Dark Sky, Dark Water, A Dark Night
By Drew Pelto, AKA *censored*
Twenty years ago today, my view of baseball-- and life as a whole-- changed forever.
On the morning of March 23, 1993, I woke up, had an Eggo waffle with cinnamon and sugar sprinkled on it, and prepared to enter another day of the hell known as third grade. Sitting on the couch in my living room in the far-east Cleveland suburb of Painesville, Dan Patrick delivered the morning's sports news. Baseball season was only a few weeks away as I started my first Little League practices. My Cleveland Indians were still in the middle of a lengthy rebuild. But on this day, they were the lead story.
As Steve Olin's photo popped up on the screen, I was mystified. One of my favorite players was the lead story? And then the words came:
"Three members of the Cleveland Indians were involved in a one-boat accident at 7:30 last night."
And then it became obvious: Olin was one of the three. I only recall a few words here and there after that. Olin was killed instantly. Free agent signing Tim Crews died hours later from injuries sustained in the crash. Bob Ojeda was in critical condition from head injuries.
Tim Crews, the boat's owner and driver
At eight years old, I hadn't experienced much death-- only my 88-year old grandfather and an aunt who had cancer. Death was something that only happened to the aged, the sick, the frail. It wasn't supposed to happen to athletes in the middle of their careers.
And yet, here it was right in front of me as this fan favorite, a submarine-tossing closer and a big piece of the future for the Tribe, was gone in an instant. The team was shocked. Major League Baseball held a moment of silence at every ballpark. It was the first death of a player during a season since the 1979 plane crash that took the life of Thurman Munson in Northeast Ohio. The Indians wore a commemorative patch on their jerseys recognizing Olin and Crews. The Dodgers, Crews' previous team, also honored him with a sleeve emblem.
Death wasn't supposed to happen to athletes in the middle of their careers.
The Indians had an off day on March 22. Tim Crews lived near the team's Spring Training facility in Winter Haven and invited the players, coaches, and staff over. Many had already made plans with family, but three members-- Olin, Bobby Ojeda, and strength coach Fernando Montes-- went out. As they got ready to go out and hit the lake for some fishing, the group realized they left a few items back up at the house. Montes lost the game of rock-paper-scissors, and off he went back to the house while the three pitchers launched the boat to take a couple laps around the lake. Minutes later, Montes was with Tim's friend Perry Brigmond, pulling three severely injured bodies from Little Lake Nellie.
Olin had always told his wife Patti that he wanted the Garth Brooks song "The Dance" played at his funeral. It was his favorite song, and the video for it showed people who died following their dreams. The deaths of Olin and Crews didn't just affect their families. It also derailed another young career and life, and heavily weighed on Ojeda, the lone survivor of the crash.
Olin made me want to be a submarine pitcher,
a skill that served me well in college wiffleball
Bobby was the lucky one, as odd as it sounds. Slouched just slightly in his seat on Crews' boat, the lower distance was just enough to keep him from joining the fates of his teammates, only shaving off the top of his head instead of taking a direct blow to the entire thing. Ojeda had a long bout with the "Why Me?" that survivors often feel following a tragedy taking place around them. He spent time in Sweden to get away. He no longer called himself a ballplayer when asked, just a former ballplayer. He wanted nothing to do with rehab, physical fitness, or even holding a baseball. It took months before he was even willing to throw a ball with his physical therapist-- which also took him weeks to decide to visit.
And how many near-misses could a man have? Ojeda had already survived driving off a bridge on a mountain bike as a kid. He and his dad barely avoided shots from some crazy guy who just decided to fire off fifteen rounds at them in California-- while they were on a boat, no less. And there was the time as a teenager that he tried to light a charcoal grill with gasoline and the can went up in flames in his hand. Or the time he was riding in a Corvette that managed to end up wrapped around a telephone pole. Or when an ambulance plowed through the trunk and into the back seat of another car he was riding in. Or when he sliced his finger off with hedge trimmers as a Mets pitcher. Or all the times he drove around his neighborhood on his Harley, still dressed in the suit he wore out from the ballpark. Eventually, he decided he was going to try to make his way back to baseball. The fates hadn't gotten him yet, and he wasn't going to just roll over and let them end his career. Not unless it was on his terms.
Kevin Wickander wasn't even at the party that day. He wanted to go, but had already told his wife and kids he would take them to Disney World. But Olin was his best friend through their years in the minors, the best man at his wedding, his chief competitor in the annual bullpen gum chewing contest: he was completely distraught by Olin's death. The two had always been there for each other. But this was a time where Wick couldn't be there for his friend. Wickander made sure the team kept Olin's locker the exact way it had been before his death, almost obsessively so. A month into the season, the loss of his best friend still heavy in his mind, the Indians sent Wickander to the Cincinnati Reds to give him a new start. The big lefty never regained his form. After a couple of brief stints in Detroit and Milwaukee, including a 1995 season that turned a few heads for a while, he was out of baseball. Having had drug and alcohol problems early in his career, and now dealing with the end of a baseball career and the loss of Olin, Wick ended up back into drugs, developing a sever meth addiction. Turning to crime to make the money required to feed his addiction, he was eventually arrested and imprisoned for theft. Released in 2006, he has been clean ever since and is living in Phoenix. He says his most prized possessions are his college baseball championship ring, his wedding ring, and a watch of Steve's that his widow Patti gave to him at the funeral. Even after all the post-career problems, he still says that March 22, 1993 was the worst day of his life.
His inability to be there for his best friend haunted him
On August 7, a young pitcher named Julian Tavarez made his major league debut. After allowing five runs in three innings, manager Mike Hargrove went to the bullpen for a lefty. Bobby Ojeda made his return to the mound. He would only pitch in nine games that season, then in two with the 1994 Yankees. But the most important thing was that he was back.
For the entire 1993 season, anytime I wore my Indians jersey,
I made this patch out of paper and taped it to my sleeve
For the next seven years, the Indians never had a day off during Spring Training, just to keep something like this from happening again. The team continued on. Two weeks later, the Yankees crushed them 9-1 on Opening Day. They finished sixth of the seven AL East teams, going 76-86. Eric Plunk, Jeremy Hernandez, Derek Lilliquist, and Jerry DiPoto stepped into the roles vacated in the bullpen, but the Tribe still had the fourth worst ERA in the American League. The team played their last game at Cleveland Municipal Stadium and prepared for a move to the new downtown ballpark in the Gateway neighborhood. A month after the conclusion of the 1993 season, one final tragedy: another young pitcher, Cliff Young, was killed in a car accident in his home state of Texas.
Aside from Dave Winfield wearing it 1995, no Indian wore Olin's 31 until 2000. Two and a half years after Olin and Crews' deaths, on September 8, 1995, the Cleveland Indians raised the Central Division banner as they clinched their first playoff berth since 1954.
"The Dance" played over the Jacobs Field speakers.
"Our lives are better left to chance,
I could have missed the pain,
But I'd have had to miss the dance."