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Relief At Last Intro: For Bobby Ojeda, life nearly ended on a Florida lake in 1993. It began again at Sheppard Pratt. Today, he plans a reunion.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The first time Bobby Ojeda saw Sheppard and Enoch Pratt Hospital, it wasn't at all what he expected. The mix of old and new buildings on the wooded hillside looked imposing to him, like something out of a Hollywood movie. It could have been a fancy private school, or a small college.

But they don't send you to private school when you're a major league baseball pitcher struggling to get over seeing two teammates killed in a boating accident. Mr. Ojeda came to Sheppard Pratt in July 1993 because he had survived, but still wasn't living.

He circled the main building on his daily jogs, trying to stay in shape for his return to the Cleveland Indians, thinking all the time: "I can't get much lower than this, running laps around a mental hospital."

When he left after 12 days, he knew Sheppard Pratt had saved him as surely as the paramedics who had taken him from Florida's Little Lake Nellie, or the doctors at South Lake Memorial Hospital who had stitched his lacerated scalp. Sheppard Pratt became his alma mater, the place that taught him how to go on with his life.

And now, like any proud graduate in homecoming season, Mr. Ojeda is returning today, to tell his story at the hospital's annual meeting. It's an unusual pat on the back for Sheppard Pratt, which is used to guarding the privacy of its celebrity patients. It's also a welcome one. The visit, planned weeks ago, comes at a time when the famous psychiatric hospital needs a morale boost, given the recent slaying of a counselor there.

Characteristically, Mr. Ojeda plays down his return. "Some people go to Yale, some people go to Harvard," he says. "I went to Sheppard Pratt. And I'm just as proud as anyone else is to go back to their college."

Mr. Ojeda first came to Sheppard Pratt in the wake of The Accident, as almost everyone refers to it, the freak boating tragedy on March 22, 1993, that has forever bisected his life into before-and-after.

Before was the happy-go-lucky guy from Central California, signed out of junior college by the Boston Red Sox, for $500 and a bus ticket to Elmira, N.Y. Before was the 1986 World Series victory with the Mets. Before was the friendship with Tim Crews, another pitcher, who like Mr. Ojeda had moved from the Los Angeles Dodgers to the Cleveland Indians for the 1993 season.

The moment that split his life was, and for the most part continues to be, a blur. It was a day off for the team, and families had gathered at Crews' ranch. At the end of the day, Crews took Mr. Ojeda and pitcher Steve Olin for a boat ride on the lake.

You wouldn't want to remember what happened then. The dock that seemed to jump out of the twilight. Holding the fatally injured Crews, begging him to survive. Olin slumped on the other side, killed instantly when Crews' Skeeter bass boat slammed into the dock.

"He had two people on either side of him virtually decapitated," says Dr. James P. McGee, director of psychology at Sheppard Pratt. "It doesn't get much more gruesome than that."

Officially, the accident was attributed to Crews' alcohol level, which at .14 percent was above the legal limit in Florida. Some seemed almost grateful for the blood-alcohol results, as if that number alone could explain everything. But Mr. Ojeda insisted his friend was not impaired, even as he struggled to find his own answers.

"Why didn't I get killed?" he asked the doctor when he regained consciousness the next day. Although he had lost two quarts of blood, and had a ragged scar across his forehead, he was remarkably unscathed, at least physically.

But everyone close to Mr. Ojeda -- his wife Ellen, best friend Roger McDowell, agent Ron Shapiro -- saw that his physical injuries would heal more easily than the emotional ones. A stranger could see it as Mr. Ojeda wept at Crews' funeral, his bandaged head covered with a blue bandana.

Everyone could see -- except Mr. Ojeda. The pitcher, who had always prided himself on his mental toughness, who had never felt the need to consult a team psychologist, believed he could recover on his own. Truly on his own, in a rented house in Cleveland, away from his wife and young daughter, and the three children from his first marriage, isolated from everyone.

"I have to do it my way," he told his wife, and she let him, for most of that summer. It was a gutsy move on her part, an all-or-nothing gamble on her marriage.

Mr. Ojeda was living on margaritas, Doritos and salsa. Night terrors kept him from sleeping more than two hours at a time. His mind raced, trying to outrun scenes that exploded in his head, horrific bursts of memory. He was still working out, preparing for his debut with the Indians, but he was thin and his skin had a greenish cast. People looked at him as if he were a ghost, haunting the Indians' final season at Cleveland Stadium.

"One day he'd be totally withdrawn," recalls John C. Maroon, the Orioles' director of public relations, who was with the Indians organization at the time. "Next day, he was gregarious and saying, 'Let's go out!' But he really just wanted to drink a few beers. He would never talk about the accident."

He flew to Sweden on an impulse. He wasn't suicidal, he says, but he was doing a good job at beating himself up, 24 hours a day. He ignored suggestions that he needed counseling.

Finally, his family and friends decided it was time to force him into treatment. His agent tipped off Mrs. Ojeda, who promised not to say anything. "He would never have gone voluntarily," she says now. "He was just in a state of self-destruction."

Mr. Shapiro, along with Indians general manager John Hart, the team psychologist and team doctor, confronted Mr. Ojeda in the team doctor's office almost four months after the accident. Mr. Ojeda still had not pitched for the team, primarily because of an unrelated shoulder injury. But he knew, the second he walked in, that it wasn't his arm they were worried about.

"Bobby walked in and saw all of us there and said, 'Uh-oh,' " says Mr. Shapiro. "Typical Bobby. He realized there were too many of us to be talked out of it this time."

But Sheppard Pratt was not the first hospital they tried. Instead, Mr. Ojeda was admitted to a hospital in Cleveland, with disastrous results.

He tells the story with a kind of gallows humor now, but it wasn't funny at the time. The Cleveland experience was possibly the worst introduction Mr. Ojeda could have had to psychiatric treatment.

"I'd watch a guy so drugged up he would fall asleep in his Jell-O, and I would have to wipe it off, and I'm thinking, 'Look at me, I'm wiping green Jell-O from some guy's nose; I'm in the twilight zone,' " he remembers. "It's like my left leg was broken, and they were checking my right elbow."

So he decided to leave. He packed his bag and waited for lunchtime, when he thought he could slip away without attracting attention. He was biding his time with his Jell-O buddy, watching a movie, when Roger McDowell -- his former teammate, his hunting partner, his best friend -- walked through the door, after flying all night from Los Angeles.

He said: "Dude! I can't believe you're here." And then, as if he knew why Mr. McDowell had appeared, "But I'm still going." His )) friend, now a reliever with the Texas Rangers, convinced him to call their mutual agent instead. And Mr. Shapiro talked Mr. Ojeda into trying Sheppard Pratt.

Post-traumatic stress

At Sheppard Pratt, Mr. Ojeda found an instant rapport with Dr. McGee, who has treated many athletes during his career. He received counseling daily, as well as education about his problem, diagnosed as post-traumatic stress disorder.

"For the first time, I didn't feel like a criminal, and I didn't feel like I did anything wrong," Mr. Ojeda says.

Dr. McGee kept trying to tell Mr. Ojeda that post-traumatic stress wasn't something that can be cured. The accident would always be with him; Mr. Ojeda would have to weave it into his life. When you're 90, the doctor told him, you'll remember.

Mr. Ojeda didn't believe him, until he watched a documentary about the cruiser Indianapolis, sunk in the final days of World War II. Of those who were still alive after the ship sunk, about 100 were eaten by sharks. Almost 50 years later, the survivors teared up as they told their stories.

"Now I know what you're talking about," Mr. Ojeda told his doctor the next day. "It's not like the flu or the measles."

It helped that he had "coachability" -- what Dr. McGee calls the elite athlete's ability to absorb and apply information. It helped that he was pretty sound before the accident, with a life of little traumas that left few marks. In 1988, Mr. Ojeda cut off part of a finger while trimming a hedge, but that was about his worst brush with the randomness of misfortune.

All of this helped, but it couldn't transcend the essential cliche. Mr. Ojeda needed time. When he left Sheppard Pratt in August, he knew he had more work to do. But first he had to pitch.

Dr. McGee concedes that 12 days doesn't sound like much, but it's a relatively long stay in these days of managed health care. Mr. Ojeda continued to check in with his doctor by phone, but he never regretted his decision to leave.

"It wasn't what they wanted, but I wanted out," he says. "For me to get back on the mound was this goal I had to do."

As it turned out, his first appearance was in Baltimore, on Aug. 7, 1993. He received a standing ovation as he walked out -- 47,000-plus fans, clapping and clapping. "It was phenomenal, when I came through those gates, I remembered this is what I wanted to do. I probably looked like ----, but I was out there."

He pitched two innings, for four hits and two runs, one earned. Three weeks later, he thanked the Baltimore fans in a letter that was broadcast on the scoreboard in the fifth inning. It read, in its entirety:

"This letter is not only overdue but it simply cannot capture what the night of Saturday, Aug. 7, meant to me. I would like to express my heartfelt appreciation for the reception you gave me when I took the mound. I was overwhelmed by the warmth and compassion that greeted me as I entered the field.

I will tell you it was the longest and most difficult walk of my life and without your help I would not have made it. On behalf of Steve, Tim and our families, I thank you for the ovation.

Your city and ballpark will forever hold a special place in my heart. Thank you again.

Bobby Ojeda.

P.S. -- Never quit."

There is quitting, and there's leaving at the right time. For the 1994 season, Mr. Ojeda was signed by the Yankees. He was 36, retirement age in his line of work. His career stats were solid, if not Hall-of-Fame material: 115-98 with a 3.63 ERA in 289 starts and 60 relief appearances. But after two starts with the Yankees, he was 0-0, with a 24.00 ERA.

Time to go -- but not because of The Accident. He had always said he would know when to get out, and never look back.

He and Ellen had settled in Rumson, N.J., a place where the neighbors include Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi. Mr. Ojeda devoted himself to fixing up their house, playing golf, going to the gym. "You miss locker rooms," he says. "You get used to that smell."

He still takes off for far-away places, but not in secret. He visited Norway last summer and plans to go hiking in the Himalayas in February.

He has stopped looking for explanations, or the answer to the question he cried from his hospital bed: "Why didn't I get killed?" Sheer luck, he knows now.

Has he changed at all? Yes, say those around him, but it has more to do with his retirement than anything else. "He's very at peace, not as stressed," says his wife, eight months pregnant with their second child. "Before he was a great guy, now he's a great guy in a different way."

"He made bad coffee before, and he makes bad coffee now," says Roger McDowell, who will meet Mr. Ojeda in Montana tomorrow for their annual hunting trip. He doesn't mention there was a time when Mr. Ojeda couldn't drink coffee, much less make it, because the smell brought back a morning in March, when he headed out to Crews' Florida ranch for a day on the lake.

Retirement

Baseball has little place in his life now. John Maroon had to tell his friend the Cleveland Indians finally had the year they thought they were building toward in 1993. Mr. Ojeda didn't know they were in the playoffs, much less that they won 100 games in the regular season. He might not know they won the American League pennant this week. He stopped reading newspapers and watching almost all television back in March 1993, and the practice stuck.

Of course, someone living in the New York suburbs can't entirely escape baseball, especially if he played for the two local teams. There are too many fans who still think of him as a Met, at the height of his career. They want to know about the '86 World Series. Sometimes they even ask about the accident -- but they're referring to the finger he cut in 1988, when the Mets were in the pennant race. No one mentions Little Lake Nellie.

He can't describe himself as happy. But he knows contentment. "I'm living my 65-year-old life at 37," he says. It's a good gig, but you wouldn't want to take the path he had to take to get there.

"I'm not the one you really want to be," he says. "My life is the flip side of perfect. But it's the one I got. Some people get four Cy Young awards. I got this. Maybe because I can handle it."

And, with a little help, Bobby Ojeda has handled it.

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