Spring Training Off Day Resulted In Tragedy In 1993
By Vince Guerrieri
Cleveland fans have their own language for heartbreak.
The Fumble. The Drive. The Shot. Red Right 88.
Little Lake Nellie.
Most of those pithy yet cutting phrases refer to losses on the field, missed opportunities and moments that leave us to wonder what might have been.
But Little Lake Nellie – a natural lake in Clermont, a small city in inland Florida – means something else entirely to every Indians fan, to every baseball fan, hell, to everyone of a certain age in Northeast Ohio who remembers what happened 19 years ago this week.
Spring training for the Indians started on an ominous note in 1993. They were leaving the Cactus League for Homestead, Fla., but the new facility was crushed by Hurricane Andrew the previous August. The Tribe was looking for a home in Florida on the fly. They ended up at Chain of Lakes Park in Winter Haven.
Three weeks after Andrew made landfall in Florida, David Jacobs, who with his brother Dick had bought the Indians in 1986 and by most accounts saved baseball in Cleveland, died at the age of 71. But it wasn’t all gloom and doom. The Indians were named Major League Baseball’s Organization of the Year in 1992 by Baseball America, and had the youngest lineup in the majors, at less than 27 years old. The Tribe had three all-stars in catcher Sandy Alomar, two years removed from being named Rookie of the Year; second baseman Carlos Baerga, who hit .312 with 20 home runs and 105 RBI, and starting pitcher Charlie Nagy, who won 17 games.
The Indians also had Steve Olin, who was shaping up to become a great closer. Olin had 29 saves in 1992, his first year as closer after Doug Jones left Cleveland for Houston. He wasn’t regarded as an overpowering pitcher, but made it to the majors on grit and guts, with an arrow under the bill of his cap pointing the way to home plate.
The atmosphere at Indians spring training was cautious optimism. The Indians were cultivating homegrown talent. Among the free agent acquisitions was Bob Ojeda, an anchor of the 1986 Mets’ starting rotation as they won a World Series; and Tim Crews, who came from the Dodgers and was part of their 1988 World Championship team.
March 22, 1993, was an off day for the Indians. A lot of them spent time with their families. Crews, a native of the area, organized a picnic on Little Lake Nellie. Ojeda came, as did Olin, who was an established member of the team, but wanted the new guys to feel welcome.
That night, they went on Crews’ 18-foot bass boat onto Little Lake Nellie. Crews had been drinking. Darkness settled over the lake, and Crews got too close to shore. He never saw the dock sticking out of the water.
The boat went under the dock around 25 mph, and all three players hit the dock with their heads. Olin died instantly. Crews, later found to be legally drunk at the time of the accident, hung on until the morning. It was the first death of active major leaguers since Thurman Munson was killed in a plane crash in Canton in 1979.
Ojeda survived, and even pitched for the Indians that year, but he was released after the season. He caught on with the Yankees in spring training in the strike year of 1994, but was let go after a lousy spring training.
The team grieved. A close-knit unit became even closer. They finished the season 76-86, the same record as the year before. The Indians wore two patches, one on each sleeve. One was for the farewell to Municipal Stadium for their new home in the Gateway project, a shimmering new stadium that would be named Jacobs Field. The other was for Tim Crews and Steve Olin.
The following year, the young talent the Indians had brought together started to take form. The Tribe traded for shortstop Omar Vizquel. Dennis Martinez was signed as a free agent. The Indians were leading in what would have been the first year of the wild card when a players’ strike ended the season in August.
In 1995, the Indians won 100 games in a shortened season. No lead was safe against their bruising lineup, and Jose Mesa, who became the team’s closer, set a club record with 46 saves, including a major league record 38 in a row. On Sept. 8, the Indians clinched their first trip to the postseason in 41 years. Orel Hershiser, signed that year as a free agent, got the start – and the win. Hershiser had counted Ojeda and Crews as his teammates with the Dodgers.
It was a moment of unbridled euphoria – tempered with unimaginable sadness. Indians manager Mike Hargrove, who had shepherded his team through the worst loss imaginable two years earlier, and guided them to their first division title ever, made a request for “The Dance” by Garth Brooks as they hoisted the flag in center field.
For a moment all the world was right
How could I have known you’d ever say goodbye
And now I’m glad I didn’t know
The way it all would end the way it all would go
Our lives are better left to chance I could have missed the pain
But I’d have had to miss the dance
For a moment, the world was right in Cleveland. But the song was one of Olin’s favorites, and Hargrove did it as a tribute to him and Crews. The players who remembered that horrible day at Little Lake Nellie wept.
They weren’t tears of joy.
Photo: Associated Press