MILWAUKEE — After learning of Josh Hancock’s death, the emotions rushed back to Albert Pujols. The All-Star first baseman is still trying to come to grips with the latest tragedy in St. Louis.
“How many times are you going to see that? Two of our players die?” Pujols said Monday, his voice quivering while talking about Hancock’s death — nearly five years after Cardinals pitcher Darryl Kile was found dead in a Chicago hotel room.
“He obviously is going to be in our hearts, in our minds,” Pujols said of Hancock. “We know we can’t do anything but go out there and play hard. He’s dead, there’s nothing you can do.”
St. Louis, tied for last in the NL Central and losers of three straight, began the slow healing process with a 7-1 loss to Milwaukee on Monday night to end what manager Tony La Russa called a “fuzzy” month.
La Russa, who talked extensively about Hancock before the game, tried to begin the process of moving forward.
“We already talked about what we’re thinking about, I’m not going to beat that one into the ground,” La Russa said.
Hancock was killed shortly after midnight Sunday when his SUV struck the rear of a flatbed tow truck on a St. Louis highway.
His No. 32 jersey hung both in the dugout and in the bullpen in right field, and his number was encircled in black on the left sleeves of the Cardinals’ uniforms.
From the moment of silence to start the game, to the small, polite crowd of 20,191 that included hundreds of Cardinals fans, the game was a big-league version of a wake for Hancock, who was a key member of the bullpen in St. Louis’ championship run last season. He also pitched with Boston, Philadelphia and Cincinnati during his six years in the majors.
“I miss my buddy, I miss my teammate and I feel for his family,” said Randy Flores, a reliever in the tight-knit bullpen.
The group’s leader, Jason Isringhausen, known for taking young relievers under his wing, declined to talk to reporters after the game.
Fans tried to send out their condolences with signs of encouragement. One said: “We miss you Josh. We’re prayin’ and playing this 1 for you.”
A memorial service for Hancock, 29, will be held Thursday in Tupelo, Miss. The Cardinals have the day off.
Dennis Dove, called up from Triple-A Memphis to replace Hancock on the roster, made his major league debut in the seventh in a situation usually reserved for Hancock — when the Cardinals needed innings eaten after the game was out of reach.
For Scott Spiezio, it was too much to handle. He was overcome with emotion just before the first pitch when he saw Hancock’s jersey and the black patch the team will wear the rest of the season. La Russa pulled him from the starting lineup.
“Seeing the patch, seeing the jersey. It’s hard to escape, you know? Usually, you’ve got stuff going on and when you get to the park, you can escape it. Here, you can’t,” said Spiezio, who lived near Hancock in St. Louis and would ride home with him after road trips. “You think you’re pretty tough and then all of a sudden, something just catches you the wrong way. All of us don’t know when it’s going to come. Sometimes you’re mad, sometimes you’re sad. And it just hit me, not at a good time.”
St. Louis, as expected, looked out of sync after Sunday’s game with Chicago was postponed. Kip Wells balked in a run in the second and gave up seven runs in six innings to take the loss.
“Our guys know and feel the sadness the Cardinals feel, they know what being a teammate is like,” Brewers manager Ned Yost said. “We are with these guys more than our families. You go through the highest highs and the lowest lows with them. It’s a big blow. Everyone feels the impact of it.”
Around the majors, Hancock was remembered.
Atlanta Braves ace Tim Hudson pitched Monday night with the letters “JH” ironed onto the left chest of his jersey — Hancock was his former college teammate at Auburn. There were moments of silence at several ballparks.
Pujols also struggled to maintain his composure after the game, saying that Hancock’s death brought back a flood of memories after Kile was found dead from a blocked coronary artery in June 2002.
“I think the last thing for us to try to walk around here with our head down. There’s nothing we could do,” Pujols said. “If there was something to bring him back, but obviously there’s nothing you can do.”
Reliever Tyler Johnson carried Hancock’s jersey to the bullpen to hang it, saying it was an honor for him and a way to stay close to his friend who always had a wide smile on his face.
“Every day he came to the yard, he was smiling. He was so happy that he was there,” Johnson said.
But now the Cardinals know they must move on.
“We got together, we cried, we did what we had to do before the game,” Pujols said. “We knew sooner or later that we were going to have to play.”