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.
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.
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-Hop 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 clichè. 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 clichès. 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. Some-body 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?"
"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 the 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.
Wick could almost feel not feeling that arm on his back, even weeks after Oly was dead. Could almost taste not tasting that cheesecake and milk they used to order as they watched a movie after games on the road. Could almost hear not hearing that wonderfully whiny little-boy voice Oly used to affect each day when Wick entered the clubhouse. "Wickyyyyyy. . . . Coooooome heeeeeere, Wickyyyyy. . . ." Which usually meant that Oly had thought of something wicked for Wick to do, and off they would go into a corner, whispering and giggling, and a few hours later the pitching coach would look down into his new pair of shoes and find the rat that the Pen had caught and cooked in the Angels' bullpen. Wick was happy to face the music. Happy as a puppy to chase the stick for Oly.
Who was there for Wick when he shattered his elbow in a cement runway at Anaheim Stadium in 1990 and then ran up $28,000 worth of bar and restaurant bills in one year, drinking himself all the way to the rehab center in Cleveland? It was Oly. Who was there for Oly in Triple A ball in '89 when Patti was pregnant and he wanted someone to move in with her while he went up to the big leagues? It was Wick. Finally, when Wick listened to Oly's advice, quit skirt-chasing and married his high school sweetheart, Kim, in May '92, Oly was there as Wick's best man. Oly was Wick's conscience, said Grover, who had managed Wick in A ball, Double A, Triple A, the majors.
You don't want to hear too much about Wick's first few days after Oly died. About waiting and calling and waiting for Oly to come home that night from the Crewses' so they could all go out to dinner. About Wick rolling over and over, screaming "No!" on the floor when Oly's name Hashed on the TV screen that night, then helping Kim to the bathroom so she could throw up. About packing the things in Oly's locker into a box in an empty clubhouse six hours later, before dawn, and three straight nights when his eyes refused to close. "He was my family." Wick sobbed when it was his turn to speak at the funeral. "He taught me how to be a faithful husband, how to roll with life when things were going bad," he later said.
This is what you do with pain. You set up a locker for your dead best friend, with his nameplate and his glove and his uniform and his team jacket and his shoes and his framed photograph on a stool. Even when the team travels, you tape the nameplate over the locker next to you and set up the shrine, so no one ever forgets. You keep talking about him to the other players because they taught you in rehab never to repress your feelings. You keep walking around the clubhouse, even weeks later, with 5 x 7 photographs of Steve to send to the hundreds of well-wishers who have written, and offer them to players: "Thought you might like a picture of Oly." You get your brains beat out on the mound.
There was something almost heroic about it; Wicks's grief possessed him. Eyes started rolling in the Indian clubhouse. Guys were starting to get the creeps. Guys were trying to forget. Mourning is a private project in America, not a communal one . . . but then, wouldn't everyone in the world, whether he admitted it or not. want a Wick to keep him alive when he was gone?
Grover called Wick into his office. He talked about counseling, about going on the disabled list.
"No," said Wick. "Oly wouldn't want that. He'd want me to pitch."
"But Wick," said Grover, "you can't work this out on the mound."
So what are you going to do about Wick? sportswriters began asking Indian management. Eight and two-thirds innnings pitched, 15 hits allowed, three home runs. Can't send Oly's best buddy to the minors while he's in mourning, they said. It sure would look cruel.
Late afternoon, on May 7, Wick was waved into Grover's office at Chicago's Comiskey Park. Grover was brief. Barely blinked. There were others in the office. Wick had an hour and a half to catch a flight and join the Cincinnati Reds. He had been traded for a player to be named later. Best thing they could possibly do for him, Grover said.
Wick packed his bag in a stupor, said goodbye to the guys and walked out of the clubhouse. "Wick!" It was someone calling him from behind. Grover's eyes were welling, his arms lifting to hug. "If you ever need anything . . . you know . . . you know you're like a son to me."
A few things happened after Wick left the Indians. The clubhouse was so cramped for space, the deliveryman for the local dry cleaner began using Oly's memorial locker to hang pressed shirts and suits for the players to retrieve. By the end of May, Grover had the locker dismantled altogether. A reliever was acquired from the Chicago Cubs, a man named Heathcliff Slocumb, whose wife died of cancer in November. Another reliever was acquired from San Diego, Jeremy Hernandez. He got Wick's number, 53.
In Cincinnati, Wick started pitching better, feeling happy. Not ripping up records in either department, but he won a game, got some guys out, started smiling. He still wore Oly's shower clogs, sunglasses, wristwatch and T-shirts, but he sent the rest to keep in his off-season home in Phoenix. Someday he would let Oly's kids take from it whatever they wished.
He knew now that no baseball team, no bullpen, would ever again feel like a family, and he realized why Oly had kept urging him to get married and start one of his own. Kim was right beside him on virtually every road trip now. If she hadn't been there when Oly died, he knew he would've started drinking again.
God. He was remembering Oly's thousand-dollar bet at their wedding that Kim would be pregnant by their first anniversary. Easy money, Wick had thought, because they had no intention of having kids for at least a couple of years. When the anniversary came, six weeks ago, Kim and Wick held hands. Oly had lost—she wasn't pregnant—but when they thought about it, they actually grinned. In a few more months they were going to start trying. The baby's name, if it's a boy, will be Olin Wickander.
Yes. That was it. Rip it right across the neck. Now straight down, from crown to chin. Now again, right through that smile. Now the eyes. Goodbye, jackass. Goodbye.
He used to love that charcoal portrait on his office wall. Himself when he was a big league pitcher. Himself when he was happy. He used to look at it and think with satisfaction about how far he had come. The man now making a million-seven a year, overlooked completely in the 1977 draft and signed the next year for $500. The man who used to live in Winter Haven, Fla., with a wife and two babies in a motel room wallpapered with drying diapers because they couldn't afford the Laundromat. The guy who used to grab handfuls of Sucrets from the jar in the Class A clubhouse and throw them in his mouth. Not for a sore throat. For dinner.
He put the frame back. He had made it home, somehow, from Sweden. He stared down at the confetti, then up at the wall. That was good. That was him. Exactly right. The empty frame.
Every day when he was home, it went like this. He would get out of bed, walk down the hall to the reclining chair in his office and sit there. Reading John Grisham novels. Staring out the window. Staring at the empty picture frame. Letting the phone ring. All day in one room, and then back to bed at night, to lie there turning. Another pill. Wake up sweating. Start all over again.
If only he could have it out in one showdown—one night, one week, one month—and then move on. But it didn't work that way. You could tear yourself to shreds in Sweden, tear yourself to shreds in your office at home . . . and it just went on and on and on.
He hadn't called his three children from his first marriage in weeks. He barely touched his 23-month-old daughter by his second wife. He and his wife barely saw each other. They hadn't separated. They just weren't together for a while, while he tried to figure things out.
His family kept begging him to open up, to share his pain. If he told them, if they knew. . . . No. All for him. Only for him. He was sorry about what it was doing to them, but do you want the truth? He felt so numb, so hard, it didn't really matter.
There were two people in the world he could let in. They talked on the phone every couple of days, he and the wives of his dead friends, sometimes for an hour or two. Anything they wanted, he kept telling them. Name it, he would do it. Money? No, the Players Association life insurance policy would take care of them well. A nanny? He knew a great woman, he would send her there next week. No, they already had help. Him? He would fly there in a minute, take the kids anywhere, let them be around a man.
No. They both wanted only one thing of him. The same thing Tim's mom had asked. The hardest thing. They wanted him to pitch again. To come back.
He flew to Cleveland, moved into a rented house and got the plastic surgery done on his head in late May. He still refused all interview requests, read no newspapers for a while. He waited until late in the afternoon, when nearly everyone in outpatient physical rehab at Lutheran Medical Center was gone. He would give it a try for a few days. He stretched the left shoulder that had undergone arthroscopy in April. He walked on the stair machine. His sweat dripped. He looked out the window. He had always read and heard that when you narrowly avoided death, you cherished the things you used to take for granted, you wanted to smell flowers. Why had they lied?
His physical therapist was ready to have a catch with him one day. She wanted to go outside. It was beautiful out there. He shook his head no. Not outside. They took the ball and the gloves and went down to the cellar. Down with the pipes and the bricks and the shadows.
For the first time since March 21, he gripped a baseball and cocked it behind his car. It felt so trivial.
Looking back on the memory of
The dance we shared 'neath the stars above
For a moment all the world was right
How could I haw known that you 'd ever say goodbye?
And now I'm glad I didn't know
The way it all would end, the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance
I could've missed the pain
But I'd of had to miss the dance.
Holding you I held everything
For a moment, wasn't a king?
But if I'd only known how the king would fall
Hey, who's to say, you know I might
Have chanced it all.
Alexa Moved. Patti woke. Oh god. Another day. She rose and went downstairs to the compact disc player. It was all set. Push a button and that Garth Brooks song The Dance played over and over. They had never really talked about death, but one day Steve had turned to her and said, "When I die, play that song at the funeral." She was still playing it, every morning. A hundred straight times, it played one day. This is what you do with pain.
Nearly everyone in Cleveland knew her face now. They asked her for autographs, they wanted to comfort her. She hated the helplessness, the thought that any moment she could be ambushed by grief in front of anyone. She hated crying in front of people. She hated anyone feeling sorry for her. She hated knowing that they were thinking, There goes poor Patti Olin—nine-month-old twins, three-year-old daughter, a 26-year-old widow.
The song, in a funny way, gave her power. She pushed the button. She listened. She cried. She turned it off. She decided when and where and how to grieve. Just a tiny bit, she took charge. "I'm in intensive therapy," she would tell people who wanted her to see a psychologist, "all by myself."
Bobby wanted her to see a movie called Indian Summer. That would be therapy, he thought, but he wasn't in Cleveland, and he told her she couldn't go alone. "Why?" she asked. "Is the movie too close to home?"
"It is home," said Bobby. "Don't you go alone, Patti. You hear me?"
O.K., O.K. She longed to be as strong as Laurie, and without even knowing it, maybe she was. Four hours after the accident, with the police lights still glaring off the lake a few hundred yards outside Laurie's house, Patti ordered Fernando Montes not to change the channel when the body bag came on the screen. She faced 77 reporters in Winter Haven three days after the accident. She kept that note on the refrigerator door that Steve had scribbled to her: WELCOME TO OUR NEW HOUSE! But Laurie was 33. Laurie knew who she was. Laurie had been a schoolteacher, a mother for nine years, and now a ranch owner—hell, a cowgirl! Patti was a . . . a baseball wife.
A great baseball wife. She loved being that. She was proud of it. A few days before Steve died, there she was, standing in the rain, watching Steve give his arm a workout in a minor league game. Pack up another apartment, haul the kids: she never complained. But who was she now? Where did she live?
She packed everything after the accident in Florida and went home, back to her family in Portland, Ore. But what was home? It wasn't just her, was it? A long time ago, when you left home to live in places like Colorado and Florida and Ohio, it was to prove you could make it on your own. Home was all right for a week or two, but after that, sometimes it almost felt like failure.
She put the kids and all their belongings in a plane and flew back to Cleveland. The house was brand-new, empty. She and Steve had bought it in the off-season but never lived there. She went back to the meetings of the Indian wives' organization, as she had before. Back to the wives' Bible-study classes. Back to the wives' section to watch ball games. That was her family, wasn't it? They were rootless, like her. Always looking for a new set of baby-sitters, grocery stores and doctors, like her. Always at the mercy of their husbands' last streak or slump, like her. It almost seemed unfair to lean on the neighbors who had nothing to do with baseball, because you could be gone tomorrow and not be able to pay back the loan. But among teammates and their wives, it was O.K., because it was all understood.
She went on a road trip to Chicago in May with the other wives. The only woman without a husband on the plane, and on the bus, and going back at night to the hotel rooms. She found herself, in the seventh inning of games, looking to the bullpen to see Steve warming up. Sometimes she had to stand and leave the stadium, barely able to keep her legs from running—all the same old tired goblins, all the whys and what ifs from that day at the lake roaring in her head. What in hell am I doing? she asked herself. I'm not a baseball wife. I don't belong here. Why am I pretending?
Laurie and her kids came to spend a week in June at Patti's house just outside Cleveland. Six little kids running and crawling everywhere. Two women chasing them. It was brutal. It was great. It was nuts. Laurie gave Patti pep talks: You're so smart, so tough, so pretty, all you need is a direction. Get a job, anything for a while, volunteer, go back to school, get out of the house. Then Laurie broke down after they went to a ball game together, and she realized she needed Patti even more than she had thought.
They got a baby-sitter and went to Bobby's. He opened the door. He had said he was coming back, but those eyes. . . . Laurie walked right up to him, punched him in the arm and kicked him in the butt. Patti said it in a different way. "If you quit, Bobby," she said, "why can't we?"
She could say that to him. After all, she would say, they were family. One night Patti went to see Indian Summer. On the screen, staring out at a lake, was a woman—just about Patti's age, Patti's hair color—whose husband had died a year before. A man was telling the young widow about a lady who used to live on the shore whose husband had died too and been buried in the middle of the lake. "Poor woman," the man was saying to the young widow. "Spending the last 15 years of her life waiting to die, so she could go into the lake with her husband. Fifteen years of her life she wasted. We might as well have just thrown her in the lake the same day as her husband."
Patti blinked. She felt it coming, in her chest, in her throat, in her eyes, right there in a theater, in front of everybody. She glanced to one side. A hand had been waiting there beside her, she realized, even before the man had finished saying that. Bobby's hand. Bobby's Kleenex.
There are black and white pipes, bundles of wires, scabbed paint and fluorescent bulbs glaring on it all in the tunnel leading to the home dugout at Cleveland Stadium. On a gray, sweltering afternoon, five hours before a night game on June 25, Bobby Ojeda walked in a Cleveland Indian uniform down the tunnel, into the dugout, out of seclusion. The cameras snapped. The microphones leaned. The tape recorders clicked on. He said it had to be done.