It’s hard to believe that it happened 20 years ago today. An off day – the lone off day – of the Indians’ first year of spring training in Florida, a day that was supposed to provide leisure and fun for players and their families. Instead, the day turned to tragedy as two Indians pitchers, Steve Olin and Tim Crews, were killed in a boating accident; pitcher Bob Ojeda was seriously injured. The Indians lost more than a young, talented reliever and a veteran pitcher on Little Lake Nellie on that twilit evening; they lost friends and teammates. Olin and Crews left behind wives and children that would now have to grow up without a father. A team that was supposed to be celebrating a move to Florida and their final year in Cleveland Municipal Stadium, now had to face a tragedy unlike anything they had previously experienced.
I still remember when this happened as if were just a couple of years ago. Even though the shock and sadness that fans felt was nothing compared to the emotions of the players’ families and teammates, it was still hard for a lot of fans to deal with the tragedy. My 14-year-old brain couldn’t wrap itself around the “how” and the “why.” I remember that I couldn’t understand how they failed to see the dock with which they collided. What I didn’t understand was the fact that it was unlit, and after the sun set was most likely invisible to them as they approached. There were lots of “what if” questions asked at the time. People saying that perhaps the Indians should have remained in Arizona for spring training, or even Mike Hargrove questioning whether or not he should have tried to schedule an impromptu scrimmage on the off day. Whenever there is a tragedy of this magnitude, people wonder if there was a way to prevent it – it’s only natural. In fact, the Indians didn’t have a spring training off-day after this for several years. As if there was a fear that reproducing the circumstances that led to the accident (an off-day spent at a lake), would prevent anything bad from happening to other members of the team.
Whenever I thought about the accident, I thought of the families of both Olin and Crews, as well as the fact that the death of Olin cut short a potentially bright baseball future. It wasn’t until I was reading old articles about the accident recently, in order to prepare for writing this post, that I really felt for Ojeda. As a kid, I didn’t think about him as much; he not only survived, he was able to return to the pitching mound several months after the accident. This doesn’t mean that it’s always necessarily easy for the survivor of such a tragedy. In this article with the Deseret News, Ojeda said that he asked “why am I here?” and spent time traveling outside of the country. He even considered never returning to the United States, and spent a lot of time alone. A year later after he’d signed with the New York Yankees as a free agent for the 1994 season, Ojeda said, “I’ll never forget, but I’m moving ahead.” I think that perfectly sums up what it is to go through something like this. You question what allowed you to survive, and sometimes feel guilty just for being alive. You may move ahead and live normally, but it’s always there subconsciously on some level. Sadly, this is something with which I have some personal experience. More than 13 years ago I traveled with a friend and my cousin to Florida for a spring break vacation. We lost control on a wet highway and ended up colliding head on with a tractor-trailer. My friend, who was sitting right next to me, was killed instantly. Ojeda said that he thinks part of the reason he survived was due to the fact that he slouches – it meant he was positioned lower than the other two men. I still have no idea how I survived. The truck driver risked his life to get out of our way (he saw us lose control from a slight distance), and his last minute swerve probably made the difference.
I never had to speak to the media, and I returned to relative anonymity as a college student. I can’t imagine what it was like for Ojeda to endure the questions and the cameras in his face; the fact that every time he took the mound, someone probably asked him to relive portions of that night. At least early on I just wanted to be left alone, to not talk about it and hide from it. There came a point where talking about it was somewhat cathartic, but I had a choice on whether or not to bring it up. Ojeda had no such choice. The families of Olin and Crews had no such choice. It’s hard enough to have to talk about a tragedy; I can’t imagine what it’s like for reporters to call you every few years to ask you about the night your husband died.
This accident also reminds me of another such tragedy that took place in Cleveland more than 50 years prior. The Negro League Buckeyes were traveling between cities in September of 1942, when one of the two cars carrying team members crashed. It killed pitcher Raymond “Smokey” Owens and catcher Buster Brown, and injured several other players and the team’s general manager. The majority of the injured players were pitchers; with their removal from action, and the death of Owens, the team actually had to try to find more pitchers in order to finish their season. A much less serious matter (and secondary to the other issues connected to such tragedies), was the fact that the teams lost talented players on which they were counting. You can’t help but wonder what might have been, when you think about the careers of these players.
Ojeda retired from his playing career after the 1994 season. He appeared with the Mets in the 1986 World Series and is now a Mets analyst on SNY. A recent New York Times story that discussed his lingering arm troubles never even mentioned the accident from 1993. That’s probably how it should be; it’s not that people have forgotten, it’s just that it shouldn’t necessarily define Ojeda’s life or career. The Indians placed a plaque commemorating Crews and Olin that hung at the Winter Haven complex. After the Indians moved to Goodyear, it was moved to Heritage Park at Progressive Field. It sits on the wall near the Ray Chapman plaque; another man taken before his time in a different kind of tragedy. Across the lower level of Heritage Park, the Negro League plaque memorializes the Buckeyes players killed in 1942. Even though these events happened years ago, these memories and mementos are proof that these players are gone, but certainly not forgotten.