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Original Issue

Tightening the Bond


The picnic on little lake Nellie was organized by two new members of the Cleveland Indian family, pitchers Tim Crews and Bobby Ojeda. The outing, on March 22 at Crews's lakefront house, was put together at the last minute, however, and most of the other Cleveland players already had plans for the only scheduled off day of spring training. Pitcher Steve Olin, the leader of the Indian family, went because he wanted to be with the new guys, to make them feel more welcome.

That was what Steve Olin was all about. That is what the 1993 Indians are all about. In this free-agent era, with players switching teams constantly and team loyalty fading fast, clubhouse talk of a team-as-family is often hollow and contrived. But not so in Cleveland. With so many young players at their core, the Indians are growing up together.

And when Olin and Crews were killed in a boating accident on that little lake 25 miles west of Orlando, Fla., the Indians wept together. It was dark when Crews, with Olin and Ojeda seated on either side of him, apparently steered his 18-foot bass boat too close to shore and struck a dock jutting 185 feet into the water. Olin, 27, was killed instantly, and Crews, 31, died 10 hours later from head injuries. Ojeda had surgery for severe head lacerations.

The Indians' unusual closeness was evident when 10 players gathered in pitcher Charles Nagy's room for an all-night vigil after hearing of the accident; at a team meeting the next morning, when 40 players huddled around manager Mike Hargrove and cried; at a memorial service in Winter Haven, Fla., 48 hours after the tragedy, when former Indian Andre Thornton, who lost his wife and a child in a car accident a few years ago, gave a stirring eulogy that left the players with tears in their eyes and smiles on their faces.

On March 25, before Cleveland's first game following the accident, Hargrove said, "There's a tremendous sense of family here. It's a concept to take hold of. We have a lot of personalities and nationalities here, but what we have in common is a sense of responsibility to each other. We have problems like any team. But I can't imagine doing anything else, anyplace else, with any people other than these."

Reliever Ted Power, who has been with seven teams in 13 years, says, "Nothing compares to the closeness on this team. I've never heard from guys in the off-season as much as I have from these guys." Adds Hargrove, who as a player spent almost seven years with the Indians, "On some teams you want five months away from your teammates in the winter."

It used to be that way in Cleveland, once a city where no one wanted to play. But that began to change in December 1989, when the Indians, who were losing about 90 games a year and were strapped for cash, decided to rebuild with youth. They acquired catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. and second baseman Carlos Baerga in an '89 trade that sent star outfielder Joe Carter to the San Diego Padres. In '91 outfielders Glenallen Hill and Mark Whiten and pitcher Scott Scudder were picked up in deals for veteran pitchers Tom Candiotti and Greg Swindell. Other trades in the last two years, which at the time appeared to be minor transactions, yielded centerfielder Kenny Lofton, the runner-up in the '92 American League Rookie of the Year vote, and first baseman Paul Sorrento. What's more, a rejuvenated farm system produced Nagy, Olin and leftfielder Albert Belle.

The result is a Cleveland team on the rise, young (at 26 years, 10 months, the Indians had the youngest average age in the majors last season) and hungry. General manager John Hart's plan has been to keep this group together by giving his talented youngsters multiyear contracts—18 Indians had them, the most of any team in baseball. Lofton, 25, signed a four-year deal this winter, after only one full year in the big leagues. "It showed they had faith in me," Lofton says. "And that's important. It's like being back in college. As a freshman you know the guys you go in with will be there four years later. Because we know we're going to be together, we're in good spirits, we pick each other up. You don't see that much anymore."

In recent years you hardly ever saw any Indians living in Cleveland during the off-season; now nine of them have bought houses and reside there year-round. That means a lot to the fans. Season-ticket sales for 1993 have tripled, to nearly 10,000, from last year. That total will jump again next season when the Indians move into a new stadium.

"The fans feel they're loved," says Hart. "They think of our kids as their own." The kids won 40 of their last 74 games in '92 to finish fourth in the American League East. "People in Cleveland are eager for us to win now," says Alomar. "I go to the supermarket, and people are pumped. They say, 'You guys are going to do it this year.' "

Well, maybe not this year. Even before the tragedy, the Indians' pitching was weak; it hasn't developed as quickly as the lineup has. The reality is Cleveland is likely to finish closer to last place than first.

The accident dealt a massive blow to the rebuilding effort, not only because Olin (8-5, 29 saves, 2.34 ERA last year) was the Indians' closer, but also because he exemplified the success of Cleveland's plan. Though he had marginal stuff and a sidearm delivery—no one thought he would make it past Triple A—Olin never quit. Hargrove called him Mr. Rogers because he was so upbeat. Olin was the p.r. department's go-to guy when it came to appearances, interviews, whatever.

Crews, who was signed as a free agent in the off-season, broke three ribs early in spring training but was going to make the team as a middle reliever. Ojeda, who was released from the hospital on March 25 and is expected to return to the team, was being counted on as the No. 2 starter.

With no obvious candidate on hand to replace Olin, the Indians will operate a bullpen-by-committee, filling Olin's role on a game-by-game basis. "When you lose an Olin and a Crews, with a young club, that's a major concern," says Hart. "But, no excuses. We're taking the high road. This tragedy is going to bring us closer."

The bullpen was already the closest group, even before the accident. Last year Olin, Power, Derek Lilliquist, Eric Plunk and Kevin Wickander were inseparable. They had rituals, like walking to the pen together before every game and levying a $5 fine on any member of the group who didn't make the walk with the rest of them. After Olin's death, his wife, Patti, gave some of her husband's personal items and baseball equipment to his bullpen mates. Wickander got Olin's watch. Power got his leather belt.

"I used to tell Stevie to use an elastic belt, like mine, because it stretches," Power says. "Stevie wouldn't. He told me, 'I wore this belt when I broke in. I'll always wear this belt.' Well, that baby is mine now. I'll always wear that belt."

It will stay in the family.






[See caption above.]