died in 2007 in a drunk-driving accident.
“We grieved for him,” he says, “but you don’t have the same kind of, what the hell’s going on, man?”
In a long career, La Russa dealt with any number of catastrophes, ranging from the earthquake that tore up the 1989 World Series to steroid controversies to simple matters of wins and losses. Kile’s death and its aftermath were fundamentally different.
“Every other challenge,” he says, “there was something, someone that I could call for advice. Some experience that I had learned from or been taught from in the past from one of my mentors. This was the one that was brand-new, fresh.”