What a long, strange trip season's been for Angels Team still relives crash nightmares

August 24, 1992|By Newsday

NEW YORK -- Buck Rodgers suffered from flashbacks for the first three weeks after the crash. They were so real, he would shake with cold sweat and with the agony of having to ask himself all over again, just as he did in the dark early morning of May 21 underneath all that crumpled metal, "Am I alive or am I dead?"

Each of the nightmares played out with different details, but with the same horrible premise from real life: the first of two buses carrying the California Angels from Yankee Stadium to Baltimore crashes into a grove of trees off the New Jersey Turnpike. Rodgers, riding in the manager's traditional seat in the first row on the right side, is seated at the point of impact.

"All kinds of nightmares," he said. "Sometimes the [paramedics'] spotlights are shining in my eyes. Sometimes they're shining on other people at the other end of the trees. Sometimes I'm farther down the mountain. They're all different.

"As long as you're alive, that's the important thing. That's why I feel fortunate. When it happened, I thought I was dead. I didn't think I was going to live. When you come out of that the way we did, you have to count yourself lucky."

Another flashback comes. Three months to the day after that bus crash, the Angels returned to Yankee Stadium on Friday night for a three-game series against the Yankees. After the final game yesterday, they boarded two buses again and traveled the same route to Baltimore.

"We've been talking about it," said Tim Mead, assistant vice president of media relations, who was riding in the second bus in May. "To be able to travel the same road in the light of day and see the clearing where it happened is kind of amazing.

"There's no apprehension about it. It's almost a curiosity. This team has talked about it and dealt with it since the first day in Baltimore. It's been therapeutic."

Rodgers remains home in Yorba Linda, Calif., recovering from a badly broken right elbow and left knee. He expects to return to work Friday at Anaheim Stadium for a game against the Boston Red Sox. Yesterday, the manager's seat on the bus was left vacant. Also, there was no Bus No. 1. The buses were designated 2 and 3.

Pitcher Scott Bailes ordered T-shirts for his teammates with a bus on the front and an inscription on the back that reads, "Together We Survived. May 22, 1992."

Said Mead: "Typical left-handed reliever. Got the date wrong." Many players wear the shirts during workouts or games.

On Wednesday, while the team was riding a bus from Fenway Park back to its Boston hotel, someone asked, "Are we taking the same bus company to Baltimore again?"

Someone else in the back of the bus, mindful of the compensatory legal options available to Rodgers, replied, "No, Buck doesn't want us using his bus company on this trip."

It has been a lost season. The sixth-place Angels were 19-20 at the time of the crash and are 38-47 since. They are last in the American League in hitting, slugging and scoring. If they haven't exactly developed into a cohesive playing unit, they have developed more personal bonds. They share the kind of camaraderie that only tragedy can knit. The bus crash is only a part of it.

Two front-office officials, the team's hitting instructor and the father of interim manager John Wathan have died this year. Pitcher Matt Keough was struck in the head by a line drive in spring training while sitting in the dugout. He was rushed to a hospital across the street. Had one not been so near, doctors said, he likely would have died.

All said, the Angels come out of this terrible season knowing it might have been worse.

The memory came back in full detail this weekend. The Oakland Athletics left New York for Baltimore on Thursday night on an MGM charter plane. Mead said the Angels did not consider other transportation. Yesterday, they traveled the same way. Same road. Same destination. Different bus company.

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