|Friday, March 21
Ten years later, the pain is still there
By Jayson Stark
What you remember, 10 years later, is the silence. The stillness. The emptiness.
The emptiness of a classic spring-training ballpark, at what should have been game time on a classic spring-training afternoon.
And the emptiness in the faces of the people who should have been sitting inside that ballpark, doing what they love to do. Playing baseball. Watching baseball. Soaking in the special, soothing, easy-going vibes that make spring training the best part of the baseball year.
It's 10 years later now -- 10 years since a power boat slammed into an unlit dock at twilight, leaving two Cleveland Indians dead, but leaving an imprint on all of us, really.
Baseball players aren't supposed to die. Not in the primes of their careers. Not when their families are so young and tender. Not when they are just beginning to taste the dreams that had driven them all their lives. Not during spring training, when the pressure chamber is switched off and the standings are an apparition and hope is everywhere.
And certainly not on a spring-training off day, on a peaceful lake miles from anywhere, while children played and families picnicked and three teammates basked in their special camaraderie, not wanting this day to end.
Everyone feels that kind of pain. Felt it then. Felt it now.
You didn't have to be in Winter Haven, Fla., on March 22, 1993, to feel it. But for those who were there, it's a memory that never goes away.
I was 75 miles away from Winter Haven when I awoke the next morning, preparing to head for a ballpark across the state. Then the phone rang. And everything changed.
Normally, there is nothing more uplifting than the drive into a spring-training parking lot as game time approaches. Off in the distance, you hear bat meeting ball. You hear program vendors trying to make a buck. You see players in all directions, on the side fields all around you. You see fathers and mothers holding their children's hands.
But not on that day.
Every field was empty. A few TV trucks parked in an otherwise-vacant lot. It seemed as if every sound had been vacuumed right out of the air. This was what sadness looked like, felt like, sounded like.
Bob DiBiasio, an Indians vice president, had wandered into this lonely ballpark. He'd been up all night. His eyes were pink. His voice was hoarse.
"This place is supposed to be full," he said. "People are supposed to be cheering."
But for the Cleveland Indians and the people who cared about them, it would be a long, long time before cheering felt like the right thing to do again.
Not with Steve Olin, their effervescent closer, dead at 27. Not with Tim Crews, free-agent set-up man, dead at 31. Not with Bobby Ojeda, veteran starter and winner who was supposed to be the final piece in their rotation, lying in a hospital, wondering why he was alive and his friends were gone.
Their teammates had gathered that morning, practically at dawn. Mike Hargrove, the manager, had gathered them in a circle in the clubhouse. They'd talked about their friends, talked about life, talked about how to go on.
Jim Thome, just a 22-year-old rookie then, barely knew Steve Olin, barely knew Tim Crews. Yet he still considers that day one of the most powerful experiences of his baseball career.
"I still remember walking through that clubhouse door," Thome says. "And the faces said it all."
You never forget those faces. Faces trying to digest the reality of an event that couldn't possibly have happened, but had.
"You just couldn't believe it," Thome says. "It made you think you have to enjoy life. ... That's one reason why I think I try to approach every day I have in baseball with the feeling, 'I'm going to enjoy this and appreciate it.' "
Ten years later, and the ironies of that tragedy still reverberate. How did fate ever point those men toward that lake that day?
Had the Indians not decided to leave Arizona that spring -- after 46 years of training in Tucson, Ari. -- they never would have been there.
Had Hurricane Andrew not demolished their original Florida destination in Homestead that fall, they never would have been there.
Had the club not scheduled that day as their only day off all spring, they never would have been there.
Had Indians management not opted to turn down a late request by the Dodgers to reschedule a rained out game in Winter Haven for that day, they never would have been there.
Had Steve Olin just listened to his wife -- who told him, after a series of wrong turns trying to find Crews' ranch, "Let's just turn around and go back" -- they never would have been there.
Had Olin not promised his 3-year-old daughter, Alexa, that he would take her horseback riding, they never would have been there.
Had it not rained that day, postponing the fishing trip on Little Lake Nellie until way too close to dark, they never would have been there.
"I don't understand it when things like that happen," Olin's best friend and teammate, Kevin Wickander, told ESPN TV producer Willie Weinbaum recently. "I can't explain them. So it's just a part of it. So God believes in taking one of his kids away. And what came out of it, I don't know. I really don't know."
But in life, something good can always come of something bad -- even something that bad, that tragic, that inexplicable. And as the Indians continued to rebuild their shattered franchise in the years that followed, that day -- March 22, 1993 -- was always there, always part of them.
For a long time, they left the jerseys of Olin and Crews hanging in their lockers -- even on the road.
For a long time, Kevin Wickander wore a shirt of his buddy, Steve Olin, under his uniform.
For a long time, nine years in fact, there were no more off days included on the Indians' spring-training schedule -- not until last year, after both Hargrove and GM John Hart had moved on.
But for most of those years, the core of that team -- an astounding number of players -- didn't move on. They stayed. And in an extraordinary way, Steve Olin and Tim Crews stayed, too.
"In tragedy sometimes are your biggest bonding moments," John Maroon, the public relations director for the Indians at the time, told ESPN. "And for that team, it just seemed like their approach was different. They were forced to grow up quickly, and they all kind of came together, and there was a lot of unity. Seems like that team was very close after the accident, seems like they really came together, weren't afraid to show that they cared for each other."
And it all culminated on a September evening in 1995 when they clinched first place -- for the first time in 41 years.
So there they were that night, out there on the sparkling grass of Jacobs Field, caught up in their own little slice of euphoria, when they heard a song on the p.a. system.
That song was "The Dance," by Garth Brooks. And "anybody on that team," said Maroon, "knows what that means. That was Steve's song."
It was Steve Olin's favorite song, a song Wickander had picked to be played at Olin's memorial service back in that tragic March of 1993. Of the Indians dancing to that song on a much happier night two years later, 17 players -- and most of the coaching staff -- had been Indians in 1993.
So they knew. And Mike Hargrove had no doubt they knew. So that night, he had called the man who runs the scoreboard and made a very special request -- for a very special song to be part of a celebration made just a little more special because it included a couple of minutes of country music that twanged right to the hearts of all of them.
"I think Mike's point," Maroon said, "was: 'We're going to remember, because what happened in March of 1993 played a big role in what this team is today.' "
Ten years later now, and we all pause. We all remember. Whether we knew these men or not. Whether we cared about the Cleveland Indians or not.
The memories of that empty ballpark, of those empty faces, remind us that it isn't the highs and lows of baseball that make us pay attention to these games and the men who play them. It's the highs and lows of life. Theirs and ours. And how, in a strange and powerful way, it's baseball that weaves the magic that intertwines us all together.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.