Statistics have always played a major role in Milt Pappas' life. A former star pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles, Cincinnati Reds, Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs, Pappas, now 44, has more than 200 career wins, including a 1972 no-hitter against the San Diego Padres.

But a statistic of another, grimmer sort now dominates Pappas' life. On Sept. 11, 1982 Carole, his childhood sweetheart and wife of 22 years, left their suburban Wheaton, Ill. home to do some errands and never returned. Her car, a 1980 white-and-burgundy Buick Regal, license number GN 6357, disappeared with her.

That morning, Carole Pappas, then 42, became one of the approximately 1.8 million people reported missing each year in the U.S. While the vast majority come home, about 300,000, like Carole, are never seen again by their families.

The past 18 months have been agony for Pappas, now a building supplies salesman, and his children, Michelle, 21, and Steve, 22. Not knowing whether his wife was dead or alive, Pappas was in an emotional limbo until, prodded by his children to "get on with life," he met and fell in love with Judi Bloome, 30, a Chicago policeman's daughter who teaches writing to handicapped children. They live in the house that Pappas shared with his wife. There, Pappas spoke with correspondent Linda Witt about the torment of having a loved one vanish.

Carole disappeared on the day Stevie, our son, was coming home from his honeymoon. It was a Saturday, Carole's catch-up day. She worked as a bookkeeper at a furniture store five days a week, and on Saturday she'd hit the beauty shop, the cleaner's, the supermarket. Stevie had asked for a special dinner and Carole had everything all laid out. The recipe for his favorite yogurt cake was on the kitchen counter when she left about 9 a.m.

It was probably 2 p.m. before things began to seem a little wrong. If Carole had a lot to do, she'd usually call and say, "I'm running late. Don't worry." At first I was angry. I admit it. I kept thinking, "Where are you? The kids are coming to dinner." But as the time went on that anger turned into fear.

At about 7 p.m. Michelle went to the police. I stayed by the phone. The police said all they could do was issue a local alert on the car; we'd have to wait 24 hours to file a missing persons report. Stevie and his wife arrived about 5 p.m. He stayed to give me moral support, and Michelle and Stevie's wife scoured shopping centers for Carole's car. Waiting for the phone to ring, I was conscious of all the cars passing by. I finally went upstairs at about 3 a.m., but it was a fitful sleep.

Next morning at 9, I called the police to file a missing persons report. I was astonished. Nothing seemed to have been done. They had put out an alert on the car, but that was all.

Three days after she disappeared, on Tuesday afternoon, the police finally assigned a detective and a lieutenant to the case. I sensed I was a suspect. They were digging into Carole's disappearance and I just assumed I had to be one of the people they would be thinking about. I volunteered to take a lie detector test, which I passed. Many guys might have found that offensive. I didn't. They were the pros and I was looking to them for help. And they were looking to me. A lot of the information on Carole they could get only from me.

What did irritate me was I asked if I could contact the press and they said, no. I am somebody who can attract immediate media attention, but they said, "Wait, according to statistics a missing person normally comes back within 48 to 72 hours." But they didn't know my wife. This woman never spent a night away from home that I didn't know where she was. I wanted the publicity. I felt we were losing valuable time. But I didn't know what else to do except listen to what the law enforcement people were telling me.

The following night, Wednesday, Jose Cardenal [an old Cubs teammate] called. When he heard that the police didn't want me to notify the press, he did it. Thursday he called CBS sports-caster Johnny Morris at WBBM-TV. Later that night the other networks called and it went out on the wire services. The media was fantastic. In fact, we developed an important lead because of the press. The problem was it came five days too late.

Before the story broke, Carole's trail seemed to end at the supermarket. She had started at the cleaner's, then went to a dress shop, the jeweler and then the beauty shop. From what we could figure, she then stopped at the bank where she deposited my paycheck and mailed in the mortgage payment. At the supermarket she used the last check she had in her purse. But the day after the story broke the police got a call from a saleslady at Marshall Field in Bloomingdale, Ill., who remembered Carole had been there Saturday to exchange a pair of panty hose and had said she was heading home. That was about 12:15.

That first month the phone rang off the hook for 20 hours a day. The second month it became quieter, but it never really died down. We never went out. We were always in the house by the phone. I finally started going back to work after four weeks, but I'd be out an hour and just turn around and go home. I wasn't ready to face people and go through the questions.

There were many times I cried. You feel guilty. I thought about how tough an athlete's wife has it. Carole had to be both mother and father to the kids when I was on the road. It was rough, too, because I was traded three times. The kids had to be taken out of school, our life packed up and moved, and she had to do it. And when I was home, I wanted to be home. I ate in too many restaurants on the road.

We had a good marriage. Just before Carole disappeared we were talking about moving back to Detroit to be closer to our moms once the kids were on their own. We were planning for our old age. Four days later she was gone.

You try to piece things together. Could I have done anything to cause her to leave, done anything more to find her? But you come back to a big no. This was a grown woman who left on a Saturday morning to do what she did every Saturday morning. The only difference is she never came back.

Michelle has a recurring dream that her mother is still alive. A couple of times she's awakened with nightmares, crying. Stevie has the worst guilt trip. He and his mom were so close. She'd said to him before the wedding, "I don't want to lose you," and he felt he'd abandoned her because when he came home from his honeymoon, she was gone. He did everything to find her. He went to a psychic and a state sanitarium. It may have had nothing to do with it, but Stevie's marriage didn't last a year. I've tried to help by telling him that it was out of our hands.

Then, a year ago last December, I got a tip from a friend in the Du Page County sheriff's office. The Chicago police had arrested three guys for some particularly brutal murders of women. A fourth man arrested in Du Page County picked out Carole's picture and said he'd seen the others kill her. He knew things about her—her jewelry, where she parked her car—that had never been in the papers. It was pure whim that led this foursome to pick Carole. They decided they were going to go out and find a woman, and they did. They took her out of her car, put her in their van and two of the guys drove her car. What happened later was very brutal, very sadistic, very sick. I hope if what this guy said is true, she died quickly. There's a difference of opinion among law enforcement people whether to believe this one guy. Some of his story didn't check out and he later recanted it. But to me it all fit and everything began making sense. I was 99.9 percent convinced that Carole was no longer alive. The kids still think there is some hope.

The kids wanted me to get out more, but I didn't feel like it. Jose Cardenal finally browbeat me into going out to dinner with him and at the restaurant I met Judi Bloome. Meeting her was like starting over. Not having dated for 26 years—I met Carole when I was a sophomore in high school—I was kind of scared. I guess I worried too what other people would think. But as Judi and I got closer I started thinking, "Hey, what about us?"

The problem is we can't have a normal life until we know about Carole. Judi moved in with me, but it has been very hard on her. Everything in the house is Carole's. It would have been easier to move, but Carole is still half-owner of this house and it's the place where my kids grew up. We don't even know if I'm a widower. We can't get married or do anything about Carole's estate until we find out for sure that she's dead, or she's declared legally dead by the courts. She'll be considered alive until seven years from the day she disappeared.