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. 

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Player Interview: Murilo Gouvea, RHP, Houston Astros (MiLB)

MAY 28th, 2013-With the introduction of the World Baseball Classic, there have been a number of memorable performances. On the biggest stage imaginable, players who many of us have never seen before have made amazing defensive plays, slugged moonshots against dominant pitchers, and carved up batting orders like your Dad carved the turkey at Thanksgiving.

On that subject (pitching, not Thanksgiving), one such pitching performance in this past WBC tournament was especially memorable for fans of the Lexington Legends. That performance came during a pivotal game in the qualifying round for a team who had yet to make it to the Tournament proper: that was Team Brazil, an emerging baseball power with a great deal of talent on its roster, already. Indeed, the Seattle Mariners have just signed Brazilian 17 year-old RHP Daniel Missaki to a minor-league contract (terms are thus far undisclosed), who pitched in the 1st round of the WBC vs. Team China. While he made only one appearance in the tournament, it was one in which he entered the game with the bases loaded and two outs. Missaki induced a ground-out from China RF Yanyong Yang to escape trouble (more on other Brazilian signees, later).

Gouvea brings it for the Legends
For you Legends fans out there, the big moment came in the qualifying round when RHP Murilo Gouvea hit the mound in relief against a heavily-favored Team Panama, who Brazil had already narrowly beaten in the first game of the round by a score of 3-2. In fact, Brazil was considered least-likely to advance beyond the qualifier, but strung together three straight victories against favored opponents to advance for the first time, ever.

Gouvea had already dealt properly with Panama once in the first game, when he went 3 1/3 strong innings, allowing only two hits and striking out three in shutting down Panama's offense entirely. He threw 29 of 48 pitches for strikes in this outing, recording 8 of his 10 outs on either grounders or strikeouts. In their second time around against the Panamanians, Gouvea held them scoreless for 2 1/3 innings, striking out two and inducing 4 ground-outs before giving way to to closer (and Mariners prospect) Thyago Viera, who allowed a single from Carlos Ruiz. This put runners on first and third for Viera, who had only made it so far as rookie Venezuelan ball in the States (this being his first pro season).

Viera then struck out Carlos Lee and Ruben Rivera to save the game, and push Brazil into the first round of the WBC.

Perhaps I should place as much importance on Viera's appearance as I do on Gouvea's, but I am admittedly bias toward Gouvea in this case. After seeing him here in Lexington in 2011 and 2012, I have to say that I think the Astros have a solid pitching talent in him.

However, every player will hit a bump in the road here and there. Gouvea has hit that bump this year; coming out of Spring Training, he has experienced some soreness in his pitching elbow which has held him back in extended. The team has worked with him to help him past this issue, recently ordering an MRI to rule out serious injury.

Murilo is, as Legends fans already know, a class act. He's shown that he can handle the pressure of world-wide audiences, as well as being an integral part of the success of his nation's team. It's my feeling that he will be remembered in Brazil (and by international fans, as well) for his contribution to a history-making year.

Murilo was kind enough to give me a few minutes of his time, yesterday, to update his fans here in The Lex on his recent injury, his experience in the WBC, and his most memorable moment in pro ball in the US:

Can you tell me about your latest progress? Just something about what you were doing before you got posted to Lancaster, and what happened before you were to report?

Well, I played on the WBC first , but after that I was just practicing normally in Spring Training, got to pitch in a few games and my arm started to hurt. I was supposed to go to Lancaster , but I stayed in Florida for rehab, then got better, started to pitch again and when I was about to leave my elbow hurt again.

Have they told you anything definite about what's going on with your elbow? Any official diagnosis? Or are they saying it's a strain?

Not yet. I had an MRI and I'm waiting for the doctor to tell me what's wrong and what's gonna happen.

Well, it's good that they're going to have an answer soon. About the WBC: what was the atmosphere like in Brazil when you beat Panama to qualify for the tournament?

It was an amazing feeling. Nobody expected that we were gonna beat Panama and Colombia, and it was really important for us and for the sport in Brazil to have the opportunity to play (in) the WBC.

Brazil is certainly an emerging power in the world of baseball, as they are in so many other areas. Playing the role you were in will be something many Brazilian fans talk about for years to come. However, how would you compare it to your time and potential future in American pro ball? Are there parallels between the two?

I think one helps the other....playing for my country on a big championship like the WBC can inspire other players in Brazil and also everybody (elsewhere), or every team here in the States can see me playing and I think that helps me to show them what I'm capable to do.

That's a smart answer. It's the biggest stage in the game, the WBC, and a precursor to a true World Series in the future. As for your time in the Astros system, what would you say has been your most memorable moment so far?

I would say when we won the NY-Penn League in 2010, but also last year, that I had more chances to pitch and in more pressure situations.

Who has made the greatest impression on you as far as coaches are concerned, so far?

Theres some of them...Gary Ruby was a good one when i was I in (Rookie League) Tri-City.

How do you like to pass the time when you're not on the field?

Getting some rest mostly of the times. Go somewhere to eat, or something like that.

Any favorite movies, books or music?

I like almost everything; I could say comedy and action movies a little bit more.

I'm a sci-fi guy, for the most part. Saw the new Star Trek recently. Two and a half stars, at most. Seen The Hangover Pt III yet?

No I haven't seen yet, but i really want to.

The first one was the best, I think. But supposedly the third is even better. One last question: If you had any one thing to say to future baseball stars in Brazil, what would it be?

Just , if they really want to play pro ball, keep working hard and they'll have their chance. And if there's anything I can do to help, I'll do it

You'd probably be a great coach, something I hope you consider doing in the future.


All the best to you, and thanks for taking time to do this!

Thank you and no problem...anytime.