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For a year and a half, since Grover had become the Indians' manager, he and the front office had been telling the world how tight this young team was, how much like family. They had signed a core of 18 players to relatively modest multiyear contracts and planned to keep them together, use their closeness as a weapon against the big-market teams with the cash flow to keep famous free agents shuttling in and out. But lots of team managements yapped about family and waived you in a swing and a miss. Who could possibly trust that?
Now one of the family was in a box, and the other was ashes in an urn in the mountains of Oregon, and Grover had to look inside himself and discover if the sermons he had preached were true. If they were a family, how could he be a professional? He could only be a father who had lost two children. He sat on a chair in the middle of the locker room the morning after the accident and waved to his players to come sit close around him on the floor, like a kindergarten teacher and his kids. And now the emotions he had always wondered about were coming like a freight train, and the only choice was whether to stand in front of the train or leap out of its way. He stood there and let it happen in front of everyone, kept on talking about what the players meant to him even when the words were hitching and then turning to sobs, and then, one by one, they all did the same. God, it felt like family, the way they all kept drifting in and out of each other's apartments that week, the way Grover and his wife, Sharon, were always there for the players and their wives and the widows, ready to pack or cook or clean or hug or cry with anyone who needed it. It could never be the same after that morning in the clubhouse with Grover. Good or bad for a baseball team, nobody could be sure, but never the same.
Grover backed way off, let the players miss a cutoff man or a signal in those final exhibition games, but now Opening Day was just a week away, time to start sucking it up and setting the jaw...and here stood that ghost in front of the team.
It was not so much what Bobby Ojeda told the players that day—how it had happened that night on the boat, how the three of them had never even glimpsed that dock in the darkness, how he wanted them not to pity him or think about him at all. It was the way he said it, the utter deadness in his voice and eyes, the total absence of hope. Not a word of encouragement. Not a word about coming back.
And then he was gone. The players looked at one another. The clubhouse filled, again, with silence. How many million attaboys and let's-pull-it-togethers would it take to counteract that?
They would charge onto the field for Opening Day in Cleveland, the relievers lifting their thumbs to heaven to signal to Oly and Crewser that everything was going to be O.K., 73,290 people standing and crying and roaring for them and for the two widows clutching the empty jerseys at home plate...and would get crushed 9-1 by the Yankees. The Indians would lose 43 of their first 81 games, committing 71 errors, pressing to do what they couldn't and not even doing what they could. Injuries chopped down what remained of the staff—six pitchers, at one point, on the disabled list—as little pangs turned into deep pain; who could bring himself to mention a tendon or a tender kit in the wake of death? No one pointed a linger in the clubhouse. The team, fused by grief, remained one. But there was no resurrection. No clichés. No movies to be made in last place.
Grover would see a player making an idiot, an absolute idiot, out of himself on the field in May, open his mouth to tell him that...but then an image of that player from the day when they gathered around Grover's chair in the clubhouse would come to him, a memory of how much compassion that man had, and instead Grover would hear himself say, "You're not what you showed on the field today. I know you."
But he couldn't help wondering, as loss piled upon loss, as day after day passed without an offer of a contract extension from the front office that spoke so much about family, if he should've just chewed the guy's head off.
He came home after a loss one day in May and put his arms around Sharon. He had opened a letter before the game from a fan complaining that Grover had betrayed his responsibility to young people by downplaying Tim Crews's blood-alcohol level the night of the accident, and rage had rushed to Grover's face. He had grabbed the phone, tracked down the fan and screamed obscenities at him—how dare this moron judge him from a thousand miles away when there was so much pain, so many lives lying crumpled all around him. Now, for the first time in their lives together, his wife felt his body come unstrung, all his 215 pounds falling against her, and she felt as close to him as she ever had. "I don't know if I did the right or wrong thing about the alcohol," he sobbed. "I don't know anything...."
Were there any standings, any stats, for good human beings? On a tired Sunday evening after a game, when his four-year-old, Shelly, wanted to read a book or his 11-year-old, Andy, wanted to play ball, Grover used to sink into his living room chair with the newspaper or a book and grunt, "Yeah... later...." until it was their bedtime. Now he got up and did it. Now he swallowed hard and stared in wonder at the note tucked inside his bedroom mirror, written to him in May by his own father, a man who had never before come close to uttering such words to him: "I saw you on television the past few weeks and you seemed to have the weight of the world on your shoulders. You can only do so much with what you have. When you get down and everything keeps falling up tails, remember, He's with you.... With love, Pop."