For Morris, a friendship endures
Memories of Kile still strong five years after his death
Darryl Kile remains a frequent companion for Matt Morris.When Morris laughs, it's possible that Kile planted the seed of humor long ago. When Morris pitches, he employs techniques that Kile shared. When Morris goes about everyday life, he notices how often and easily he recalls Kile, his former St. Louis Cardinals teammate and good friend who died suddenly of a coronary ailment five years ago. "It's really crazy how many things I still am learning from him," Morris, now with the San Francisco Giants, said recently. "He just had a huge impact on a lot of people. I was lucky enough to spend some time with him and really get close to him. It was only a couple of years. but he was the only [player] I visited in the offseason. He was just a special guy. When you weren't around him, you thought of him." Kile's death cast a definite pall around baseball. Having played for Houston and Colorado before joining the Cardinals in 2000, he had earned the respect and friendship of numerous players, coaches and managers. As a widely respected veteran on the Cardinals, he left a considerable void within the team. Being only 33 and in apparent good health, his passing caused the surprise and shock that usually accompanies an untimely death. Kile's memorial service at Busch Stadium four days after he died drew 5,000 fans and about 50 players from outside the Cardinals organization, reflecting the breadth of lives he touched. Morris has continued to remember Kile. But he hasn't continued to grieve. "There was a time when it was tougher," Morris said. "Now, it's just DK and what he left behind. They're all great memories. There are so many times where I wish I would have told him how much I appreciated him and how much he meant to me." Sometimes, Morris perpetuates Kile's memory in the spirit of fun. Morris cited the "slurp" game, one of Kile's favorite gags, which "a bunch of guys know and try to continue." The instigator will state something obvious to his intended victim -- "That's a nice black shirt," he'll say to somebody wearing a gray shirt -- and if the other person replies, "No, it's gray," he's officially slurped. "It's just a really silly game," Morris said.
It's not confined to the clubhouse either. Morris related that on one leisurely night at home earlier this year, he casually asked his wife, Heather, to change the television channel to HBO. Heather pointed out that the TV already was tuned to HBO, then quickly realized she had been slurped."We just start cracking up and it's like, 'Thank you, DK,' " Morris said. "We speak out loud about him. It's funny how much a part of my life he still is, in a very odd way." Or in very real ways, such as on the field. Morris has built a 118-81 Major League record since 1997 while relying heavily on his curveball -- a pitch that Kile helped him refine. "He always told me, which was probably one of the biggest turning points in my career as far as my curveball, 'When you throw your curve, think of where you're starting it, not where it's finishing,' " said Morris, 32. " 'Think of what the batter sees out of your hand. If he sees a ball going up, obviously it's going to be slow enough that when it comes down, it's going to be hittable.' He made me realize how to pitch from the batter's point of view, instead of so much the pitcher's point of view." Morris still tries to locate his curve down and away, just as Kile advised.
"Every time I make that pitch, whether they take it or swing at it or I get an out with it, that's his curveball," Morris said. "The one that bounces or goes over the backstop is mine."Kile assisted many pitchers besides Morris, who recalled watching his friend play catch with various relievers, except they'd do more than throw a ball back and forth.
"He would be squatting as the catcher, put his glove hand where the ball should end up and his right hand where the ball should start," Morris said, explaining how Kile encouraged teammates to hone breaking pitches. "He was always helping everybody, never asking for help."
|"There was a time when it was tougher. Now, it's just DK and what he left behind. They're all great memories. There are so many times where I wish I would have told him how much I appreciated him and how much he meant to me."|
-- Giants pitcher|
"That five-seven is so easy to see for me," Morris said. "It's like when you get a new car and you see everybody else has it. You hadn't noticed it the whole time until you buy it."
There was also the time Houston first baseman Jeff Bagwell, another close friend of Kile's, hit a homer off Morris at Minute Maid Park that barely missed the "57" sign mounted in Kile's memory.
"I finally got you," Bagwell told Morris when the latter reached base an inning or two afterward. "Me? You almost got DK!" Morris retorted.
Or, when Morris glances at Heather's engagement ring, he can't help but remember that he obtained the diamond for the setting through Kile's connections.
"He helped so much and never saw it on Heather's finger," Morris said.When one member of Kile's brotherhood meets another, an instant bond is shared. At a charity poker tournament held by Giants pitcher Russ Ortiz at a Phoenix-area casino in March, Morris sat at the same table as Dave Burba, a retired pitcher. Never teammates, Morris and Burba hadn't said anything to each other over the years except hello. But Morris knew that Burba and Kile were buddies: "When I saw Burbs, to break the ice, I said, 'Man, DK said a lot about you.' It just made our conversation easier just because of him." Morris sensed that he was pitching for Burba and everybody else who loved and admired Kile when he made his first start after his friend's death, on June 25, 2002. It also was the Cardinals' first home game since the event, so emotion overflowed at Busch Stadium. Morris pitched seven strong innings but lost, 2-0, to the Milwaukee Brewers. Yet, he did his job, just as Kile would have urged.
"The team was still kind of beaten up -- not everybody was in the right frame of mind," Morris said. "But I remember saying -- and this was straight from DK's mouth -- 'I have the opportunity to control this game as much as I can.' I tried to make a point of doing that."One of Morris' enduring recollections from that game is a sidearm curveball that he threw as an homage to Kile, who'd occasionally drop down to befuddle a hitter.
"I've tried it since, and that was the only time it ever worked," Morris said. "He was with me on that pitch, for sure."Another of Morris' vivid memories is his last moment with Kile at the team hotel in Chicago, hours before Kile died. Normally, they would have dined together along with Heather and Flynn, Kile's wife. But Morris and Heather went out by themselves, since Flynn was at the Kiles' new home in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., preparing it for a team party following the All-Star break. "She didn't make the Chicago trip, which she normally did," Morris said. "You wonder if she was there, would it have been different; if he would have come to dinner with us, would it have been different. Even coming back in the hotel, we walk in and he happens to be coming back at the same time. 'Hey, buddy, wanna come to the room and hang out with Heather and me?' 'No, I'm real tired,' and that was it. He took off. I might have caught the next elevator up and I never saw him again." Then again, Kile has never really left Morris. Asked if Kile was his best friend in baseball, Morris said, "I don't know if I was his. But he was mine."
Chris Haft is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.