A Darkened Spring

updated 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/05/1993 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IN THE GATHERING GLOOM, BOB FELLER, the greatest pitcher Cleveland has ever known, stood by the Florida lake and stared out at the long pier, as if trying to commit it to memory. "I'll have to tell people back home about where these young men ended their lives," said Feller, 74. "I want to have the correct answers."

Everybody in the game was searching for those answers last week in the wake of major league baseball's first fatalities since 1979, when the Yankees' Thurman Munson crashed his Cessna Citation in Akron. On March 22, Cleveland pitchers Steve Olin, Tim Crews and Bob Ojeda, out after dark on Clermont's Little Lake Nellie in Crews's 18-foot bass boat, hurtled into the wooden pier at as much as 60 m.p.h. Olin, 27, the Indians' top reliever, was killed instantly; Crews, 31, died of injuries the next morning at Orlando Regional Medical Center; Ojeda, 35, who suffered lacerations of the head, was spared and may soon be released from the hospital. Baseball's spring training, a time of hope and renewal for fans everywhere, was suddenly blighted with grief.

It was meant to be a day of family fun. On their only day off from training, some Indian players planned trips to Universal Studios. But Ojeda and Olin—along with his wife, Patti, their 3-year-old daughter and 7-month-old twins—accepted Tim and Laurie Crews's invitation to join them and their three young kids at their new ranch, 25 miles outside Orlando. "Tim was so proud of the house," says Jim Macaluso, Crews's former coach at Tampa King High School. "It was something he'd worked really hard for, and now he was going to just sit back and enjoy it."

A fishing party, originally planned for the afternoon, was delayed by rain. A little after 7, Crews cranked up the 150-hp outboard and, with Olin and Ojeda beside him, took a spin around the 125-acre lake before heading for shore to pick up buddy Perry Brismond. "I heard them hit something," Brismond told the press. But Brismond didn't know they were in trouble until he heard Ojeda screaming for help.

According to reports, all three men's heads hit the pier, which stands three feet above the water's surface. The boat continued on, slopping 50 feet farther on a nearby grassy island. Investigators found its throttle almost fully open. They also found an unopened six-pack of beer and a "mostly filled" bottle of vodka.

As Laurie Crews and Patti Olin turned their attention to their children and last Wednesday's memorial service in Winter Haven—and the team, with the help of a therapist, grappled with the tragedy—friends and mentors grieved openly. "I've known Timmy since he was 8 or 9 in Little League," says Macaluso, who describes Crews, who grew up in Tampa as a "caring, loving soul," an overachiever who made the majors on sheer desire.

Just two Fridays ago, Macaluso organized a ceremony in which Tampa King High retired Crews's uniform. "I don't know how many times Timmy came up to thank me for the evening," says Macaluso. "I'd say, 'No, we're here to thank you tonight because we're so proud of you.' "

Meanwhile, across the country in Vancouver, Wash., people were remembering Steve Olin. "We used to call him Yoda," says Dwight Boss, 29, a summer league teammate, referring to the gnomelike character in Star Wars, "because he was so skinny and tall and had such little shoulders."

During the off-season, Olin would return to Portland (Oreg.) State University, where he played college ball, to practice with coach Jack Dunn. "Our roles kind of reversed," says Dunn, "because he'd come back and show me the things he had learned in the majors. Before he left this year," Dunn continues, "I gave him a big hug. It was at practice, and I was kind of afraid it might embarrass him in front of all the other guys. But now I'm glad I did it."

Heading to his car after his vigil at the pier, Feller put the terrible accident in perspective. "They were good men," said the leathery Hall of Famer. "But the game must go on. You've got to go on."

WILLIAM PLUMMER
DON SIDER in Clermont
With additional reporting by CINDY DAMPIER, JOHNNY DODD and KEN MYERS

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