Josh Hancock is dead. That fact does not change. He was dead the day the accident happened. He was dead the day the Cardinals attended his funeral. He was dead the day they glumly returned to baseball, wearing his number on their sleeves.
And he is dead today, with the toxicology report showing he was drunk by nearly twice the legal limit when his Ford Explorer plowed into a tow truck.
He is dead today with the news that he was talking on his cell phone at the time of the crash – talking to a woman about meeting her at a bar.
He is dead today with the news that there were 8.55 grams of marijuana and a glass pipe found in his vehicle.
Josh Hancock, who was only 29, a relief pitcher, a World Series champion, is no less dead this morning and no less mourned by those who loved him than he was when no one knew these facts.
But the shadow thrown by his death has changed, from tragic to senseless. Because we’ll never know if he might be alive if he hadn’t gotten in that car.
Or hadn’t been drinking before he did.
Same horrible outcome, different athlete
“I think it’s probably a wake-up call to everybody,” St. Louis general manager Walt Jocketty told the media.
No offense to Jocketty, but that wake-up call has been ringing for so long, no one hears it anymore. How many more athletes have to do damage while inebriated? When I got into this business more than 20 years ago, I was writing about Pelle Lindbergh, the Philadelphia Flyers’ goalie who died after smashing his Porsche into a wall. Guess what? He was drunk.
A few years later, I was writing about Reggie Rogers, the Lions’ defensive lineman. He ran a light, killed three teenagers and was convicted of negligent homicide. Guess what? He was drunk, too.
I can’t remember how many booze-related injuries, arrests or acts of violence I’ve covered in this space. Far too many. Now I’m writing about Hancock.
Nothing has changed. If anything, alcohol is bigger than ever. We drink before games in parking lots. Beer ads blanket stadiums and TV broadcasts. There are few words more familiar to sports fans than “frosty cold.”
Heck, the stadium where the Cardinals play – where Hancock pitched – is named for a beer company.
For years, baseball has laughed in the face of bad booze news, even offering beer in the home team’s locker room after games. It was part of the postgame ritual. We all took it for granted. You’d see players swigging brews in their skivvies and you knew their cars were parked in the lot just outside. What did we think? The vehicles drove themselves home?
They think they’re bulletproof
Now the Cardinals say they are banning alcohol from their clubhouse. Hancock’s death – and manager Tony La Russa’s recent DUI arrest – has given the team religion. But many baseball teams still offer beer in the home clubhouse, as well as on team planes. And athletes still think they’re invincible.
How else do you explain Hancock? Just three days before his fatal crash, he’d been in another auto accident. His SUV was sticking out into an intersection when a tractor-trailer sped past and tore off his front bumper. A few more inches and he might have died. It was 5:30 a.m.
When most people survive something like that, they thank their stars and straighten up. Instead, Hancock rented an Explorer because of the damage to his SUV. A few days later, he drank, drove and died. He had enough money. He could have hired drivers. He could have hired the fanciest limousine. He could have called for a cab that night. He didn’t.
“He loved being a baseball player,” his teammate, Randy Flores, told the media. “ One of the great things about being a ballplayer is you can act like a kid.”
Not behind a wheel. It’s simple. You cannot get in a car after drinking. You do, and you start driving to your funeral – or, worse, someone else’s.
Josh Hancock is dead. That is sad. Heartbreaking. That hasn’t changed one bit. But those who looked to the heavens and cried “Why?” should look to Hancock’s photo and ask the question there first.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or firstname.lastname@example.org. www.freep.com/mitch.