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darryl kile's rockie road

it was the first day of summer -- the cards atop the division, playing a saturday afternoon game at wrigley on nat'l TV; little pleasures that make you feel much better than they prob'ly should. that was the day darryl kile died, three years ago; that was the year summer ended on the day it began.

no need to dwell on the moment; we all remember it well enough, can't forget it. but i also don't want to let this day pass without reflecting. and for me, what comes to mind today is not kile the cardinal but kile the exile -- kile the colorado rockie. his two years in denver (1998-99) serve as a case study in failure and humiliation. they are a sociology dissertation waiting to be written -- on the greedy heart that beats within every fan (yes, you too); on the vanity of our worship, the intersections of grace and disgrace that our games can produce.

if you think it's funny to hear such blather from a guy who's so sports-crazy that he spends two hours a day writing about it for free, i don't blame you. it is funny, ridiculous, absurd -- as much so as kile's 68 appearances in purple-pinstriped pajamas. the denver chapter of dk's career is one many cardinal fans don't know all that well; i happened to see it firsthand and will narrate it as briefly as possible, sugared with appreciation. for as i look back at kile's rockie road -- the way he stood up to his own downfall, to the disappointment he caused a whole city, to the mocking glee of the sports punditry -- i see in his actions and his example a simple idea, voiced wordlessly. it took his death for me to finally hear the message:

it is only a game.

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the first hilarious thing about kile's rockie road comes from the lips of dante bichette, who -- after kile joined the rockies as a free agent on december 4, 1997 -- proclaimed, "i've always believed that to win a world series, you have to be a complete team. this is the most complete team we've ever had." this from a player on a five-year-old team that had never won more than 83 games in a season -- world series talk, in all earnestness. let me pause while you finish guffawing. . . .

however delusional such notions may have been, the pressure driving them was palpable. in 1996 the colorado avalanche -- in their first year in denver (they relocated from quebec) -- won the stanley cup to give colorado its first-ever pro sports championship. a year later the beloved broncos, losers of four previous super bowls, finally won one and brought home the lombardi trophy. denverites started referring to their city, without irony, as "titletown" -- and the rockies' front office correctly perceived that the bar had been raised a mile high. a few years earlier, coloradans had been so happy to have major-league baseball that winning and losing hardly mattered. now it mattered a lot; nobody associated with losers in titletown.

the rockies had further upped the ante by winning the wild-card race in 1995, their third year of operation. it was at that time the most precocious postseason appearance of any expansion franchise, and the rockies were very proud of the achievement . . . . .until they realized that it prematurely ended the grace period most expansion teams enjoy. now the rockies' fans, like fans everywhere, expected immediate results -- this year, not a few seasons hence when the kids develop. it didn't help when the florida marlins, who entered the league along with the rockies in 1993, won the world series in 1997 and made colorado's shiny "wild-card" trophy seem like a pawn-shop trinket. florida's success made the rockies' owners all the more anxious to win; and by their impatience they cultivated impatience in their fans.

then again, maybe it's all just a denver thing, an inescapable part of the zeitgeist. from the very beginning this it has been a place of unrealistic ambitions, a city born of a gold rush and built upon fortunes made overnight. even now, as a modern metropolis with a diversified economy, it remains steeped in the romance of the boom and the bust -- if you're not one, then you must be the other. and whichever you are today, you'll likely be the other before long. darryl kile's boom came when he signed with the rockies for gold-baron sums -- $24 million over three years. but the contract came with "world series or bust" strings attached -- and that all but ensured the change in kile's fortunes.

kile was the hot commodity on that winter's free-agent market, a 29-year-old stud coming off a 19-7, 2.57 campaign. when he signed, denver rejoiced -- at last, a real ace to go along with all those home-run hitters. a week after the signing, the rockies announced across-the-board ticket-price increases for 1998; denver grumbled. the new staff ace, whether boom or bust, seemed to be costing them directly; damn well better be worth it. . . .

this may explain why some boos fell as kile left the mound in his first game at coors. he had taken a 4-3 lead into the 7th but, gassed, was pummeled (with two relievers) for 8 runs that inning. the rockies went on to lose 18-7, a result the rockies would have been perfectly capable of without their expensive new pitcher. it took kile most of april to settle in; he had a string of good outings, and by mid-may stood at 5-3 with a 4.60 era. the era, as with all rockie pitchers, was extremely deceiving -- he had a 3.02 era on the road at that time, vs 7.92 at coors field. (thank you, day-by-day database.) there now came a cruel succesion of games that, i believe, soured the rest of the kile's stay here -- a stretch that, ironically, may have been his best as a rockie. (thanks to retrosheet for kile's game log and box scores.) it began on may 21 at atlanta, where kile pitched into the 8th inning and held the braves to just two runs. tom glavine, though, held the rockies to zero, and kile took a tough 2-0 loss. he next pitched at busch stadium on may 27, holding the cardinals to four hits and two runs in seven innings. todd stottlemyre, though, shackled the rockies on just four hits and one run -- `nuther tough L for the ace, 2-1. after a creditable performance at home (7 innings, 5 runs) vs arizona, kile gave up just two runs in 7 2/3 at anaheim . . . . . and lost 2-1 to omar olivares. across town at chavez ravine on june 12, kile threw 8 innings of five-hit, two-run ball but again received no support and fell 2-1 to the dodgers' dave mlicki. after a rough outing at 3Com (6 ip, 6 er), kile shut down milwaukee at county stadium on june 22, 1998 -- four years to the day before his death -- and left after 7 with the score tied, 2-2; no decision. finally, on june 27, he pitched has ass off at home against the athletics -- held them to two runs through 7, yielded a pair in the 8th but still enjoyed a 5-4 lead (thanks in part to his own 2 doubles and 1 rbi). kile sat down for the 9th and watched three relief pitchers give up four runs; another no-decision, another loss for the rockies.

as the season reached its midpoint, kile stood 5-10 with a 4.40 era, but let's parse that: on the road, 85 innings with a 3.19 era; at home, 40 innings, 6.97 era. moreover, four of the losses should rightfully have been wins, and at least two no-decisions also could/should have been wins as well. kile pitched well enough to end the first half at 10-6 or so, rather than 5-10 . . . . but that storyline didn't hold sway in titletown. in titletown, all that mattered was winning -- and kile wasn't doing it. and neither (more to the point) were the rockies. with half the year gone they stood 9 games under .500 and 17.5 games out of first. so much for "world series or bust" . . . . the bust wasn't darryl kile's fault, but he encouraged ev'yone to think that it was. after every 2-1 loss he'd say "i made a couple of mistakes and they cost us the game." the press vaguely recognized that kile deserved better, and they admired his dogged refusal to point fingers at teammates. but they also talked about how flat kile's curveball looked at altitude and how stupid the rockies had been to sign a curveball pitcher. denver post columnist mark kiszla kept reminding people that, half a year into his contract, kile still hadn't won a home game:

The Colorado Rockies' staff ace is nearly three months past due on delivering a victory at Coors. Kile ranks last in the major leagues in thrills for the buck. . . . . Kile has a heart. But he refuses to show it, as if bleeding a single drop of passion would be a fatal flaw. . . . . In his role as stopper, all Kile has halted is momentum. . . . How can a $24 million man not afford to buy a "W"?

a few observant fans noticed that kile had actually pitched much better than his w-l record showed, but the majority were simply angry that the world series would not be arriving as promised. right about now, kile started pitching like dog crap -- 10 earned runs in 2 innings at seattle; 7 runs in 3 innings vs san diego at home; 9 runs in 4 innings home vs pgh; seven runs in 1 2/3 on the road at pgh. by early august he stood 7-14 and was in serious danger of losing 20 games. nobody remembered (or cared about) the fine pitching that had gone unrewarded in may-june; the boos became louder at coors field, the columnists and talk-show hosts increasingly shrill. kile steadied down the stretch and finished the year on a 6-3, 3.60 run, but nobody noticed -- that segment of the season coincided with the broncos' exhibition schedule and early games. . . . he finished 13-17, tho with any run support he'd have been no worse than 16-14, and maybe as good as 18-13 or 19-12.

this is comedy, right? this is farce. the guy incurs the hometown fans's wrath for doing the following:

  • recording the fifth-best era (5.20) by a starter in franchise history up to that time
  • leading the staff in wins (13), innings (230), era (5.20), and complete games (4) and finishing second in strikeouts (157)
  • anchoring the second-best staff, era-wise, in franchise history -- 5.00 (vs the 4.97 posted by the wild-carders of 1995)

and check this out: the kile-led 1998 staff allowed 53 fewer runs than the prior year's staff. why then did the '98 team win six fewer games? because the hitters scored 97 fewer runs -- the lowest-scoring rockies team since the move to coors field. restore those 97 runs, and the rockies' pythagorean jumps to 87-75 -- just two games off the wild-card pace. . . .

all of which meant less than nothing in titletown. the only statistic that registered here was $24 million. kile had been paid it to bring denver another champ'shp, and he had failed miserably; end of conversation. kile did not disagree, despite the ample case to the contrary; he told anyone who would listen that he was disappointed in his year, that he'd let the team down, that he had to do better. he uttered the words with poise and a sense of proportion -- absent urgency, absent angst . . . . but then, absent those things sports fandom ceases to be, right? urgency compelled the rockies to fire don baylor and bring in jim leyland; urgency demanded they throw $10+ million at a bad left-handed pitcher (brian bohanon). the rocks got out of the gate slowly in 1999, then caught fire in june to pull within 4 games of the division lead. on the first day of summer -- june 22, 1999, three years before he died -- kile took the mound at coors field against the chicago cubs. his record to date: 4-4, 5.16 era (4.04 road, 7.39 coors). he breezed through 3 innings while the bats battered steve trachsel and piled up a 9-1 advantage. the cubs got a run back in the fourth (no worries) and three more in the fifth (hey it's coors field, ya know?); kile went back out there in the sixth but couldn't get through the inning, yielding two more runs on a jose hernandez dinger with two outs. a hail of vile and poisonous sound accompanied his walk back to the dugout; the cubs would go on to win the game 13-12, and the rocks would hit a 1-9 skid.

that game, i think, finally cracked darryl kile; his era for the rest of the season was 7.55. the pastings became routine -- 7 runs in 4 innings vs anaheim; 7 runs in 4 innings at cincy; 6 runs at montreal; 9 at pittsburgh; 5 vs philadelphia; 6 at the mets -- and kile's calm in the face thereof became increasingly robotlike. fans now utterly despised him, and for a laughable reason: he couldn't pitch at coors field -- as if this defect were unique to him; as if there existed a deep pool of candidates who might step in and do much, much better. when bob gebhard -- the gm who'd signed kile -- resigned in late august, pundits cited the kile signing as his fatal mistake. gebhard's replacement, dan o'dowd, arrived a month later and immediately listed his top priority as moving kile and his contract.

and so he went; but the vain aspirations and boom-bust fixation stayed behind. in 2001, fresh off an 82-80 season, the rockies signed denny neagle and kile's ex-teammate mike hampton to long-term deals worth an aggregate $160 million, then sat back and declared themelves pennant contenders. . . . . i don't mean to single out denver here; i think such dynamics are universal. (just ask billy buckner if'n you don't believe me; or mitch williams; or sammy sosa; or a-rod.....) wherever we live, we turn our sports heroes into vessels for our fantasies. we pour our hearts into them; when they fail us, we fill them with venom. boom-and-bust junkies aren't confined to gold-rush towns; we exist everywhere . . . . . and every town fancies itself titletown. it's a rare player who understands this relationship and accepts it completely -- takes the good with the bad, the boom with the bust. rarer still the ballplayer who can transcend this mentality, reflect it back to us, maybe even help us understand it. the reflection i draw from kile's denver years is this:

the boom's not about the gold you take out; it's about what you put in.

peace be onya, darryl.