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The children were playing Marco Polo off the dock where the two ballplayers died. Their mother was sitting with her knees pulled up to her chest beneath a large pink umbrella on the end of the pier. She gazed across the soft green hills that cup Little Lake Nellie, across the cypress and orange trees and the reeds.

"Marco!"

"Polo!"

"Marco!"

"Polo!"

Everything was fine as long as her neighbor kept talking and her rottweiler kept snorting and churning those crazy zigzags in the water. Just fine as long as the sun was high and the children kept playing that silly game, one of them going under for a count of three and bursting up with his eyes closed, crying out, "Marco!" and waiting for the others to shout "Polo!" and then flailing toward the voices, groping through the darkness to touch them.

Because then Jetta Heinrich's eyes wouldn't be drawn to the new wood on her dock or to the big brown barn and the rise of land just across the tiny lake where one of the ballplayers' widows lived. And she might not get that sick feeling in her stomach and the echo of the thud again in her ears, the one she heard that night, standing on her back porch in her bathrobe. She wouldn't have to leave like she'd had to nearly every time she'd tried to come out on the dock since then.

"Marco!"

"Polo!"

The dock her husband had constructed with a ramp leading up to it instead of steps, so her aunt in a wheelchair and her shuffling grandfather could join them. A dock with a bench at the end so they could sit together and watch the children belly-flop into the water and play silly games. A place to build a family.

Were this story a movie, it would open with a scene 20 years from today. Patti and Grover and Wick and Laurie and Bobby would be sitting around a fire near the cypress trees on the bank of the little lake in Clermont, Fla. They'd all be graying and wrinkled by then. They'd all have angle and distance on what occurred that night at the dock. In the campfire glow you would barely make out Bobby's scar, the one that loops across his forehead like the seams of a baseball. Laurie would be trying to explain what it was like sleeping for months in the same bed with three little bodies. Patti and Wick would be getting hopelessly tangled trying to remember the words to the song they each listened to a zillion times right after it happened, only you wouldn't quite know what it was, and you would have to wait two hours and two dozen flashbacks to make sense of it all.

But not even four months have gone by. There is no angle yet, no distance, no movie cliché. There are splinters of wood still flying, people still crying out a name, still groping through the darkness. The ripples haven't even begun to reach the edge of Little Lake Nellie.

So let us just reach into the swirl, choose a moment and begin: A Florida morning, a baseball clubhouse, a week after Tim Crews and Steve Olin died when their heads struck a dock during a family outing on a spring training off-day. Grover—that's what everyone around the clubhouse calls Cleveland Indian manager Mike Hargrove—is gazing out at the surviving members of his bullpen, wondering how in hell he is ever going to bring this team back from its grief. On Eric Plunk's chest is one of Steve Olin's T-shirts. On Ted Power's waist is the belt Oly wore when he broke into the major leagues. In Derek Lilliquist's hand are the two steel balls Oly squeezed to strengthen his wrist. On Kevin Wickander's feet are Oly's shower clogs. Thank god, they didn't know Tim Crews any better—another sweet human being, just like Oly. Thank god, Tim had just joined the team.

And now there's a ghost walking slowly toward Grover. Face white as bone, shoulders stooped, checks sunken, eyes dead as stones; a good breeze would blow him away. It's the third man who was in the boat that night, the 35-year-old whom the Indians had hired as a free agent three months earlier to be their No. 2 starter, a Los Angeles Dodger teammate of Crews's the previous two seasons. The one who pleaded, "Keep breathing, Crewser, c'mon, keep breathing!" barely aware that two quarts of his own blood were all over the boat, that his own scalp was ripped back like the top of a tennis ball can.

"I'd like to talk to the team," Bobby Ojeda said softly.

Sure . . . of course, Bobby, fine, Grover heard himself say . . . but good lord. Grover glanced over the ghost's shoulder again at the team. He felt the lump, the goddam fist, rising in his own throat again. His whole life, a childhood amid the cattle ranches and oilfields of Texas, a manhood amid the cleats and tobacco-stained teeth of professional ball, he had been weaned on a truth, a way of surviving, that was being blown to bits here.

One day. That's what Graver's manager in Class A ball had offered him to get from Gastonia, N.C., to Perryton, Texas, and back when his grandfather, Papaw, died. You couldn't do that in one day, so Grover clenched his jaw and kept playing. A few years later his wife's dad died when Grover was a first baseman with the Texas Rangers. "That's not immediate family," said his manager, Billy Martin, when Grover asked for time off to attend the funeral. How many teammates even bothered to call him when he was traded in 1978 after five seasons with the Rangers? Two. Two. Baseball had too long a season, was too dependent upon mechanics, for spilling emotions; a high five now and then, an obscenity and a stream of brown goo, that's all a guy was supposed to let out. Even last year, when Grover risked a little kiss with his wife through the screen behind home plate after a spring training game, damned if that fan hadn't caught him and howled, "Get a room!"

If a man was around that long enough, he became it, even a good guy like Grover. When his wife's eyes welled up in front of a movie, he made the wisecrack. When his teammate Danny Thompson died of leukemia in the off-season in 1976, Grover drove from Texas to the funeral in Oklahoma because that was the proper thing to do, but the agony, the enormity of what this did to Danny's family, never hit him, and he drove back home feeling as flat and arid inside as the land around him, wondering if something was wrong, if something was missing inside, but . . . crap, that speeding ticket he'd gotten on the way there . . . aw, screw it all. . . .

He wanted what Bert Campaneris got. He wanted, at the end of his career, for an umpire to walk over to him in the dugout the way he had seen Bill Haller do one day to Campy—his teammate, the Ranger shortstop who never whined, never cried, never even smiled—and offer a handshake and say, "You're a real professional." That was Grover's goal in life.

So what was happening to him now? The other day, for instance, when he was bawling like a baby, with his son in his lap. And the day after, head buried in his pillow and crying his eyes out on his bed at his spring training apartment, when his wife walked in, and right after her one of his relievers, Kevin Wickander, and Wick's wife, Kim. The four of them all ending up on the bed, talking and sobbing and wrapping their arms around each other. That was professional? Two things were warring inside Grover on the bed that day with the wives and Wick, the last player left on the roster whom he had managed in the minors, now that Oly was gone. "We've . . . we've got to get over this, Wick. . . . We've got to get busy. . . . You're my last pup."

For a year and a half, since Grover had become the Indians' manager, he and the front office had been telling the world how tight this young team was, how much like family. They had signed a core of 18 players to relatively modest multiyear contracts and planned to keep them together, use their closeness as a weapon against the big-market teams with the cash flow to keep famous free agents shuttling in and out. But lots of team managements yapped about family and waived you in a swing and a miss. Who could possibly trust that?

Now one of the family was in a box, and the other was ashes in an urn in the mountains of Oregon, and Grover had to look inside himself and discover if the sermons he had preached were true. If they were a family, how could he be a professional? He could only be a father who had lost two children. He sat on a chair in the middle of the locker room the morning after the accident and waved to his players to come sit close around him on the floor, like a kindergarten teacher and his kids. And now the emotions he had always wondered about were coming like a freight train, and the only choice was whether to stand in front of the train or leap out of its way. He stood there and let it happen in front of everyone, kept on talking about what the players meant to him even when the words were hitching and then turning to sobs, and then, one by one, they all did the same. God, it felt like family, the way they all kept drifting in and out of each other's apartments that week, the way Grover and his wife, Sharon, were always there for the players and their wives and the widows, ready to pack or cook or clean or hug or cry with anyone who needed it. It could never be the same after that morning in the clubhouse with Grover. Good or bad for a baseball team, nobody could be sure, but never the same.

Grover backed way off, let the players miss a cutoff man or a signal in those final exhibition games, but now Opening Day was just a week away, time to start sucking it up and setting the jaw . . . and here stood that ghost in front of the team.

It was not so much what Bobby Ojeda told the players that day—how it had happened that night on the boat, how the three of them had never even glimpsed that dock in the darkness, how he wanted them not to pity him or think about him at all. It was the way he said it, the utter deadness in his voice and eyes, the total absence of hope. Not a word of encouragement. Not a word about coming back.

And then he was gone. The players looked at one another. The clubhouse filled, again, with silence. How many million attaboys and let's-pull-it-togethers would it take to counteract that?

They would charge onto the field for Opening Day in Cleveland, the relievers lifting their thumbs to heaven to signal to Oly and Crewser that everything was going to be O.K., 73,290 people standing and crying and roaring for them and for the two widows clutching the empty jerseys at home plate . . . and would get crushed 9-1 by the Yankees. The Indians would lose 43 of their first 81 games, committing 71 errors, pressing to do what they couldn't and not even doing what they could. Injuries chopped down what remained of the staff—six pitchers, at one point, on the disabled list—as little pangs turned into deep pain; who could bring himself to mention a tendon or a tender kit in the wake of death? No one pointed a linger in the clubhouse. The team, fused by grief, remained one. But there was no resurrection. No clichés. No movies to be made in last place.

Grover would see a player making an idiot, an absolute idiot, out of himself on the field in May, open his mouth to tell him that . . . but then an image of that player from the day when they gathered around Grover's chair in the clubhouse would come to him, a memory of how much compassion that man had, and instead Grover would hear himself say, "You're not what you showed on the field today. I know you."

But he couldn't help wondering, as loss piled upon loss, as day after day passed without an offer of a contract extension from the front office that spoke so much about family, if he should've just chewed the guy's head off.

He came home after a loss one day in May and put his arms around Sharon. He had opened a letter before the game from a fan complaining that Grover had betrayed his responsibility to young people by downplaying Tim Crews's blood-alcohol level the night of the accident, and rage had rushed to Grover's face. He had grabbed the phone, tracked down the fan and screamed obscenities at him—how dare this moron judge him from a thousand miles away when there was so much pain, so many lives lying crumpled all around him. Now, for the first time in their lives together, his wife felt his body come unstrung, all his 215 pounds falling against her, and she felt as close to him as she ever had. "I don't know if I did the right or wrong thing about the alcohol," he sobbed. "I don't know anything. . . ."

Were there any standings, any stats, for good human beings? On a tired Sunday evening after a game, when his four-year-old, Shelly, wanted to read a book or his 11-year-old, Andy, wanted to play ball, Grover used to sink into his living room chair with the newspaper or a book and grunt, "Yeah . . . later. . . ." until it was their bedtime. Now he got up and did it. Now he swallowed hard and stared in wonder at the note tucked inside his bedroom mirror, written to him in May by his own father, a man who had never before come close to uttering such words to him: "I saw you on television the past few weeks and you seemed to have the weight of the world on your shoulders. You can only do so much with what you have. When you get down and everything keeps falling up tails, remember, He's with you. . . . With love, Pop."

From the corner of her eye the old woman kept looking at the man seated next to her on the cross-country flight out of Los Angeles. Pulled low over his brow was a dark cap with a long bill. Under the cap, pulled tight over the crown of his head, nearly down to his eyebrows, was a blue bandanna. Zippering under and out from it, a terrible scar. On his nose was a pair of John Lennon glasses. She thought he might be a member of one of those gangs.

His finger was tracing a Delta route map, looking for the longest arc, the place farthest away from his home that he could go without a change of planes. He had refused to let doctors give him blood transfusions—he simply didn't believe in them. He might pass out if he tried to change planes. He might get lost. He might end up anywhere.

In his little carry-on bag was a book, a couple of pairs of underpants and socks, a few shirts, a plastic cylinder of sleeping pills and the passport he had sneaked out of his home in Upland, Calif., without his wife seeing. He had been so calm when he said goodbye to her and his little girl. They had never guessed.

He didn't want to talk. He just wanted to read. He just wanted to stare out the window and beat himself to death, thinking of six kids without fathers. But the old woman was so kind, and even though he often preferred to be alone, he had been the kind of guy who liked to pull out a chair when a stranger approached for an autograph or to ask a question and say, "C'mon, sit down."

"What do you do for a living?" the lady said now.

"Well . . . I used to play baseball . . . but then I had an accident."

"Oh." She looked at him again. Ohhhhhhhh.

She knew. The whole world knew. She started to tell a story. He didn't want to hear a story, but she was so kind. When she was two years old, her mother was eight months pregnant. And then . . . then her mother was dead. "A kid never loses the pain of that," the old woman said. "Never. But do you know what? When you grow up, it makes you stronger."

For just a second, his eyes flickered.

He got off the plane when it landed on the East Coast. He went to a bank. He cashed a check. A big check. Absurd. Still making $1.7 million a year. No credit card. No trace.

He met his brother-in-law. "Are you crazy?" his brother-in-law said. "They'll never let you in the country. They'll arrest you at customs. They'll give you a body-cavity search. Do you know what you look like now in the mirror?"

No. Two weeks straight without looking in a mirror. He bought the Delta ticket. He stuffed the wad of bills into the carry-on bag, next to the underwear, the socks, the shirts, the book, the passport, the plastic cylinder of sleeping pills. It was opening week in baseball.

You're not serious, Laurie. Not the dock. Not already. Not today. Christ, she's Clint Eastwood.

No, somebody said, she's tougher than Clint.

John Wayne, then.

No, tougher than John.

John Eastwood. That's who Laurie Crews is, they were kidding. She's John Eastwood.

The five men glanced at each other. Christ, she was serious. The lake. The dock. Just a few hours ago, they had buried her husband.

The uneasy teasing stopped. They started walking. Fernando Montes, the Indians' conditioning coach, and Perry Brigmond, a buddy of Tim's—the two men who waded in that night and dragged the boat with the ballplayers ashore. Kirk Gibson, a teammate of Tim's for three of his six years on the Dodgers, and Mark Ostreich, a workout pal, and Bobby Ojeda. Bobby took a few steps, and everything spun. Laurie took one of his arms. Kirk took the other. They walked that way to the edge of the water and stared across at the dock.

This was Laurie, pure Laurie. Don't put it off. Step right back up to it. Talk to Tim and Steve. Fix it, now. "You're comin' back, Bobby," she started saying that day. "You're gonna pitch again, hear me? Don't you worry about me. I got people comin' out of the woodwork supportin' me—worse 'n termites. You worry about you. I'll kick your butt if you don't come back. I mean it."

You looked at her body, tan and wiry, at her eyes, deep blue and honest, and you knew she did. People kept asking how she had the stomach to stay there, on the 45-acre ranch overlooking the lake and the dock. She kept asking, How could I not? You could smell Laurie and Tim's dream, just driving up the dirt road to their house. Fresh-painted horse fence. New cedar barn. New cedar house. Baby oaks. Runt magnolias. Lacy grass. Three little children. A dream all planted and spindly and ready to grow.

Every off-season Sunday morning for three years Laurie and Tim had done the same thing. Pulled the classified ads section out of the newspaper, circled every property that sounded faintly like their dream, eaten a big, greasy country breakfast and spent all day searching. It had to be a place where Laurie could raise horses and Tim could fish bass. Where two grown-up Florida country kids could walk dirt and raise kids. "A safe place," Tim kept saying. Not like Los Angeles, where he had pitched the last six years. Where kids drove Porsches, kids did crack, kids died. It had to be a place to build a family.

They found it one day. They worked on it for more than a year. They moved in in February. A month later Tim was dead. Now Laurie was going to live the dream for them both.

This is what you do with pain. You take it by the scruff of the neck, slap it around and put it to work. More horse fencing to go up. More tomatoes and cucumbers to be picked. More grass and shrubs to be planted. More quarter horses to be bought, sold, fed, hosed, trained. More pets to be taken to the vet. More homework to be done with the kids. More hugs to be given out. It's not healthy to be depressed, she would say, so I won't be depressed. A million people called her each day, but all they ever seemed to get was the answering machine: Hi, it's Laurie. I'm doin' fine. Busy as ever. . . .

She would come back to the house at the end of the day, exhausted, her eyes seeing Tim's maroon-and-silver Ramcharger in the driveway and shooting the words to her brain before she could stop them: He's home! She would lie in her bed at night, the three kids at crazy angles, lie there smelling their skin and their breath. Tricia, the nine-year-old, refusing to talk about it. Shawn, the five-year-old, saying, "Don't worry, Mommy. Don't cry. He'll never be away. He'll always be in your heart." Travis, the three-year-old, telling people, "My daddy's in church. He'll come out when he's done playing baseball with God."

Sometimes Laurie ached so bad to hold Tim that she would go to the closet and smell his clothes. Other times she went into the shower, let the warm water wash away her resolve, just let it all go, and go, and go. . . .

Midnight. Phone ringing. "Bobby? You're not working out yet, are you? Look, I'm gonna hang up this telephone and get on a plane and come out there and train with you if you don't get goin'. You're gonna hate yourself one day if you don't come back. No more pity parties. I'll kick your butt. I mean it."

She couldn't quite put into words why it meant so much to her and Patti Olin, to Tim's parents, to everyone, that Bobby come back. It was almost too big, too genetic. Laurie was the daughter of Dutch parents born in Indonesia, both held for years by the Japanese in a prisoner-of-war camp, both hungry at the end of it all for America. Laurie's father had taken migrant farm work in Florida, anything to survive, earned an engineering degree, carved out a good life. That's what everybody had come for, he figured, to a land full of the children and grandchildren of people who left their families and hometowns behind rather than surrender to circumstance, obey fate. A land full of people who kept turning to sports, to see Bo Jackson dragging his artificial hip back to the plate, Jimmy Valvano dragging his cancer-racked spine back to the microphone, to see men and women overcoming injuries, odds and setbacks, athletes reenacting the national allegory, reconfirming it, taking charge. So where was Bobby in April when Laurie flew to Los Angeles to see the Dodgers' home opener and to visit him at his house in nearby Upland? Bobby's wife, Ellen, shook her head. No Bobby. No trace. Gone.

Two a.m. Phone ringing. It was Patti. Thank god for Patti. Somebody Laurie could tell that she had dropped from a size 9 to a size 4, that her stomach was burning like a furnace, without feeling as if she were asking for a pity party. Somebody she had never even met before that afternoon. The only person on earth who understood. "What time is it, Patti?"

"It's late. . . . Sorry. . . . You said if I was going through a bad time to call you no matter what hour."

"That's right. Start talkin'. You gettin' out of that house yet? I tell you, you gotta move down here, and I'll build you a house across the lake, and we'll get you all fixed up. So tell me how you're doin', girl."

Who do you know here, sir?"

"No one."

"Why are you here?"

"Heard it was a nice place."

"How long will you stay?"

"I don't know."

The customs officer stared again at the photograph in the passport. Stared again at the man in front of him. Barely a resemblance. But this was Sweden. Go ahead.

The man took slow, small steps to the taxi. He checked into the best place he could find in Stockholm, the Grand Hotel. For a day and a night and a day, he put off what he was going to do. He was still so dizzy. He was still so weak. When the sun was setting on the second day, it was time.

He set two packs of cigarettes and two bottles of wine on the table in the alcove of the room. He stared out the window. Water everywhere. Boats. Docks.

All the adversity in his life, all those other brushes with death and pain, they didn't prepare him for this. They were nothing. The time in the early 1970s, when he was just a kid on a minibike, driving off a bridge. The time he and his dad hugged the floor of their fishing boat on a lake south of Fresno, listening to the bullets whine past, inches from their ears, because some lunatic, for the sheer hell of it, felt like squeezing off 10 or 15 rounds at two guys in a boat. The time when he was a teenager and had to heave away a can that had shot up in flames in his hand, because they were out of charcoal lighter for the grill and, well, why not use the gasoline? The time when he was in a Corvette and hit a telephone pole, the time an ambulance plowed clean through the trunk and backseat of a car he was riding in. The time, with the Mets in the thick of the '88 pennant race, when the hedge clippers slipped, turning the middle finger of his pitching hand into a stump dangling from another stump. He remembered coming home at 2 a.m. from road trips in '90, when the Mets had buried him in the bullpen, climbing onto his Harley Davidson in the suit he had to wear to comply with the team dress code, howling and roaring through the streets of his neighborhood until the sun came up. . . . All Little League stuff. Penny ante. No howling now.

If only . . . sure, Crewser had had a few beers, but he seemed fine. If only the Indians still trained in Arizona, like they always had till this spring, and hadn't chosen to move to Homestead, Fla., and if only the hurricane hadn't headed straight for Homestead and demolished the complex, and if only the team hadn't stumbled into Winter Haven—just an hour from Crewser's ranch—to train. If only it hadn't rained that afternoon, and they had gone fishing in daylight, as they'd planned. If only they hadn't already been past the dock when the truck headlights flashed on the shore, the signal that Tim's buddy, Perry, was ready to be picked up. If only Crewser and Steve had slouched when they sat, as he always did. If only he hadn't slouched—goddammit, what right did he have to be alive?

This is what you do with pain. You sit alone in a hotel room in a foreign country, and you start drinking wine and smoking cigarettes and staring out the window, talking out loud to the two dead men you were sitting with thigh-to-thigh, saying the most painful and horrific things you can possibly think of again and again, for six or seven hours, because if you can do that and get out of the chair at the end of it, you've put on another layer. And if you can do that the next day and the next, you can create a person who you're really not, but the person you need to be to go on. And it's worth it, worth everything you lose when you do that, because you don't lose everything. You don't reach for the plastic cylinder of pills you keep looking at. which would make your eyelids finally begin to sag, make all the if onlys drift away, and everything else too, forever and ever.

He lurched from the chair at 4 a.m., the room spun, he headed out the door. He walked for miles through the bitter cold and darkness—water everywhere, boats, docks—hanging by the thread, the thinnest, most ordinary thread, the old woman's words on the airplane: One day, because of it, the kids will be stronger. And when he came back, it was sunup, and he fell on the bed, his heart beating so hard and irregular that he thought it was coming right through his chest. Oh my god, he thought. I'm going to die in a hotel room 7,000 miles from home.

On one shelf lies Steve Olin's folded game jersey. Next to it lie his hat, a ball he signed, and his baseball card in a frame. On another shelf lie his baseball pants and several of his T-shirts. On a third shelf lie his fishing-tackle box, his spinners, spent shells from his rifle, his fishing license, his photograph with a deer, and his locker nameplate. On a hook hangs his practice jersey.

This is not the Olins' house. It's the Wickanders'.

Someday, when Wick has a little boy and the boy is four or five, Wick's going to start pointing at the shelves and telling him about a wonderful man who drove an hour to a ranch on a lake one day, his only off-day all spring, because he wanted to make sure that the newest member of the bullpen felt welcome. He'll tell the boy about a season that happens now and then, or maybe not even that often. The oldest member of the bullpen, Teddy Power, had already put in 16 years with 10 different teams in pro ball when it happened, and he said he had never seen anything like what they shared that summer. A summer in 1992 when five men who loved the same things—boats and tobacco and motorcycles and trout streams and hunting and silly pranks and four-wheeling in the mud—found a groove that made them the American League's best bullpen, and became best friends as well. A summer when they went on fishing trips together and threw pies in faces and sabotaged TV microphones and branded their names in bullpens with red-hot tarp stakes and shouted Ch-ching! Ch-ching! all the way to the mound in the middle of games whenever one of them had broken some screwy bullpen bylaw that would cost him five bucks in kangaroo court. The Pen, they called themselves. We poked our dirty little raccoon noses, Wick would say, into anything we could. Five men: Wickander, Olin, Lilliquist, Plunk, Power. Five boys: Wicky, Oly, Lilli, Plunky, Teddy. In the bubble-gum-chewing contest, Wicky and Oly tied, 71 pieces in each of their mouths.

And then, just like that, the little family was gone. Oly was dead, and Wick, who couldn't get over it, was traded, and Teddy, even though he was 38 and might've known better, kept throwing with pain to make up for it and strained his triceps muscle, and Lilli and Plunky were left to blink at all the names and faces checking in.

"You'll have the most excellent day ever." That was the fortune on the Bazooka bubble-gum wrapper that Oly opened that day last summer. "Here, Wick," Oly said. "This is for you." And Wick believed him. He tucked it in the liner of his cap, won his first big league game that very day, framed the wrapper and put it on his wall.

That's how it was with Oly and Wick, the Pen's two best buddies. Oly wouldn't touch the third base line or flip the ball to the bullpen catcher when he entered a game, so Wick wouldn't either. Oly etched an arrow under his hat brim to direct the ball to the plate, so Wick had to have that too. They had been together since 1989, at the Indians' Triple A farm in Colorado Springs. Oly was a 16th-round pick, a devoted husband with skinny shoulders and a submarine delivery and ordinary stuff, who believed in himself deep down. Wick was a second-round pick, a classic bachelor with barroom radar and killer looks and wicked stuff, who, deep down, didn't. Wick leaned on Oly. Literally. They would both go down to one knee and take turns resting an arm on each other's back in the outfield during batting practice, head beside head. Like Siamese twins, Teddy would say. Like listening to two guys talk who'd been next-door neighbors all their lives, said Lilli.