Twenty Years Later, Tribe’s Tragedy is Still Remembered
By Steve Eby
“When they told me I just couldn’t believe it. How do you tell a 3-year-old that…daddy is not coming back?” –Patti (Olin) Winter
Whenever a loved one is lost, the memory of that moment seems endless. It’s hard to believe that it was 20 years ago that the Olin, Crews and Cleveland Indians families all lost people that they loved.
It was Monday March 22, 1993 when one of the newest Indians, pitcher Tim Crews, decided to invite his new teammates over to his new home on the Indians only off-day of the spring. He had just moved into a new house—his dream house—nestled on the shores of Little Lake Nellie which was a fishing hotspot. He was set to entertain his guests at his 45-acre ranch and get to know his new friends as they barbequed in his backyard.
Most of Crews’ teammates elected to spend the day in Walt Disney World with their families. The only ones to accept the invitation were Strength Coach Fernando Montes, new starting pitcher Bobby Ojeda and closer Steve Olin.
“He was just so excited about spending the day with Bobby Ojeda and Tim Crews,” Patti Winter, Olin’s widow, said of her late husband in a 2003 interview for ESPN’s ‘Outside the Lines’.
Olin was a 27-year old relief pitcher who kept improving year after year. After setting the record for complete games at his alma mater Portland State, Olin was drafted by the Indians in 1987 and made his Major League debut in 1989. His ERA lowered every season that he played for the Tribe, starting off at 3.75 in 1989 and dropping down to 2.34 in 1992. In 1991, Olin took over as the Indians closer and saved 17 games in his first season in the role. He locked down 29 in 1992, the final one coming in a dramatic 6-4 victory over the New York Yankees at Cleveland Municipal Stadium on September 28. Olin was a young, promising, submarine style pitcher who certainly had the better part of his career in front of him and was guaranteed a job in the Indians bullpen for the first time in his career.
“That was the first year (that) it was like, ‘we can just enjoy Spring Training’,” Winter said.
In contrast to the young right-hander, Crews and Ojeda were veteran pitchers just trying to make the Indians Opening Day roster. Crews was a longtime member of the Los Angeles Dodgers bullpen and was primarily used as a long reliever for Tommy Lasorda’s squad. He was in his first Spring Training out of Dodger Blue and was gunning to make the Indians subpar bullpen.
Ojeda was also in his first Spring Training with Cleveland, but the Indians were his fourth team overall. Ojeda started his long career with Boston in 1980 then was traded to the New York Mets for their memorable World Series championship season in 1986. He joined Crews as a member of the Dodgers in 1991 and 1992 when he was traded by the Mets in December 1990.
The men, their wives and their young children all visited the Crews house that day and after dinner, the four men were ready to take Crews’ boat, an 18-foot bass fisher, out for a spin or two around the lake—a hobby that may have been Crews’ favorite outside of baseball.
“Right after dinner we all kind of cleaned up, walked outside, and we all rode down and hitched the trailer up to get ready to launch the boat,” Montes remembers.
“I really was ready to go home,” Winter said. “And Steve said, oh, we’re going to go for a ride around the lake. I said, ok, fine, but hurry up. I kind of want to go.”
Crews, Olin, Ojeda and Montes all hurried down to the dock when fate intervened for one of the men.
“We forgot something up at the house and Perry Brigmond, who was a friend of Tim Crews, had just arrived prior to us going down,” Montes said. “And the question was, ok, who is going to go up and get it? Nobody kind of volunteered, so we played this child’s game. We called rock, paper, scissors, and I don’t recall what my actual one ended up as but, in all I ended up losing.”
After losing the game of chance, Montes went back to the house to retrieve the forgotten item as the other men boarded the boat. Crews sped the boat in circles around the water as darkness started to fall upon the lake. As the boat rocked back and the bow lifted up out of the water, Crews did not see his neighbors 50-yard dock until it was too late.
“We heard this loud thump and a crash,” Montes said. “And it was silence, utter silence.”
The boat had gone underneath the dock and the men aboard had hit their heads on the wooden planks. Olin, a father of three, was killed instantly.
“I knew without any hesitation that Steve Olin had passed,” Montes remembered.
Crews was sitting in the driver’s seat gasping for air as Ojeda had gone into shock and was bleeding from the head. Ojeda was taken to the hospital and Crews was airlifted to the Orlando Medical Center.
Winter, like everybody else, could not believe what had happened. “I did know at that point that Bobby and Tim were hurt,” she said. “(I) still couldn’t get any information on Steve, and so when they told me, I just couldn’t believe it.”
“She wanted to come down (to the boat), so I said, no,” Montes said. “No. He didn’t make it. I expressed to her that her husband had passed, and did try to keep her back from wanting to go down there.”
“When they took us back to (Crews’) house and I remember just sitting there,” Winter remembered. “(I was) thinking, what am I going to do now?”
Steve Olin was dead, Tim Crews was in critical condition and Bob Ojeda was being treated for severe head lacerations. Olin had just become the first active Major League player to pass away since Thurman Munson in 1979. Crews, another father of three, soon after became the second. Only Ojeda survived the accident.
“I certainly went through the why am I here? Certainly,” Ojeda said. “That’s a given. I left the country for a while. I had a lot of money in my pocket and I wasn’t gonna come back.”
As Ojeda recovered, news of the tragic event hit the Crews, Olin and Ojeda families hard and also hit hard in the Indians organization and in the city of Cleveland. The 1993 Indians were suddenly a broken team…a team that will forever be remembered as being two men short of what they should have been.
Just before the Indians opened the 1993 season by losing to the Yankees 9-1, a moment of silence was held in honor of the two deceased pitchers. The sellout crowd of 73,290 fell so silent that you could hear a pin drop just before Cleveland Stadium’s final home opener. The Indians and Yankees players and coaches huddled together in prayer on the field with the families of the two men and almost nobody in attendance had a dry eye. For the season, the Indians donned a baseball patch on their sleeve that had Olin’s #31 with an arrow above it on the left side and Crews’ #52 with a star above it on the right. The arrow was something that Olin had put on the bottom of the brim of his baseball cap.
The baseball-related fallout from the accident was not pleasant for the Indians. The Tribe had turned many heads in 1992 as an up-and-coming team with young stars like Carlos Baerga, Kenny Lofton, Sandy Alomar, Albert Belle, Charles Nagy and Olin. The 1993 team seemed to take a step in a lateral direction rather than forward, finishing with the exact same 76-86 record that they had the season before. The bullpen was not nearly as effective as it should have been, having lost their best pitcher. In Olin’s absence, Eric Plunk led the “closer-by-committee” bullpen with a mere 15 saves.
The Indians seemed to play uninspired, especially early in the season, because of the loss of their friends and teammates.
“It was not even baseball related,” Indians pitcher Kevin Wickander said. “(Olin was) my best friend. He was the best man in my wedding. And the reason I am where I am today is because of him.” Of all the Indians who took the tragic news hard, it was Wickander who took the news the worst.
Wickander couldn’t stand being on the Indians without Olin and was traded to the Cincinnati Reds midseason. He bounced around the Majors while battling substance abuse problems for a few more years before getting sent to prison for theft. Even with all of these problems, Wickander called the day that Olin died the worst day of his life.
In the aftermath of the accident, reports had come out that Crews had been drinking before operating the boat. Later reports say that Crews had a blood/alcohol content of 0.14 percent which is above the state of Florida’s legal limit.
“We had been drinking,” Montes said. “There was no hiding that. There was no reason to. But I also saw someone in front of me through the course of the day who was in charge of their senses (and) who was not drunk.”
Whatever the reason, two men were tragically gone and one badly injured. Ojeda did manage to comeback and pitch for the Indians late in the season, as he made his first appearance out of the bullpen in an 8-6 loss at Baltimore on August 7. Ojeda made his first start and appearance at Cleveland Stadium on August 16, as Tribe fans gave him a long standing ovation when he took the mound.
The Indians play turned around in the seasons that followed as the Tribe contended throughout the strike-shortened 1994 season and then started a string of five straight American League Central Division titles in 1995. When the team clinched their first division crown on September 8, Garth Brooks’ song The Dance played over the loudspeakers at Jacobs Field as Lofton raised the flag. The Dance was Olin’s favorite song and was played at his funeral service less than two years prior. Tears flooded down the emotional Indians faces and for the rest of Mike Hargrove’s tenure as the manager in Cleveland, the Indians never again took an off-day in spring training.
As the Indians moved on with their grief, so did the families. Outside of the Crews’ home on Little Lake Nellie now sits a plaque and oak trees that are dedicated to the memory of the two deceased players. Meanwhile, Olin’s widow spent the 1993 season in Cleveland while she raised her year-old twins and three year-old daughter alone.
“How do you tell a 3-year-old that daddy is not coming back?” Winter asked. “I don’t know at what point she finally figured it out.”
The now family of four moved back home to Portland, Oregon shortly after the ’93 season. In 1996, the mother of three had found love once again and married Billy Winter, a former baseball player that had played against Olin in college. Steve Olin’s father walked the mother of his grandchildren down the aisle at her second wedding.
“I can talk about how great he was,” Winter remembers of her late husband. “I can talk about how he was as a player. I can talk about how he was as a father. How he was as a son, how he was as a friend, all that’s easy. But just recently the kids have been saying, what do you think he’d be doing right now, where do you think we’d be if dad was still here? I miss that he doesn’t get to be with his kids. I miss that they don’t get to be with him.”
Olin’s son Garrett was just an infant when his father died. His father’s #31 Indians jersey hung above his boyhood bed.
“Sometimes I wish he was still alive and sometimes I wish he has a nice life up in heaven,” Garrett said. “I just miss my dad a lot and sometimes I just try to forget about him but it’s too hard to forget because I miss him a lot.”
It’s always hard…even 20 years later.
Photo: Tony Dejak/Associated Press