06/22/2002 9:37 pm ET
Kile: A quiet leader, a loyal friend
I first met Darryl Kile when he was pitching for the Tucson Toros in 1989. He was only 20 years old at the time and was one of the top pitching prospects in the Houston Astros organization. Even then, Kile had that trademark 10-to-4 curveball that bent more knees than a Sunday Mass. Nolan Ryan once watched Kile pitch an inning during a Spring Training game in 1988 and described Kile's curveball as a "kind of bender that bends all the way round the barn."
But I soon discovered there was much more to this 30th-round draft pick than his ability to make a baseball do amazing things. Though he was soft spoken and reserved much of the time, especially with people he didn't know or when he was in front of large groups, Kile was, in fact, a leader, the kind of individual other players -- from rookies to superstars -- tended to gravitate to and the kind of person they remained friends with long after their days as teammates ceased.
In his 10-plus years in the majors, Kile cut a considerable swath across baseball's landscape and was at the peak of his career until his tragic death Saturday at the age of 33.
On the field, he began as a raw-boned right-hander who struggled with his control in the early years. But despite his ups and downs on the field -- he was often booed during the early days in Houston -- Kile never let it get him down. Unlike one of his Houston teammates in '91, Curt Schilling, who was given the nickname Curt Shelling by Houston fans during a failed stint as the Astros' closer, Kile didn't get angry or take it out on his locker when the fans were particularly brutal or fortune turned against him.
Kile didn't take it out on the media, either, except through occasional wisecracks. He had a wry sense of humor, and his deadpan delivery was perfectly timed.
Kile was an exceptional golfer and frequently played in or hosted charity tournaments during the offseason. He tried to get me to play once, joking that he "thought all sportswriters were golfers, since they already have the plaid pants." When I tried to get his goat by claiming real men don't golf, he quickly replied, "They don't become sportswriters, either."
There was that day in '92 when former teammate Eric Yelding as usual came bopping into the clubhouse, music blaring and dressed to the nines. A few minutes later, Kile sauntered in doing a dead-on impersonation of Yelding's hip-hop performance as Yelding and the entire clubhouse roared.
Kile, of course, was better known for his antics on the mound than off. By the mid-'90s, he had evolved into an outstanding starting pitcher and strikeout artist. He won 19 games in '97, as the Astros won the National League Central Division title. Houston's big stars then and now were Craig Biggio and Jeff Bagwell, and it wasn't any coincidence that both became good friends with Kile.
When Kile signed a free agent contract with Colorado before the '98 season, Biggio and Bagwell predicted Kile would be missed.
"He's a tough competitor, always has been," Biggio said then. "DK is a winner."
When Kile was dealt to St. Louis two years ago, Bagwell told anyone who would listen Kile was going to have a big year.
"Mark my words," Bagwell said at the time. "He's going to win a lot of games for them. He's really going to help the Cardinals."
Kile went 20-9 in 2000, as the Cardinals romped to the division title. He won 16 games last year, as St. Louis reached the playoffs for the second year in a row. Just as he had in Houston, Kile became a quiet leader in St. Louis. Kile was not only a winner on the mound, he was a pitcher who would protect his teammates and do it without flinching. Players around the league privately knew Kile was not one to be trifled with. To his teammates, Kile was more than a three-time All-Star or a pitcher who twice finished in the top five in Cy Young Award voting. He was a stand-up guy, and his teammates knew it and respected him.
Kile had become more of a mentor in recent years, working with Cardinal pitchers Matt Morris and Rick Ankiel, both of whom credited Kile with helping improve their games. This was typical Kile; he never hesitated when a teammate needed help. Ask, and the big right-hander would be there.
"You know DK," long-time teammate and close friend Dave Veres explained when asked about Kile's tutoring sessions last month. "He's equal opportunity when it comes to helping guys, doesn't matter if they're righty or lefty."
The last time I spoke to Kile was on May 29 during the Cardinals' visit to Houston. He hadn't pitched that day but waved me over when our eyes met in the visitors' clubhouse at Minute Maid Park.
Most of it was small talk, some of it baseball talk. Then Kile asked about a mutual friend and, after I answered Kile's question, I asked him about his health, though I'm not sure why I did.
"I'm fine," Kile said. "Shot a 77 the other day."
When I asked what he shot on the back nine, Kile cracked a smile.
"Lower than a sportswriter's I.Q.," he said.
So long DK. We're glad to have known you.
Jim Molony is a writer for MLB.com based in Houston. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.