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All the adversity in his life, all those other brushes with death and pain, they didn't prepare him for this. They were nothing. The time in the early 1970s, when he was just a kid on a minibike, driving off a bridge. The time he and his dad hugged the floor of their fishing boat on a lake south of Fresno, listening to the bullets whine past, inches from their ears, because some lunatic, for the sheer hell of it, felt like squeezing off 10 or 15 rounds at two guys in a boat. The time when he was a teenager and had to heave away a can that had shot up in flames in his hand, because they were out of charcoal lighter for the grill and, well, why not use the gasoline? The time when he was in a Corvette and hit a telephone pole, the time an ambulance plowed clean through the trunk and backseat of a car he was riding in. The time, with the Mets in the thick of the '88 pennant race, when the hedge clippers slipped, turning the middle finger of his pitching hand into a stump dangling from another stump. He remembered coming home at 2 a.m. from road trips in '90, when the Mets had buried him in the bullpen, climbing onto his Harley Davidson in the suit he had to wear to comply with the team dress code, howling and roaring through the streets of his neighborhood until the sun came up.... All Little League stuff. Penny ante. No howling now.
If only...sure, Crewser had had a few beers, but he seemed fine. If only the Indians still trained in Arizona, like they always had till this spring, and hadn't chosen to move to Homestead, Fla., and if only the hurricane hadn't headed straight for Homestead and demolished the complex, and if only the team hadn't stumbled into Winter Haven—just an hour from Crewser's ranch—to train. If only it hadn't rained that afternoon, and they had gone fishing in daylight, as they'd planned. If only they hadn't already been past the dock when the truck headlights flashed on the shore, the signal that Tim's buddy, Perry, was ready to be picked up. If only Crewser and Steve had slouched when they sat, as he always did. If only he hadn't slouched—goddammit, what right did he have to be alive?
This is what you do with pain. You sit alone in a hotel room in a foreign country, and you start drinking wine and smoking cigarettes and staring out the window, talking out loud to the two dead men you were sitting with thigh-to-thigh, saying the most painful and horrific things you can possibly think of again and again, for six or seven hours, because if you can do that and get out of the chair at the end of it, you've put on another layer. And if you can do that the next day and the next, you can create a person who you're really not, but the person you need to be to go on. And it's worth it, worth everything you lose when you do that, because you don't lose everything. You don't reach for the plastic cylinder of pills you keep looking at. which would make your eyelids finally begin to sag, make all the if onlys drift away, and everything else too, forever and ever.
He lurched from the chair at 4 a.m., the room spun, he headed out the door. He walked for miles through the bitter cold and darkness—water everywhere, boats, docks—hanging by the thread, the thinnest, most ordinary thread, the old woman's words on the airplane: One day, because of it, the kids will be stronger. And when he came back, it was sunup, and he fell on the bed, his heart beating so hard and irregular that he thought it was coming right through his chest. Oh my god, he thought. I'm going to the in a hotel room 7,000 miles from home.
On one shelf lies Steve Olin's folded game jersey. Next to it lie his hat, a ball he signed, and his baseball card in a frame. On another shelf lie his baseball pants and several of his T-shirts. On a third shelf lie his fishing-tackle box, his spinners, spent shells from his rifle, his fishing license, his photograph with a deer, and his locker nameplate. On a hook hangs his practice jersey.
This is not the Olins' house. It's the Wickanders'.
Someday, when Wick has a little boy and the boy is four or five, Wick's going to start pointing at the shelves and telling him about a wonderful man who drove an hour to a ranch on a lake one day, his only off-day all spring, because he wanted to make sure that the newest member of the bullpen felt welcome. He'll tell the boy about a season that happens now and then, or maybe not even that often. The oldest member of the bullpen, Teddy Power, had already put in 16 years with 10 different teams in pro ball when it happened, and he said he had never seen anything like what they shared that summer. A summer in 1992 when five men who loved the same things—boats and tobacco and motorcycles and trout streams and hunting and silly pranks and four-wheeling in the mud—found a groove that made them the American League's best bullpen, and became best friends as well. A summer when they went on fishing trips together and threw pies in faces and sabotaged TV microphones and branded their names in bullpens with red-hot tarp stakes and shouted Ch-ching! Ch-ching! all the way to the mound in the middle of games whenever one of them had broken some screwy bullpen bylaw that would cost him five bucks in kangaroo court. The Pen, they called themselves. We poked our dirty little raccoon noses, Wick would say, into anything we could. Five men: Wickander, Olin, Lilliquist, Plunk, Power. Five boys: Wicky, Oly, Lilli, Plunky, Teddy. In the bubble-gum-chewing contest, Wicky and Oly tied, 71 pieces in each of their mouths.
And then, just like that, the little family was gone. Oly was dead, and Wick, who couldn't get over it, was traded, and Teddy, even though he was 38 and might've known better, kept throwing with pain to make up for it and strained his triceps muscle, and Lilli and Plunky were left to blink at all the names and faces checking in.
"You'll have the most excellent day ever." That was the fortune on the Bazooka bubble-gum wrapper that Oly opened that day last summer. "Here, Wick," Oly said. "This is for you." And Wick believed him. He tucked it in the liner of his cap, won his first big league game that very day, framed the wrapper and put it on his wall.
That's how it was with Oly and Wick, the Pen's two best buddies. Oly wouldn't touch the third base line or flip the ball to the bullpen catcher when he entered a game, so Wick wouldn't either. Oly etched an arrow under his hat brim to direct the ball to the plate, so Wick had to have that too. They had been together since 1989, at the Indians' Triple A farm in Colorado Springs. Oly was a 16th-round pick, a devoted husband with skinny shoulders and a submarine delivery and ordinary stuff, who believed in himself deep down. Wick was a second-round pick, a classic bachelor with barroom radar and killer looks and wicked stuff, who, deep down, didn't. Wick leaned on Oly. Literally. They would both go down to one knee and take turns resting an arm on each other's back in the outfield during batting practice, head beside head. Like Siamese twins, Teddy would say. Like listening to two guys talk who'd been next-door neighbors all their lives, said Lilli.