Relief At Last Intro: For Bobby Ojeda, life nearly ended on a Florida lake in 1993. It began again at Sheppard Pratt. Today, he plans a reunion.

October 19, 1995|By LAURA LIPPMAN | LAURA LIPPMAN,SUN STAFF

The first time Bobby Ojeda saw Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, it wasn't at all what he expected. The mix of old and new buildings on the wooded hillside looked imposing to him, like something out of a Hollywood movie. It could have been a fancy private school, or a small college.

But they don't send you to private school when you're a major league baseball pitcher struggling to get over seeing two teammates killed in a boating accident. Mr. Ojeda came to Sheppard Pratt in July 1993 because he had survived, but still wasn't living.

He circled the main building on his daily jogs, trying to stay in shape for his return to the Cleveland Indians, thinking all the time: "I can't get much lower than this, running laps around a mental hospital."

When he left after 12 days, he knew Sheppard Pratt had saved him as surely as the paramedics who had taken him from Florida's Little Lake Nellie, or the doctors at South Lake Memorial Hospital who had stitched his lacerated scalp. Sheppard Pratt became his alma mater, the place that taught him how to go on with his life.

And now, like any proud graduate in homecoming season, Mr. Ojeda is returning today, to tell his story at the hospital's annual meeting. It's an unusual pat on the back for Sheppard Pratt, which is used to guarding the privacy of its celebrity patients. It's also a welcome one. The visit, planned weeks ago, comes at a time when the famous psychiatric hospital needs a morale boost, given the recent slaying of a counselor there.

Characteristically, Mr. Ojeda plays down his return. "Some people go to Yale, some people go to Harvard," he says. "I went to Sheppard Pratt. And I'm just as proud as anyone else is to go back to their college."

Mr. Ojeda first came to Sheppard Pratt in the wake of The Accident, as almost everyone refers to it, the freak boating tragedy on March 22, 1993, that has forever bisected his life into before-and-after.

Before was the happy-go-lucky guy from Central California, signed out of junior college by the Boston Red Sox, for $500 and a bus ticket to Elmira, N.Y. Before was the 1986 World Series victory with the Mets. Before was the friendship with Tim Crews, another pitcher, who like Mr. Ojeda had moved from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Cleveland Indians for the 1993 season.

The moment that split his life was, and for the most part continues to be, a blur. It was a day off for the team, and families had gathered at Crews' ranch. At the end of the day, Crews took Mr. Ojeda and pitcher Steve Olin for a boat ride on the lake.

You wouldn't want to remember what happened then. The dock that seemed to jump out of the twilight. Holding the fatally injured Crews, begging him to survive. Olin slumped on the other side, killed instantly when Crews' Skeeter bass boat slammed into the dock.

"He had two people on either side of him virtually decapitated," says Dr. James P. McGee, director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt. "It doesn't get much more gruesome than that."

Officially, the accident was attributed to Crews' alcohol level, which at .14 percent was above the legal limit in Florida. Some seemed almost grateful for the blood-alcohol results, as if that number alone could explain everything. But Mr. Ojeda insisted his friend was not impaired, even as he struggled to find his own answers.

"Why didn't I get killed?" he asked the doctor when he regained consciousness the next day. Although he had lost two quarts of blood, and had a ragged scar across his forehead, he was remarkably unscathed, at least physically.

But everyone close to Mr. Ojeda -- his wife Ellen, best friend Roger McDowell, agent Ron Shapiro -- saw that his physical injuries would heal more easily than the emotional ones. A stranger could see it as Mr. Ojeda wept at Crews' funeral, his bandaged head covered with a blue bandana.

Everyone could see -- except Mr. Ojeda. The pitcher, who had always prided himself on his mental toughness, who had never felt the need to consult a team psychologist, believed he could recover on his own. Truly on his own, in a rented house in Cleveland, away from his wife and young daughter, and the three children from his first marriage, isolated from everyone.

"I have to do it my way," he told his wife, and she let him, for most of that summer. It was a gutsy move on her part, an all-or-nothing gamble on her marriage.

Mr. Ojeda was living on margaritas, Doritos and salsa. Night terrors kept him from sleeping more than two hours at a time. His mind raced, trying to outrun scenes that exploded in his head, horrific bursts of memory. He was still working out, preparing for his debut with the Indians, but he was thin and his skin had a greenish cast. People looked at him as if he were a ghost, haunting the Indians' final season at Cleveland Stadium.

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