Brent Schoening said he couldn’t help but smile when he thought of Josh Hancock.
Schoening, a former Columbus High standout who excelled at Auburn, described Hancock as "one of those guys who make you smile."
"He was always a real good guy," Schoening said. "He never really felt the pressure. He just took it as it came. He didn’t have a care in the world."
Hancock, a right-handed pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, died in a car crash early Sunday morning. According to the Associated Press, Hancock, 29, was alone in his 2007 Ford Explorer when he struck the rear of a tow truck at 12:35 a.m. The truck was in the left lane assisting another vehicle. He was pronounced dead on the scene.
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"I played with him all the way up through the minors," Schoening said. "He was one of my best friends. We hung out a lot. That’s just terrible.
"It’s just terrible for him to finally have made it and won a World Series. He could have been there five or 10 years."
Hancock joined the Cardinals in the spring of 2006 and was part of the Cards’ improbable run to a World Series championship. Before that, he had pitched for Cincinnati, Philadelphia and Boston.
Hancock only played one season — 1997 — for the Tigers, but it was a memorable one. The Tigers advanced to the College World Series. Current Auburn coach Tom Slater, then an assistant, said Hancock was "part of arguably the best pitching staff and the best team to ever play at Auburn."
That staff also included former Glenwood standout Tim Hudson and former Central standout Bryan Hebson.
Slater added, "It’s a shame whenever anyone dies, especially someone as young as Josh, in a tragic accident."
Hal Baird, who coached Hancock at Auburn, said he last spoke with Hancock a year ago during spring training right after he joined the Cardinals.
"He was doing very well and his career was (going) in the right direction, and it was great to see that happening for him," Baird said.
During his lone season with the Tigers, Hancock was 2-0 with a 4.75 earned run average in 13 appearances. Working primarily from the bullpen, Hancock struck out 32 in just 30 innings.
"He was a very special talent," Baird said. "He was very high-spirited, happy-go-lucky. Everyone liked him. It’s just a real sad day.
"It’s a sad day for the Hancock family and the Auburn baseball family. Our thoughts and prayers are with the Hancocks. Even though he was just here a year, he was an integral part of the team."
The Cardinals postponed their home game Sunday night against the Chicago Cubs. It was the second time in less than five years that a St. Louis pitcher died during the season. Darryl Kile was found dead in his hotel room in 2002.
Police said the 29-year-old Hancock, who was single, was alone in his 2007 Ford Explorer when the SUV struck the rear of a flatbed tow truck at 12:35 a.m. The tow truck was in the left lane with its lights flashing while assisting another car that had crashed, Police Chief Joe Mokwa said.
Hancock died upon impact, Mokwa said. The driver of the tow truck, whose name was not released by police, was in the truck at the time of the crash but was not injured. Mokwa said the truck driver saw Hancock’s SUV swerve just before it hit the tow truck, which weighs about 26,000 pounds.
Mokwa said it appeared Hancock was driving at or just above the speed limit, and there were no alcohol containers in his vehicle.
‘‘We may never know what occurred,’’ Mokwa said. ‘‘It appears that he just merely didn’t see the tow truck.’’
The medical examiner’s office said an autopsy had been scheduled. Services were scheduled for Thursday in Tupelo, Miss., where Hancock’s family lives.
‘‘All of baseball today mourns the tragic and untimely death of St. Louis pitcher Josh Hancock,’’ baseball commissioner Bud Selig told the Associated Press. ‘‘He was a fine young pitcher who played an important role on last year’s World Series championship team.’’
Hancock, who pitched three innings of relief in Saturday’s 8-1 loss to the Cubs, played for four major league clubs. He went 3-3 with a 4.09 ERA in 62 regular-season appearances for the Cardinals last season and pitched in three postseason games. He was 0-1 with a 3.55 ERA in eight games this season.
‘‘There’s a big hole that’s going to be there,’’ Cardinals manager Tony La Russa said. ‘‘This is brutal to go through.’’
Three days before his death, the Cardinals got a scare that some teammates said reminded them of Kile’s death — Hancock overslept and showed up late for a day game in St. Louis. Hancock told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he thought the starting time was later and didn’t get up until the ‘‘20th call’’ from anxious teammates.
‘‘We were all a little nervous,’’ closer Jason Isringhausen said earlier this week. ‘‘We don’t care if you’re late. That happens. We want to know that you’re OK.’’
Hancock made his offseason home in St. Louis. He was the only player to attend the premiere of a DVD documenting the Cardinals’ unlikely run to their 10th World Series championship after winning only 83 regular-season games.
Hancock joined the Cardinals in spring training last season after the Cincinnati Reds released him for violating a weight clause in his contract. He had been a starter the previous year with Cincinnati, but missed 133 games because of groin and elbow injuries. He also pitched for Boston and Philadelphia.
The Cardinals will wear patches with Hancock’s No. 32 on their sleeves for the rest of the season. The team also planned a memorial for the bullpen, which already features a tribute to Kile.
General manager Walt Jocketty said the Cardinals, who are off Thursday, plan to charter a plane to the funeral.
‘‘Obviously, this is very difficult for all of us, especially those of us who were here five years ago when we lost Darryl Kile,’’ said Jocketty, his eyes red. ‘‘There’s no way we could have played tonight’s game.’’