Playing with pain: Indians move on

KEN ROSENTHAL

March 25, 1993|By KEN ROSENTHAL

WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- It was a day of raw emotion, a day o intense grief, a day so full of pain, one wondered if the Cleveland Indians would ever recover. Now comes the truly difficult part. Now life goes on, without Steve Olin and Tim Crews.

Last night's private memorial service marked the last official act of mourning by the team. The Indians resume their Grapefruit League schedule today with a home game against the Orioles. They open their final season at Cleveland Stadium in just 11 days.

"We will be ready," manager Mike Hargrove vowed. "We will be ready because of the people we have, who we are, what we're all about. I don't say that facetiously. I believe that deeply, as do our players. We don't need an alibi. We don't need an excuse. All we need is to make those two guys proud."

And somehow draw strength from this tragedy. This was a close team from the start, and now it will be even closer. That was assured long before more than 500 mourners packed the Chain O'Lakes Civic Center last night for the memorial service.

The service was conducted by Andre Thornton, a former Indian who lost his wife and daughter in a 1977 automobile accident. The first speaker was Tom Lasorda, who managed Crews for six years with the Los Angeles Dodgers and lost his son, Tom Jr., at the age of 33.

The stage was adorned by framed portraits of Olin and Crews in their Cleveland uniforms. Manager Johnny Oates and general manager Roland Hemond represented the Orioles. All of the Cleveland players were in attendance, as were two bus loads of Dodgers and countless others from the baseball world.

Recalling his own tragedy, Thornton said, "It felt like someone had cut open my chest and laid it wide-open." He spoke eloquently and passionately. He spoke of faith, of compassion, of hope. But, as he told reporters earlier in the day, "Right now, there are no comforting words."

That much was evident yesterday at the Indians' post-workout news conference. "For a bunch of young guys, they're handling this well," veteran reliever Ted Power said. Moments later, a reporter asked pitcher Kevin Wickander for his thoughts. Wickander broke down and cried.

"I'm not dealing with it very well at all," said Wickander, who rose with Olin through the Indians' farm system. "He was my best friend. He was the best man in my wedding. The reason I am where I am is because of him. He taught me as much about life off the field as he did on the field."

The four surviving Indians relievers had agreed to attend the news conference together. Derek Lilliquist put his arm around Wickander's left shoulder, and someone else passed him a towel. Later, Wickander broke down again as he told of picking up Olin's parents Tuesday at the airport.

"It's probably the hardest thing I ever had to do, other than cleaning out his locker," Wickander said. "When I picked his parents up, they said, 'Steve would have been there if it was you.' "

The truth is, it could have been any of them. Power nearly attended the picnic at Crews' home, but spent his day off relaxing in Winter Haven. Wickander went to Busch Gardens. Lilliquist returned home to Vero Beach. Eric Plunk, the other reliever invited, also had other plans.

Power, 38, spoke at a team meeting Tuesday, the morning after the accident. "I told them that I feel very sorry for the young guys going through this for the first time in their lives," he said. "But as sad as it is, it's something that matures you, helps you deal with the facts of life."

That, ultimately, will be the lesson of all this, but right now the pain is searing. A football team can respond to tragedy by flashing thumbs up and riding a crest of emotion. A baseball team would burn out by May if it tried the same thing. The season lasts 162 games, not 16. The players learn not to get too high, or too low.

For the Indians, the way to honor Olin and Crews is not by winning games, but by instilling the two pitchers' best qualities into their own hearts. Of all the wrenching moments yesterday, perhaps the most moving was when Wickander vowed to preserve Olin's memory for his children.

"We and Patti and the three kids -- we were a family," Wickander said of Olin's wife, 3-year-old daughter, Alexa, and 7-month-old twins, Garrett and Kaylee. "I'm going to have to let those three kids know the kind of man Stevie was. They need to know what their father was like."

It went on like this all day, leaving everyone drained and exhausted. Wickander chose the closing song for the memorial service, "The Dance" by Garth Brooks. On this day of loss, this day of emptiness, this day of heartbreak, all anyone could do was cry.

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