For those of us who love the game, on most days from April through October, baseball seems like a vital organ -- you can't get along without it. The game is good enough that it deserves that status. But then you are reminded that victory and defeat are not matters of life and death.
It is Sunday, and the Yankees and the Red Sox are playing again at Yankee Stadium. This is an event that is justifiably regarded in Boston and New York as the epitome of importance. Every facet of the two teams is examined at length. Late Sunday morning, Yankees manager Joe Torre draws a large journalistic crowd as he describes the latest details of Carl Pavano's latest throwing session, the latest chapter in the latest attempted recovery from the latest injury.
Some of the scribes chuckle privately about this. It is obviously serious for Pavano and the Yankees, but it has also become something of a soap opera in which there is always the emergence of another sub-plot and there is never really a satisfactory conclusion.
And then in the next few minutes, there is no laughter. There is silence. This happens when people hear that another pitcher, Josh Hancock of the St. Louis Cardinals, died earlier this morning in an auto accident.
Everything stops there for a moment. Later, the Yankees and the Red Sox will still play a game. So will 26 other clubs. Life goes on, you know -- except when it doesn't. The Cardinals and the Cubs will postpone their Sunday night game because that is the one thing that can be done, that must be done to mark the passing of Joshua Morgan Hancock.
It's never the same day, though, when something like this happens. Sadness is death's constant companion, but when an athlete in his prime dies, there is also shock. This is somebody who is typically living a boyhood dream. If he is in the big leagues, he is at the peak of his profession. He is making a very nice living. At 29 years of age, at a glance, he seems to have risen beyond the normal trials and tribulations. But no, he hasn't.
"It was shocking when I found out about it earlier today, I was really sad about it, and I'm still shocked right now," Red Sox first baseman Kevin Youkilis said Sunday afternoon. Hancock came up through the Boston system, where Youkilis played with him in Double-A and the Arizona Fall League.
"It's alarming," said Jason Varitek, who caught Hancock when Hancock made his first appearances in the Majors, three games with the Red Sox in 2002. "It gives you lots of thoughts about just having the opportunity to be here on Earth."
The rest of it -- the Yankees, the Red Sox, the hoopla, the hype -- pales in comparison to an event such as this. You think about Josh Hancock a great deal on Sunday, well beyond the ballpark moment of silence that is requested in his memory. Maybe he wasn't a household name, but he was a member of the baseball family and he is owed at least that much. The death of a man not yet 30 years old is no less tragic because he had not achieved superstar status.
I have seen Josh Hancock pitch and I have seen him in Major League clubhouses. I would not pretend to know him, but I know this much about him: His teammates liked him, he was good enough to be a Major League pitcher, and he had the quality of persistence. He bounced around to four different organizations, before finding a consistent role with the Cardinals last year. He made a difference with them, appearing in 62 games in a season that eventually led to a World Series championship.
"At least he won a World Series before he died," Youkilis said. "Not too many guys can say that they won a World Series in a lifetime. I wish I could have congratulated him."
Hancock had just done the Cardinals another favor on Saturday, eating three innings, pitching capably, sparing the rest of the bullpen in a one-sided loss to the Cubs. Three innings, one earned run, two hits, one walk, two strikeouts. But that was to be Josh Hancock's last line.
"He always had good stuff, all the time, he was like an ace in the Minor Leagues," Youkilis said. "Josh was just one of those guys who loved playing ball, he loved pitching and he just battled."
The players who knew Hancock, asked for comments by the media because they knew him, said what should have been publicly said.
"You reach out to his family and everybody who's close to him," Varitek said. "It's just tragic."
"To all his family and friends out there, you say a prayer for them," Youkilis said. "The St. Louis Cardinals lost a good pitcher today."
You can explain away almost any defeat in a game, but the largest loss of all defies explanation. The game that Josh Hancock played is left with sadness and shock. The closest thing to knowledge is that the St. Louis Cardinals lost a good pitcher today.
Mike Bauman is a national columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.