In times of despair, Hargrove stands tall

Another player died. The tragedies came 10 years apart, the circumstances were different, the only element that was the same was the manager. When the news came that Steve Bechler was no longer alive, Mike Hargrove thought to himself, not with self pity, but with pain, "I can't do this again.'' But that feeling, he said, "didn't last very long.''

Some people can handle these things. Some people can deal with a horrible loss once; Hargrove has gone through it twice. And for that, the Cleveland Indians family of 1993 and the Baltimore Orioles family 2003 are fortunate. Hargrove is one of the good guys in baseball. He's a big, tough Texan with a raspy voice, an engaging manner and a soft heart, especially when a warm touch is needed for people in distress.

We learned that 10 years ago Saturday when two of Hargrove's pitchers, Steve Olin and Tim Crews, were killed in a boating accident during spring training. A third pitcher, Bobby Ojeda, was injured, but survived. The following morning, Hargrove walked toward the Indians' clubhouse in Winter Haven, Fla., to address his team. His players were weeping. Hargrove was only 43 years old at the time and in his third year of managing in the big leagues.

"Right before I went in the clubhouse, I prayed,'' Hargrove said 10 years later. "I had no idea what I was going to say. I asked for His help. I prayed, 'please, let me say and do the right thing.' I love God, but I don't push it on people. But I believe He was at work that day.''

Hargrove had his players draw their chairs together into a circle. "I have no idea what I said,'' Hargrove said. "I can't remember. But as I was talking, I had a feeling that it was good. I talked until I couldn't go any further, then (pitcher) Teddy (Power) took over. When Teddy couldn't go anything further, someone else talked. It was a rare opportunity to glance into each other's hearts for two hours. And, we liked what we saw.''

Ten years later, Hargrove says the tragedy "changed me. I'm more emotional than I used to be. But I was probably too compassionate the first three or four months after the accident. By mid-season, I was too empathetic to the players. The nurturing side of me had taken too much hold. I had to get myself, and my team, back to an even keel. I couldn't do my job if I was trying to fix everyone's problems ... the first time I had to yell at a guy, it felt good. I knew I was back on an even keel. I knew then I was the manager again.''

Two years later, the Indians won their first American League Central Division title. During the celebration at Jacobs Field, Hargrove called Mike Lehr, the club's director of broadcasting, and had the song, The Dance, by Garth Brooks, played over the public address system. That was Olin's favorite song. And all his friends knew that.

"I thought it would mean a lot to anyone who was there (with the Indians at the time of the accident),'' said Hargrove. "For those who weren't there, it had no significance, but it was still a good song. It was a tribute to those guys, to their families. It was part of our promise to never forget them. We didn't tell anyone that we were going to do it. For those who knew, there wasn't a dry eye to be seen. I saw Charlie Nagy, tears were rolling down his face.''

The tears eventually stopped for the Indians, and for Hargrove. "Three, four, five times a year, I just sit there and relive it,'' he said. "It's not painful. It makes me feel good that most of the people involved picked up the pieces, but have kept memories of those guys true.''

And then came Feb. 16 in Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., when Bechler collapsed, and was rushed to the hospital. Unlike the boating accident, Hargrove saw this one. As Bechler was put on a stretcher, Hargrove wondered if he was going to die. During that night, Bechler would make progress, raising hope, then he would take another bad turn. On Feb. 17, Bechler died.

"I had deep, deep sympathy for his wife, and their baby on the way,'' said Hargrove. "There is nothing that prepares you for something like that. The more it is the same, the more it is different, if that makes any sense. The one thing I learned from 10 years ago is the right thing to do is to get back on the field as soon as possible. It's nice to have three, four, five hours a day when you have something else to think about. Even then, it's very hard.''

Hargrove has never asked himself, "why me?'' He has never wondered why God would ask him to handle such adversity, not once, but twice. He says he doesn't lay awake at night thinking about the boating accident, or the big Orioles pitcher who fell down while running.

"I haven't let it consume me,'' Hargrove said. "If I let it consume me, I would go insane. We are put in situations for a purpose. I have to believe that, I have to trust in that.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and a regular contributor to Baseball Tonight. E-mail tim.kurkjian@espnmag.com.