WINTER HAVEN, Fla. -- For once, everything was in place. The Cleveland Indians were building an identity. Preparing to leave dreary Cleveland Stadium. Drawing optimism from an encouraging 1992 season.
Their plan was to become a contender by 1994, in time for the opening of their new downtown ballpark. Now, after the deaths of relievers Steve Olin and Tim Crews, that plan is significantly disrupted.
The grieving isn't over at Chain O'Lakes Park, but with just 10 days until the season opener, the Indians must confront the effect of Monday's tragic boating accident on their young team.
Physically, they lost their closer, a right-handed setup man and, at least for now, No. 2 starter Bobby Ojeda. Emotionally, they lost two cherished teammates, and in Olin, an emerging leader.
"I guess the feeling the players have is that this will either destroy us or make us stronger," team psychiatrist Greg Collins said. "They're digging deep into their own characters. They're very determined for this to make them stronger."
The sad part is, the team's newfound resolve probably won't be reflected in its performance. The Indians had serious pitching questions even before the accident. Now, they've lost three members of their projected 11-man staff.
Ojeda was released from the hospital yesterday, but he's recovering from shock, kidney failure and lacerations on his scalp. General manager John Hart doesn't expect him to rejoin the starting rotation any time soon.
"He's flat on his back," Hart said. "He's real weak right now. I'm not saying he'll have to start over. But he'll have to start a lot closer to square one. The other thing is the emotional baggage. I'm sure that will be part of what he has to deal with."
Indeed, that will be something they all have to deal with, especially those who were closest to Olin. Reliever Kevin Wickander, Olin's best friend, broke down repeatedly at a news conference Tuesday. Will he be destroyed? Or will he grow stronger?
One thing about this group: It's closer than any other Cleveland team in recent memory. Other clubs talk about creating a family atmosphere. Under Hart, the Indians actually have done it, ensuring stability by signing 17 players to long-term contracts.
The bullpen is at the heart of this revival. Indians relievers won a club-record 32 games last season, leading the American League for the first time since 1961. Hart described them as the backbone of the team, on and off the field.
The problem now will be replacing Olin. Manager Mike Hargrove said the Indians likely will use a bullpen-by-committee, as Pittsburgh did in winning three straight NL East titles. But, as Hart put it, "Somebody is going to have to slam the door."
Olin, 27, had earned a save or victory in more than half of Cleveland's wins since the 1991 All-Star break. After the accident, Hart contacted the most available free agent, former Seattle closer Mike Schooler. But Texas signed Schooler first.
Hart said that some GMs are offering pitching as well as condolences, but he'd prefer not to make a trade. Instead, the Indians likely will promote Mike Christopher, a 29-year-old journeyman who earned 26 saves and posted a 2.91 ERA last season in the Pacific Coast League.
The bullpen will be especially critical, because the rotation is a mess. Earlier this spring, the Indians lost three potential starters to injuries. Charles Nagy is a legitimate ace, but with Ojeda sidelined indefinitely, former Oriole Jose Mesa might emerge as the No. 2.
As if that's not bad enough, the Indians also might rush Chad Ogea, who was 19-4 last year in his first pro season. The effect could be jarring for a team that last season went 40-34 after the All-Star break -- a half-game ahead of the Orioles, 2 1/2 games behind world champion Toronto.
Still, Hart insisted: "The train is on the track steaming a lot quicker than it was at this time last year. We've got young players starting to blossom. The train is off the track now. But we're not going to use that as an excuse."
Hargrove, too, was defiant: "When I say, 'We're going to be OK,' those are very few words, but, for me, they carry a lot of meaning. I say those words with a lot of confidence because of the people we have. It screams out at you, what they're all about."
Surely, nobody will question the Indians' character after the way they banded together this week. But, as reliever Ted Power said: "Nobody will have any sympathy for us when we step between the foul lines."
It's all so unfair. The Indians were finally coming together when suddenly they were torn apart.