Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Bobby, Oly and The Crewser: Twenty Years After Little Lake Nellie

God, it seems like a million years ago. And yet, the day is still so clear to me.

It was 1993, and I had been a baseball fan for 4 years strong. Four years, never once had I been a 'casual' fan of the game. When baseball took hold of me, it meant to never let me go. Even today, as I type and peck away on my keyboard, the game means as much to me as it ever has.

I can't imagine ever being anything less than completely taken by the artistry and the symphony that I see on every baseball field, at every level, everywhere in the world. I guess you could say I'm a terminal case; baseball will probably be the last thing on my mind when I shuffle off this mortal coil:

Son: “Dad, are you ok? Do you need me to get the doctor? You're not looking so good...”

Me: “Lord, no! Get me the box scores!”

Yeah, that sounds about right.

Anyway, it was 1993. Twenty years seems like an eternity when you're pushing nineteen. That was me in the Spring of '93, pulling out a chair and sitting down to breakfast on a sunny and mild morning. I think it was a Tuesday.

Funny, the things you remember. I can't tell you what I had for lunch two days ago, but I can tell you what Rogers Hornsby batted in 1924 (.424, by the way).

I was, by design, too young and naive to think that it was even possible that the players who I saw in the headlines and highlights of the news every day could ever be mere mortals. Some lessons you learn by harsh and unpleasant means. This day would change the way I saw my heroes, permanently.

As I sought out that day's paper, seeking out the sports section as if my day depended upon the scores and standings listed within (it did), I unfolded the pages and looked to the front page headline.

The next thing I remember is feeling like someone reached inside me and squeezed my guts in a vise-like grip, growing ever tighter as I read the words:

Indians' Olin Killed in Accident

The words may have been somewhat different than I remember, but it didn't seem to matter at the time. All I could see is “Major League Pitcher and One of Your Favorite Players, Mr. Riddle, Is Now Dead”. I couldn't even comprehend the implications. For a moment, I barely knew what it was I was reading. It seemed that I suddenly had lost the ability to understand my native language, as if I had taken a blow to the head from the ink and paper lying in front of me, sprawled out over the kitchen table next to the sausage patties and scrambled eggs in which I now had no interest whatsoever.

It got far worse, as I read on.

Steve Olin, a young and successful relief pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, was just coming into his own in his past two seasons as the Indians' closer. He was a submariner, a rare sort of pitcher whose arm angle and delivery wreaked havoc with opposing batters, and the numbers certainly seemed to suggest that he was making it work for him. He was popular with the Cleveland fans, and had at least one fan in Nicholasville, Kentucky; I had followed him since his rookie year in 1989, the same year I had begun my love affair with baseball. I think that this made me even more of a fan; even now, I find that the players to whom I was first exposed in that season have held a permanent place in my memory, regardless of their stats or awards or any of that nonsense.

My mind raced: what could possibly have happened to cut down this vibrant young star in the early years of his prime? How could that even be true? This has to be a mistake.

But the words remained. “Indians Olin Killed”.

Lord, I didn't even know the man. Why did it matter so much? Why did I even care?

I forced myself to read the article, and each word seemed more challenging than the last. It was as if these words were daring me to continue further, to take in the reality of a world of which I knew almost nothing.

1993 was a pivotal year for me. I began my active duty stint in the Navy in 1993. I had graduated high school that year in May. My grandfather, my father's father and a man who meant more to me than I would come to realize in those early years, passed away in November. I was in the midst of my Hospital Corps School training in Great Lakes, Illinois, and I was offered a trip home to attend his funeral from the Red Cross. I declined; I wanted to remember him the way I saw him last, still fighting the brain tumor and lung cancer which would eventually take him from me. Sometimes, I regret not going home, but only briefly.

The details of Olin's death were more than I could accept. I couldn't rationalize the severity and the violence involved in his death, not at that age. I still struggle to recall that day, and reading what was written after that tragedy is literally painful for me.

It was after dark, around 7:30 PM. That's what the police report had said. Olin, along with fellow hurlers Tim Crews and Bob Ojeda, were in a boat on Little Lake Nellie, a vacation and fishing spot in Lake County, Florida.

It seemed at the time that they were moving at a high rate of speed. The darkness had settled in on the lake, and it was surmised that none of them could see where they were going, or at least not very well.

They were approaching an area on the lake in which a dock extended far into the water. Two hundred and fifty feet, it stretched.

The three Indians never saw it coming. They hit it, and hit it hard. Olin was decapitated. Crews suffered severe lung and head injuries and lost a significant amount of blood at the scene. Ojeda's scalp was peeled back like the skin of an orange and he lost a significant amount of blood, but he would survive.

Crews was taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center in critical condition. He would succumb to his injuries. Later on, blood tests would reveal that Crews, the operator of the boat at the time of the accident, was legally drunk. His blood alcohol level was .14, and the news coverage after the incident would end up focusing on that factor.

In an instant, two lives would be lost, families and friends devastated. Ojeda, who survived the accident, could not even discuss it for years afterward. When he finally did recover, at least in a physical sense, his grief was more than he could bear. And for a little while, he ran from it. He ran far enough to have left the country altogether.

Ojeda: “I certainly went through the 'why am I here?'. Certainly. That's a given. I left the country for a while. I had a lot of money in my pocket and I wasn't gonna come back”.

I would have done the same, I think.

As the details revealed themselves over the days following the accident, and especially when I read about Crews' drinking before he took the helm of that boat, I found myself infuriated at Crews. How could he have done something so irresponsible? For that matter, he's a MAJOR LEAGUER! They don't do things like that!

Do they?

My naivete, as I look back upon those days, was all-encompassing and intransigent. I would slowly come to realize that my idols had feet of clay; that they would always, ultimately, let me down.

In the years that followed, I would read about scandals and various dark blots upon countless other professional athletes. I would come to understand that they were every bit as human as I, and thus they were also just as fallible. And perhaps more importantly, they could be taken from us at any time. Just like you or me. Just like my grandfather. Rich or poor, young or old, death does not discriminate. 

But no matter how fans and writers would come to view Tim Crews and the tragedy that occurred at Little Lake Nellie, the fact remains that two young men were taken well before their time. Nothing can change that. 

It's been twenty years since that day. Twenty years seems like an eternity when you're pushing nineteen.

And now? It seems like only yesterday. 
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