Real loss lingers as games go on

JOHN EISENBERG

July 24, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

You have never heard such silence. There was no music coming from the stereo in the Orioles' clubhouse. The giant televisions were black. None of the players or coaches was talking above a whisper, if at all.

They were sitting by their lockers, their backs to the world, their eyes fixed on the wall, their counsel private. It was late yesterday afternoon, just before batting practice, and word had come down about Tim Hulett's little boy.

What else could there be? Just silence. Just the hum of the air conditioners. Just a collection of desperately sad ballplayers wanting to do anything except play a game.

How could anything measure against the death of a small child? A 6-year-old so full of bounce and brotherhood, gone in a moment? There is no worse tragedy. Nothing more wretched or appalling or unfair. A scar is left that will never heal.

You have to understand about the Huletts. They are a family painted by Norman Rockwell. The major-league dad completely without pretension, his pretty wife and their four young sons climbing all over each other. Why, they even live in Springfield, Ill., the home of by-God Abe Lincoln.

Everyone has a story about them. How they overrun the club's father-son softball games. How they get off elevators together -- and keep coming and coming and coming, like something from a Marx Brothers movie. How they filled the clubhouse with joy.

Now, there is this new story, the worst you have ever heard. The clan was coming home from the playground Wednesday, excited about their dad coming home from a road trip in a few hours, and Sam, the second-youngest, stepped into the street -- in front of a car. The other three boys saw it happen.

Suddenly, in an instant, there is a scar that will never heal. Other parents can understand a fraction of the family's pain, but only those who have suffered similarly can truly understand. The rest of us can only watch. Just watch and cry and curse.

"We don't really know what to say," said Storm Davis, who, as the Orioles' player representative, handled the speaking chores for the team. "We're having a hard time with it right now."

You have never heard such a hard time. Such silence. The Orioles met in their haze with manager Johnny Oates before batting practice, then stumbled into the afternoon glare. The usual round of buoyant rock music was gone from the public address system. No one said anything. They went about their daily chores lifelessly, by rote. The only sound was the wind.

All of the emotion was gathered in the players' faces. The big-league veneer was gone. These were just young parents like so many others, just dads trying to comprehend the horror.

There was Chito Martinez, who is always bringing his young son into the clubhouse, carrying a bat with his eyebrows gathered, looking as if he was about to cry. There was Mark McLemore, usually so full of smiles before games, standing by the batting cage with a thousand-yard stare.

There was Sam Horn, whose young son went through surgery earlier this season, walking along with his shoulders slumped, the embodiment of depression. There was Leo Gomez, the father of an exuberant 3-year-old boy, standing in the field with his mouth and eyebrows about an inch apart.

There was Storm Davis, who spent the long, awful night with the Huletts, and who, after making it through a round of live TV interviews, turned from the cameras with his eyes wet and jogged to the outfield.

"Storm's trying, but he isn't doing so good right now," an Orioles spokesman said.

"My wife asked me if we couldn't just this once stop work for one day?" Oates said on the field. "But we can't. We have to come to work even when we're hurting."

Fans were gathering along the base lines by now, the gates open, but it was different. There were few pleas for autographs, as if everyone knew to keep a distance. Music finally came over the speakers, but softly, almost inaudibly.

"It sure is quiet tonight," Oates said, looking around.

He also had been with the Huletts late Wednesday night at the hospital. "It would be crazy not to say tonight is going to be different," he said. "It's going to be hard. But it's nothing compared to what Tim and Linda are going through. I mean, what can you say?"

You can say the truth, that the games will go on because they always do, and Hulett will come back and play because that is what he does. But this season will never be the same for the Orioles, and there will always be an empty chair at the Huletts' dinner table, and it isn't fair, and the only thing the rest of us can do is offer our thoughts and hug our own kids just a little bit tighter this morning.

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