Remembering the Departed

Greg Halman’s recent murder, and to some extent the kidnapping of Wilson Ramos before it each provide us with a harrowing reminder. This reminder is that these players who seem superhuman are in fact mortal. They may be young, vibrant men in better shape than 99.9 percent of us, but they’re still human, and some are still cut down in the prime of their lives.

In light of Halman’s passing, I’d like to take today’s post to remember some of the more recent players (the past 40 years) to pass on while still active. I may be an exception, but even as a somewhat astute baseball fan, I forget about these players from time to time. Please forgive if this is less than a statistically-infused column, and more of one in memoriam.

Nick Adenhart

I still remember hearing about Adenhart’s passing. I was just wrapping up my Junior year in college and was doing so while working overnights. I’d inadvertently forgotten to set a sleep timer on the television, and was jostled awake by the breaking news passing towards the end of the 11 am ET edition of SportsCenter. Adenhart was a passenger in a Mitsubishi Eclipse which was broadsided by a Toyota Sienna that had run a red light in Fullerton, Calif. He was rushed to UC-Irvine Medical Center, where he died a short time later. Even after being a baseball fan some 16 years to that point, I think I was struck most by how Adenhart was younger than I was – a full six months younger. As someone who has experienced their fair share of death, it still struck me that a man so far from the prime of his life could be taken in an instant. Not only was Adenhart a top baseball prospect — named to Baseball America’s top-100 list four times — but at age 22, Adenhart was one of life’s top prospects.

Joe Kennedy

I always sort of felt — right or wrong — that Kennedy’s passing sort of flew under the radar. I don’t remember a great deal of coverage, but again, I’ll fully accept that I could be remembering wrongly. Kennedy wasn’t a titan on the baseball field; he never won more than nine games in a season, didn’t strike out a ton of batters, and only appeared in one postseason series. Alas, he was a young man in his prime who succumbed to heart disease. He collapsed at his in-laws’ house while in town for a wedding and never recovered. Another reminder that death doesn’t discriminate, and that some crafty lefties do indeed die.

Josh Hancock

Hancock’s death — the third to strike the Cardinals family in just five years — was much different than the passing of Jack Buck or Darryl Kile. Unlike Buck or Kile, Hancock’s death was attributed to alcohol (BAC of 0.157) and questionable decision-making (using his cell phone while driving). There was also marijuana found in the vehicle. Nonetheless, Hancock’s death was a culmination of really bizarre events near the end of his life/career. A handful of days before his fatal crash, Hancock had overslept and not shown up in the clubhouse by the usual time required by the club. Teammates frantically tried to reach Hancock, who answered after many calls, which was a chilling reminder of the day Kile had passed away some five years earlier. Additionally, there was a report that he’d been in an incident with his own SUV right around the same time as well. Even if Hancock was at fault in his own demise, his passing is still worth noting in my view.

Cory Lidle

Lidle’s death occurred when the Cirrus SR20 he was piloting crashed into an apartment building on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Lidle, a replacement player early in the 1995 season, only had his license about eight months when the collision, which also killed his instructor Tyler Stanger, occurred. Lidle had made his last career appearance with the Yankees merely 10 days earlier, allowing four runs in 1.1 IP in the 2006 ALDS Series that saw the Bronx Bombers fall to the eventual AL champion Detroit Tigers. Lidle was also a member of the famed 2002 A’s team featured in “Moneyball.” Lidle’s August run which saw him go 5-0 with a 0.20 ERA and .358 OPS against helped propel the club to the 20-game win streak that still stands as an American League record. Lidle’s death marked the third death of a Yankees player in an aircraft, preceded by Jim Hardin (though not active at the time) in 1991 and Thurman Munson in 1979.

Dernell Stenson

Some of the events surrounding the murder of Stenson are unclear. The promising young outfielder — a three-time top-100 prospect fresh off a successful cup of coffee with the Reds — was bound and shot, and then run over with his own SUV in what initially appeared to be a carjacking attempt in Mesa, Ariz. The afterward arrest and conviction of a pair of men, and some troubling text messages that surfaced from Stenson’s former girlfriend are all secondary to the fact that a young man, just like all the others mentioned here, was cut down in his prime. At the time of his murder, Stenson was enjoying success in the Arizona Fall League, hitting .394 which was good for third in the league. The league halted play for two days after the incident, and have since named the “Dernell Stenson Sportsmanship Award” in his honor, given each season to a player who “displays the values of perseverance and humility.”

Steve Bechler

Bechler’s death took place after a spring training workout in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. in 2003. The autopsy performed on Bechler suggested that the supplement ephedra — which Bechler was taking to help drop some weight — played a significant part in his heatstroke-related death, among other contributing factors. Bechler’s passing was instrumental in the FDA’s ban of ephedra which occurred just over a year later. Bechler’s death also brought to light some of the challenges facing players on the outside looking in, as teammate Matt Riley was quoted as saying, “He wasn’t able to finish his running the day before, (and) he was really distraught.” This is believed to have led Bechler to take three ephedra pills on an empty stomach — some believe Bechler hadn’t eaten anything in two days — before his cataclysmic collapse in a culmination of all these events. By all accounts it was a preventable death, and as a result, all the more tragic.

Darryl Kile

Love him, hate him, or call him when he publicly publishes his phone number on Twitter, Buzz Bissinger penned an excellent book that I’m sure most reading have read, “Three Nights in August.” Chapter 11 is entitled “D.K.”, and it spends 16 pages detailing the time around Kile’s passing of a heart attack prior to one of his scheduled starts against the Cubs. The little details of this chapter are what really help understand the gravity of the situation that day. Mike Matheny frantically pacing the visitor’s clubhouse trying to get someone, anyone to check on Kile. Tony La Russa gathering his players before softly murmuring the horrible news. Joe Girardi as an opposing player summoning some of the courage that likely makes him a great leader as a manager to tell a sold-out Wrigley Crowd cryptically that the game had been canceled due to “a tragedy in the Cardinals family.” At the risk of free advertising, this chapter alone makes it work snapping up the book.

Steve Olin and Tim Crews

It was just supposed to be a day at the lake. These words are chilling to me in two facets, as they both describe the accident that claimed Olin and Crews’ lives (and nearly Bob Ojeda’s), but also the words that describe my family outing the day we were in our accident just 16 months later (which claimed the life of my stepfather and paralyzed my younger brother). Manager Mike Hargrove had given his players a day off prior to the end of the 1993 spring training schedule, and Ojeda, Olin, Crews and their families, as well as the strength and fitness coordinator and a few others, had gathered at Little Lake Nellie for an evening of boating and family fun. As the men turned back towards shore around dusk to pick up a couple friends for some evening fishing, their boat hit a new dock at head level, immediately killing Olin, mortally wounding Crews, and severely injuring Ojeda, who claims he survived merely because he had slouched in his seat. This was the first baseball-related death that I was old enough to remember, as my first cognizance of watching baseball begins in 1993 as a seven-year-old. These two columns sum up the tragedy better than I ever could.

Thurman Munson

Munson’s death, which took place amidst the 1979 season, was an airplane crash that was attributed to ‘pilot’s error’. Munson was the pilot on that flight, which was more or less just Munson practicing takeoffs and landings near his family home in Canton, Ohio. Munson had held his pilot’s license for about two years at the time of the incident, in which he was attempting to land for the third time but clipped a tree before hitting a stump and bursting into flames. Munson’s associates, a friend and a flight instructor, were able to scramble away from the wreckage but Munson was not so lucky. It’s believed that Munson asphyxiated on the fumes as a result of being trapped in the craft.

Lyman Bostock

Bostock was a promising young outfielder with the California Angels who was murdered in 1978 in a case of mistaken identity. Bostock had played what ended up being his final big league game earlier in the day against the White Sox, and then went to visit a family member in nearby Gary, Ind. Through the course of the day’s events, Bostock wound up sitting in the back of a car beside a woman named Barbara Smith, whom he’d only known from that day. Smith was estranged from her husband, and when he saw the two get into the vehicle together, he assumed that Bostock and her were involved in an affair. Smith’s husband pulled up beside the car Bostock was riding in, and allegedly aimed a .410 shotgun at Mrs. Smith. The shot ‘mistakenly’ struck Bostock in the right temple, and he died some two hours later. Here’s an adeptly penned column on Bostock’s passing.

Roberto Clemente

Clemente is probably the most famous case of a player dying during his active years. Clemente boarded a Douglas DC-7 bound for Nicaragua on New Years Eve 1972, and was never seen or heard from again. The plane, which had a documented history of issues, was overloaded with emergency supplies and crashed almost immediately after takeoff. Clemente, whose last regular season at bat resulted in his 3000th hit, was posthumously elected to the Hall of Fame via a 92 percent vote just months after his death, as the BBWAA opted to waive the five-year requirement following a player’s career. Clemente was a bit of a controversial figure in his playing days, as what appeared to be a cultural divide led some writers to believe he was a bit of a hypochondriac in his playing days. Still, by most accounts Clemente had a heart of gold (after all, he helped Nicaragua, a land which he had no affiliation with), and went down doing something he knew in his heart was right.

Other Notable Player Deaths (including those less recent): Mike Darr, Mike Sharperson, Ed Delahanty, and Ray Chapman.

In addition to Rotographs, Warne writes about the Minnesota Twins for The Athletic and is a sportswriter for Sportradar U.S. in downtown Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter @Brandon_Warne, or feel free to email him to do podcasts or for any old reason at brandon.r.warne@gmail-dot-com

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Milo Minder Bender
Milo Minder Bender

Lest we forget Michael Curtis Darr back in 2002. He was ready to take a starting role for the Padres right around the time I started following baseball as a kid. It really seemed to leave an impact on the team as veterans Ryan Klesko and Phil Nevin were very visibly affected. At the time I didn’t understand how his death could affect so many people who I assumed couldn’t have known him that well, but now that I myself am just a few short months shy of the age he was when he died, it’s surreal to think a young man in his physical prime could be cut down.

Even now you mention his name, long time Padres fans cannot help but feel grief over the lost potential and life of this young man.