TUPELO, Miss. — The St. Louis Cardinals were among an estimated 500 mourners Thursday at a public memorial service for pitcher Josh Hancock, who died in an automobile accident early Sunday.
There was no sense of closure, however. Not yet. Autopsy results have been expedited amid reports of Hancock’s alcohol consumption on the night of his death, and another emotional night awaits on Friday when the defending World Series champions, who have lost five in a row and are in last place in the NL Central, play their first home game since the crash.
Reliever Randy Flores, the only teammate who spoke at the service, recalled Hancock as the prankster and the player he always played catch with.
“Every day, I was reminded of his heart,” Flores said. “Josh loved being a baseball player.”
Organizers had expected three or four Cardinals to participate in the service, including manager Tony La Russa, and anticipated several players to speak after the service. Instead, on the advice of center fielder Jim Edmonds, the traveling party of 50 filed onto two buses behind the church and left immediately without talking to the media.
“What do you want me to say?” said general manager Walt Jocketty, clearly aggravated, before boarding the bus.
The hour-long service at First United Methodist Church was mostly uplifting.
Hancock’s sister, Katie, a star athlete at Tupelo High School, called him a “great guy, a great man and a great big brother.” Hancock’s agent, the scout who signed him to his first pro contract and one of his high school coaches all related memories, many of them prompting laughs.
During his sermon, the Rev. John Sudduth held a prized possession, a ball autographed by Hancock, after signing his first professional contract with the Boston Red Sox in 1997.
Hancock’s father, Dean Hancock, wore a red ribbon with the No. 32, his son’s uniform number, on his left lapel while he read a statement before the service. He took no questions, thanking the media for “respecting our privacy and for respecting Josh’s honor.”
“Professional baseball players are brothers within a family, and the St. Louis Cardinals players and coaches are bonded together, in my opinion, like no other family in baseball,” Dean Hancock said. “Josh was so proud to be a member of that family.”
Hancock was driving a rented Ford Explorer early Sunday when it crashed into a flatbed tow truck on Interstate 64 in St. Louis. Three days before the fatal wreck, Hancock was involved in a predawn accident in Sauget, Ill., that police treated routinely.
Hancock was buried Wednesday in rural Itawamba County.
Cas McWaters, an assistant coach at Vestavia Hills High School in suburban Birmingham, Ala., when Hancock was a star there, talked about Hancock’s struggles with chemistry class.
“He kept asking me ‘When am I ever going to need chemistry?’ I told him, ‘To graduate,’” McWaters said.
Hancock broke into the major leagues in 2002 and played for four teams. He was a middle reliever, leading the bullpen in innings pitched, on the Cardinals’ World Series championship team.
“He wasn’t a household name,” McWaters said. “He was what I call just beginning to come into the strength of his career.”
Joe Mason of Nashville, Tenn., signed Hancock to his first contract. He said if the reliever played in the 1930s he’d have been friends with Dizzy Dean but that if he’d grown up in the 1960s “he would have gone to Woodstock.”
“He’d have been a sad person today because everybody had so much hurt in their hearts,” Mason said after the service. “He fit in, and he tried to make people happy. Every day was a good day for him.”
Katie Hancock, 11 years younger than Josh Hancock, remembered the time her big brother took her horseback riding but saddled her on a cow instead, imitating Josh’s uproarious laughter “Huh! Huh! Huh!” at the prank. Most of Josh’s sayings, Katie said, were straight out of the movie “Talledega Nights.”