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Were this story a movie, it would open with a scene 20 years from today. Patti and Grover and Wick and Laurie and Bobby would be sitting around a fire near the cypress trees on the bank of the little lake in Clermont, Fla. They'd all be graying and wrinkled by then. They'd all have angle and distance on what occurred that night at the dock. In the campfire glow you would barely make out Bobby's scar, the one that loops across his forehead like the seams of a baseball. Laurie would be trying to explain what it was like sleeping for months in the same bed with three little bodies. Patti and Wick would be getting hopelessly tangled trying to remember the words to the song they each listened to a zillion times right after it happened, only you wouldn't quite know what it was, and you would have to wait two hours and two dozen flashbacks to make sense of it all.
But not even four months have gone by. There is no angle yet, no distance, no movie cliché. There are splinters of wood still flying, people still crying out a name, still groping through the darkness. The ripples haven't even begun to reach the edge of Little Lake Nellie.
So let us just reach into the swirl, choose a moment and begin: A Florida morning, a baseball clubhouse, a week after Tim Crews and Steve Olin died when their heads struck a dock during a family outing on a spring training off-day. Grover—that's what everyone around the clubhouse calls Cleveland Indian manager Mike Hargrove—is gazing out at the surviving members of his bullpen, wondering how in hell he is ever going to bring this team back from its grief. On Eric Plunk's chest is one of Steve Olin's T-shirts. On Ted Power's waist is the belt Oly wore when he broke into the major leagues. In Derek Lilliquist's hand are the two steel balls Oly squeezed to strengthen his wrist. On Kevin Wickander's feet are Oly's shower clogs. Thank god, they didn't know Tim Crews any better—another sweet human being, just like Oly. Thank god, Tim had just joined the team.
And now there's a ghost walking slowly toward Grover. Face white as bone, shoulders stooped, checks sunken, eyes dead as stones; a good breeze would blow him away. It's the third man who was in the boat that night, the 35-year-old whom the Indians had hired as a free agent three months earlier to be their No. 2 starter, a Los Angeles Dodger teammate of Crews's the previous two seasons. The one who pleaded, "Keep breathing, Crewser, c'mon, keep breathing!" barely aware that two quarts of his own blood were all over the boat, that his own scalp was ripped back like the top of a tennis ball can.
"I'd like to talk to the team," Bobby Ojeda said softly.
Sure...of course, Bobby, fine, Grover heard himself say...but good lord. Grover glanced over the ghost's shoulder again at the team. He felt the lump, the goddam fist, rising in his own throat again. His whole life, a childhood amid the cattle ranches and oilfields of Texas, a manhood amid the cleats and tobacco-stained teeth of professional ball, he had been weaned on a truth, a way of surviving, that was being blown to bits here.
One day. That's what Graver's manager in Class A ball had offered him to get from Gastonia, N.C., to Perryton, Texas, and back when his grandfather, Papaw, died. You couldn't do that in one day, so Grover clenched his jaw and kept playing. A few years later his wife's dad died when Grover was a first baseman with the Texas Rangers. "That's not immediate family," said his manager, Billy Martin, when Grover asked for time off to attend the funeral. How many teammates even bothered to call him when he was traded in 1978 after five seasons with the Rangers? Two. Two. Baseball had too long a season, was too dependent upon mechanics, for spilling emotions; a high five now and then, an obscenity and a stream of brown goo, that's all a guy was supposed to let out. Even last year, when Grover risked a little kiss with his wife through the screen behind home plate after a spring training game, damned if that fan hadn't caught him and howled, "Get a room!"
If a man was around that long enough, he became it, even a good guy like Grover. When his wife's eyes welled up in front of a movie, he made the wisecrack. When his teammate Danny Thompson died of leukemia in the off-season in 1976, Grover drove from Texas to the funeral in Oklahoma because that was the proper thing to do, but the agony, the enormity of what this did to Danny's family, never hit him, and he drove back home feeling as flat and arid inside as the land around him, wondering if something was wrong, if something was missing inside, but...crap, that speeding ticket he'd gotten on the way there...aw, screw it all....
He wanted what Bert Campaneris got. He wanted, at the end of his career, for an umpire to walk over to him in the dugout the way he had seen Bill Haller do one day to Campy—his teammate, the Ranger shortstop who never whined, never cried, never even smiled—and offer a handshake and say, "You're a real professional." That was Grover's goal in life.
So what was happening to him now? The other day, for instance, when he was bawling like a baby, with his son in his lap. And the day after, head buried in his pillow and crying his eyes out on his bed at his spring training apartment, when his wife walked in, and right after her one of his relievers, Kevin Wickander, and Wick's wife, Kim. The four of them all ending up on the bed, talking and sobbing and wrapping their arms around each other. That was professional? Two things were warring inside Grover on the bed that day with the wives and Wick, the last player left on the roster whom he had managed in the minors, now that Oly was gone. "We've...we've got to get over this, Wick.... We've got to get busy.... You're my last pup."