03/21/2003 7:00 PM ET
Little Lake Nellie: A decade later
Indians simply can't forget Florida lakefront tragedy
Not many of us know how to find Little Lake Nellie. Even fewer have reason to find it. Little Lake Nellie is just a fishing hole shoehorned into rural Florida, an area God blessed with fertile land and sunshine.
But “blessed” didn’t fit His slice of serenity on March 22, 1993. On that date, people far and near learned more about Little Lake Nellie than they wanted to, because what happened there a decade ago bloodied its waters.
In a freak accident, three Indians ballplayers in a black bass boat rammed into a 250-foot pier. Two of the ballplayers were killed; the third, his skull a reddened mess, was left holding on to life in a nearby hospital.
Many of us now know that pitchers Steve Olin and Tim Crews were the two men who died, and that Bobby Ojeda, the injured pitcher, later recovered. But, who among us can fully recover from a tragedy that left deep wounds?
We have heard that time heals all wounds, but those of us whose lives have been touched by the lakefront tragedy aren’t necessarily believers in that maxim.
While we’ve tried to forge ahead, we’ve found that we can’t simply discard this sordid piece of Indians yesteryear like a pair of our worn-out batting gloves. We still have ghosts to wrestle.
To be certain, we have subdued most of those ghosts, although not without pain, heartache and tears. But the tragedy that spawned them remains branded in our minds, as bright and as clear as the Florida sky. Just ask any of us who were in or near Little Lake Nellie, or who know somebody else that was there that fateful day. We will tell you how little has been forgotten of Crews, of Olin, of Ojeda and of March 22, 1993 ...
Our memories of them all live on in Technicolor 10 years later. Here are some of those memories:
The luck of the draw: Montes
|By Justice B. Hill / MLB.com
Fernando Montes can look back now and see how lucky he was. He would have been aboard the 150-horsepower boat that late afternoon if not for a child’s game.
As Montes recalls it, he, Olin, Crews and Ojeda had driven to Little Lake Nellie and then towed the boat into the water. They were getting settled in when they realized they had forgotten some gear. Also, Crews had his best friend, Perry Brigmond, coming in from Orlando, and he hadn’t arrived.
The four men decided that someone needed to wait for Brigmond, whose job delayed his arrival, and pick up the things they’d forgotten.
“We played a rock, scissors, paper game, and I lost,” says Montes, the Indians strength and conditioning coach at the time. “I got out of the boat and had to go get Perry."
When he and Brigmond drove back to the lake, Crews, Olin and Ojeda had launched the boat and were gunning its engine at high speed. Montes flashed his headlights to signal that he had returned with Brigmond and the gear.
"We go to the bottom of the landing area, and they had just passed us when we pulled up,” says Montes, who has been reticent to talk about what happened at the lake. “They were making a turn to come around and pick us up. They were getting ready to make a left-hand turn. They made the turn, decelerated into the turn and started to accelerate out of the turn.
“Shortly thereafter is when we heard this loud thump. It got quiet, and we knew something was wrong."
An afternoon of fishing had turned into a death watch. Olin died at the scene. Crews died eight hours later, and Ojeda clung to life.
It was just dumb luck, nothing more, which had kept Montes out of that black bass boat. As much as he might want to toast his good fortune, he can’t get over the fact that he lost two friends on a day that should have been about relaxation and camaraderie.
What kind of man can toast that? What kind of man can forget that day?
Not one like Fernando Montes.
"It's something that will always be part of me,” he says. “It's something as vivid as can be. It's not something I think about all the time, but it's not something you forget."
The great communicator: DiBiasio
"Steve Olin had been in the organization for many years and was a great guy. Tim Crews was a new guy for us, over from the Dodgers, but still was a great guy. It changed the whole chemistry of the team."
-- Sandy Alomar, Jr.
Bob DiBiasio can’t forget, either.
DiBiasio, the Indians vice president of communications, can remember when he found out about the March 22, 1993, tragedy. He had taken his wife and two children to Disney World, and they returned shortly before 11 p.m.
They were standing outside their apartment, which was across the hall from where Olin, his wife and two kids were staying.
“My wife turned to me and said, ‘Something’s wrong,’ ” DiBiasio says, recounting the moment. “And I said, ‘Well, what do you mean?’
“She said, ‘The babies are not crying.’ ”
He says Olin’s two infants always cried at 11 p.m. They were as regular in their crying as the 11 p.m. news.
Making no big to-do about it, DiBiasio opened the apartment door. He heard the phone ringing. It was a call from the team doctor, who had been trying to reach DiBiasio for most of the day. He immediately turned on ESPN's SportsCenter, and he quickly discovered one thing. His wife was right: Something was wrong.
For DiBiasio, his day off had suddenly turned into a workday. He began, as he says now, to plot a strategy for dealing with this tragedy.
He first got in touch with manager Mike Hargrove and general manager John Hart, and the three of them prepared for the media crush. They also put a plan in place to take care of their players first. DiBiasio, Hargrove and Hart got to Chain O’ Lakes Park early the next day. They held a team meeting, and then Hart met the media afterward.
The organization would hold two or three more news conferences that first day and the next.
“We wanted to provide the media with something so that they weren’t off and running in their own direction, causing some negative feelings amongst people at a very sorrowful time,” DiBiasio says. “So our next step was to find a player who would talk on behalf of all of his teammates and -- again, this is where leadership really shines -- Carlos Baerga stepped to the plate."
The players’ voice: Baerga
Young and talented, but not a man seasoned in life’s harder knocks, the 24-year-old Baerga didn’t let his age stand in his way.
He took on a hard job that nobody else wanted. But tragedy brings heroes from unlikely quarters, and this one found Baerga.
As he speaks about it now, tears well in his eyes.
“I can remember it like it was today," Baerga says.
His family had come in the night before and like DiBiasio, Baerga, too, had taken his wife and kids to Disney World. They got home late and turned on the TV. The boating accident at Little Lake Nellie was the No. 1 story.
"We couldn't believe it,” says Baerga, then a rising star in the organization. “The first thing we did was pray that they would be OK. And then they said that two guys died, and it was just unbelievable.
"It hurt everybody."
The next morning he and the Indians gathered early, and by day’s end, Baerga had emerged as their voice.
From then, until the end of camp, he found himself surrounded by media -- the cameras flashing, the questions coming his way as everybody wanted to know how the Indians could get through their grief. Even more, how the Olin and the Crews families were going to get through theirs.
"Ollie left his wife with two kids and Tim Crews had three kids and that was the biggest concern right there,” Baerga says. “How were they going to be able to deal with that, losing someone so important to them?"
People don’t deal easily with death, and it gets no easier when death comes the way it did to Olin and Crews. It nags at people even today -- a decade later.
"I'll never forget about it,” says Baerga, now playing out his career with the Arizona Diamondbacks. “It's still in your mind. You're going to remember something like that."
The man behind the mask: Alomar, Jr.
“People think we’re superhuman,” catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. says. “But we’re just like everyone else.”
Maybe it took a moment of clarity to bring Alomar, also an up-and-coming star with the Indians at the time, that kind of wisdom. He did, after all, get more than a moment of it that night in ’93.
In his room then, he was watching television when he and roommate Jim Thome first heard about Olin, Crews and Ojeda.
The news hit Alomar like a thunderbolt.
“Everybody was freaking out,” he says, seemingly surprised that the incident happened a decade ago. “My mom called me, and my dad called me to make sure I was all right.”
All right? How could he really be “all right”?
The next morning, Alomar and Thome were in a daze as they stopped to pick up veteran pitcher Mike Bielecki, who had been invited to join his teammates on the fishing trip but declined to go.
“We were in the car driving to the ballpark, and Mike wondered why we were so quiet,” Alomar says. “He didn’t know about the accident until we told him.”
At the ballpark that morning, chaos reigned like a dictator. Tears flowed like the Nile. The tears were the best way to display everybody’s despair, which would wring the energy out of Indians camp.
“Steve Olin had been in the organization for many years and was a great guy,” Alomar says. “Tim Crews was a new guy for us, over from the Dodgers, but still was a great guy. It changed the whole chemistry of the team.”
The incident changed more than team chemistry. The daily routine in Winter Haven underwent revision. General manager John Hart tried to keep everybody as busy as possible.
“We didn’t get any more days off after that,” says Alomar, now with the Chicago White Sox. “John Hart didn’t want to have any days off. It really opened your mind and your eyes that you had to be careful, that anybody could be gone just as quickly.”
The young at arms: Lopez
The echoes remain loud for pitcher Albie Lopez.
He can still remember hearing Ojeda, Crews and Olin talking about their fishing trip earlier in the day. Lopez, a 21-year-old minor leaguer at the time, saw the three Indians veterans on the Stairmaster in the workout room. They all seemed excited about having a day off.
"I just knew those guys from when they would come work out with us,” says Lopez, now a reliever with the Kansas City Royals. “It was just one of those things like: 'Hey, how are you doing?' It was just small talk."
But small talk isn’t so surprising when you’re a young pitcher like Lopez was then. He had no real ties to the veteran arms on the '93 staff. The minors and the Majors are as far apart as Mercury and Mars.
It took something like this tragedy to bridge the distance. All the people in Spring Training were affected by the boating accident. Few of them could focus on baseball with death in their face.
"You could see in people’s eyes that their minds were somewhere else,” Lopez says in a low, somber tone. “It was like that for about a week. Everybody was in a daze for a while."
Some people have said the daze lasted the entire ’93 season, which never seemed to get jump-started after what had happened on the little lake near Winter Haven.
Looking back at it, Lopez praises Hargrove for holding the Indians together. In Lopez’s mind, Hargrove seemed to understand the emotional effect the accident had on his team’s psyche.
Yet just like with most things, life had to return to what might look like normal. What is normal after this, though? How do you move on? How do you forget?
Maybe the years since can soften the harsh edges of a memory most would rather not remember. The years can roll by like a Rose Bowl parade.
But forget? Never.
"My biggest memory of the whole thing,” Lopez says now, “was watching Bob Ojeda come back and make his start after all he had been through that year."
Voice of the old guard: Power
Veteran reliever Ted Power was supposed to fish Little Lake Nellie with Ojeda, Montes, Crews, Olin and Brigmond, but Power woke up March 22 and decided he didn't want to. As he puts it, "I was just kicking back and take it easy."
So he spent most of the day cleaning his apartment -- windows and everything. He went out later to get something to eat, and when he returned to his apartment, his telephone was ringing. It was his mother.
"And she said, 'Ted, thank God,' " Power recalls. "That was because the first report said a couple of Indians pitchers had been killed and one seriously injured. It was very sketchy, but it didn't give any names."
His parents knew Power had planned to go on the lake, but they didn't know at that point if he was dead or alive. It was their phone call that gave Power the bad news and allayed their fears.
The details of the accident, however, came later for Power. He called his teammates and coaches. He finally reached manager Mike Hargrove, who ended up filling in the specifics for Power.
At 38, Power had been through enough of life's downs and ups to understand the burdens of coping with tragedy -- even one as freakish as this one proved to be. Still, it was unsettling.
Power couldn't lose two teammates and not feel emptiness inside. He was human, after all. He was a baseball player, too. It was easier to be human than, in sorrowful times like this, to be a ballplayer. The '93 season looked meaningless when stacked alongside two deaths.
Think about a baseball season? Impossible.
"I know it ruined us for the season," Power says. "We were expected to do great things that year, because we had improved over our previous record so much. But it just wasn't there. Our heart and soul were gone."
The leader of the pack: Hart
Talk to anybody in the Indians organization, and people will say one thing about general manager John Hart: He showed leadership.
As much as his rebuilding of the Indians has brought him glory, Hart will most likely earn more lasting praise for his work in the aftermath of the boat accident.
As soon as Fernando Montes telephoned Hart about the accident, Hart called manager Mike Hargrove, and the two men got on the road to the lake. They took about 45 minutes to arrive there.
When they arrived, they saw the unthinkable: death.
“It was just awful,” Hart says now.
Olin had died at the scene, and Crews and Ojeda were still there -- hurt badly. But Ojeda was able to explain what had happened.
About 3 a.m., Hart drove to the Orlando Regional Medical Center to comfort Crew’s family. He left about 4:30 a.m. for a team meeting, and on the way back to Winter Haven, Hart got a call that Crews had died.
"The immediate concern was for the families, and what we could do as an organization to support the family,” says Hart, now general manager of the Texas Rangers. “We also had to take care of the living."
The living went beyond the immediate families. Hart had an extended family to console as well. So he and the organization asked Andre Thornton, a former Indians star, to fly to Florida and offer spiritual guidance.
Thornton’s words helped, but this tragedy was nothing that would disappear overnight. It would linger deep into the 1993 season; it would stay with people’s lives far longer.
Nobody forgets death easily; nobody forgets a friend.
Hart hasn’t forgotten.
"It's still a wound,” Hart says. “It has been closed over by time, but it is very difficult to go through."
The spiritual leader: Thornton
Perhaps Andre Thornton understood more than other people did. After all, Thornton, too, had played in the Majors, so the ballplayer’s life was familiar to him. But he also had experienced a devastating loss: His wife and daughter were killed in a car wreck during his playing days.
The former Indians star said that latter event, as well as his faith in God, had prepared him for what kind of mission he would be asked to undertake.
Shortly after the Little Lake Nellie accident, the Indians reached out to Thornton, a businessman in Cleveland. His response was to seek counsel from a higher power. He reached out to God first, and then he let the Indians know that he was willing and ready to reach out to them.
They grabbed his hand and held it tightly.
As Thornton recalls it now, he got on the plane the day after the tragedy. While en route to Florida, he prayed that God would give him the words to help, the words to provide comfort or understanding.
“Those words were being written, not only on the plane, but as I was getting acclimated into Winter Haven,” he says. “These are situations where, certainly, experience plays a role.”
Those words could not, he knew, erase what had happened March 22, 1993. Nothing could do that.
In whatever words he used, he knew he needed to share with the players the words that had helped him through his grief. The suddenness and brevity of life, he said, had become real to men who had not, in most cases, given it much thought.
Thornton decided he must talk about how life, from one moment to the next, can put men, women and their families into some difficult circumstances. Those difficulties can numb people, no matter how strong they are.
“The effect of it is shocking; the effect of it is disbelief,” Thornton says. “My role was really to try and help those families understand that God is in control -- that this isn’t an accident. God’s hand is on all that takes place, and for whatever reason we might not understand, it’s not some random thing that’s going around.”
In Winter Haven, he let the Indians players, and the families of Olin, Crews and Ojeda know that God was their refuge, their source of strength and their source of guidance. Thornton encouraged the mourners to lean on Him in their time of sorrow.
“It’s those kinds of things that we put off so often in our lives until these kinds of situations happen,” Thornton says. “It’s like we go grabbing for help.”
His mission there lasted two days. Having done the Lord’s work, Thornton was then back on the plane to Cleveland.
“They needed to move on, and the families, of course, were moving on as well,” he says. “So I didn’t need to be there any longer than that. I was thankful that I was able to be there, because certainly I could identify with it as well as anyone.”
A case of deja vu: Embree
And so can pitcher Alan Embree, one of the seemingly star-crossed souls whom the Fates have damned. They simply won't let Embree forget March 22, 1993, even as the years put distance between that date and him.
But he might never find enough distance to wipe away that spring from his mind. Had he entertained such a notion, he saw it come back after outfielder Mike Darr, Embree's teammate then with the Padres, was killed in a car wreck last spring.
Embree's locker was next to Darr's.
"It was tough emotionally for me," says Embree, now a 33-year-old pitcher with the Red Sox. "It brought everything back."
Everything was Olin and his death. Not that Embree didn't mourn Crews or care about Ojeda; he did. But Embree knew Olin. The two men grew up in the same area.
"When I came up to the big leagues, he kind of took me under his wing," Embree says. "We became better friends that way."
Then came the accident, which haunts Embree still.
He was in bed watching TV when he saw news flash on SportsCenter. That's how he found out.
"We all came out of our hotel rooms and sat around the pool and just couldn't believe what happened," he says. "We didn't know the details."
The details would unfold in the hours and days ahead. Like others in big-league camp, he felt numb as he sifted through the specifics in his mind. He would shed some tears of his friend's death.
"Every spring I think about it," he says. "Last year was even tougher because of Darr's accident."
But, after almost a decade in the Majors now, Embree was more ready to deal with Darr's death than he was the ones at Little Lake Nellie in '93. He was no longer the youngster, his baseball dossier thick with Major League statistics.
His experience in Winter Haven had prepared him well. He was able to help the Padres move forward. For he had been where they were about to go.
"I was there to tell them, 'Hey, I know what you're going through; I know it's tough to lose somebody that important,' " he remembers saying to his Padre teammates. "If you need someone to talk to ... "
His voice trails off, leaving whom that someone is unstated. But that someone was Alan Embree, giving to his Padre teammates as others had given to him earlier.
"That's all you can offer," he says.
He hardly needed to offer more.
Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.