FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Shortly before leaving for spring training, Heathcliff Slocumb accompanied his younger daughter, Heather, to a father-daughter Valentine's Day dance at her school.
Heather, 8, noticed that some of her friends didn't attend. Couldn't attend, with no fathers to speak of.
"I asked her, 'How do you feel about that?' " the Orioles' new reliever said. "She told me, 'I feel sorry for them.' And she said, 'I'm glad you're here.' "
Moments like that, what can you say? They're priceless, especially for a man who lost his wife, Deborah, to cancer in November 1992, and is raising their two daughters as a single father.
"That made me feel real good," Slocumb said, "knowing I was there."
Slocumb, 32, couldn't imagine anything else. But in an age when many professional athletes fail to meet their paternal responsibilities, he serves as a model of devotion.
"Raising kids is no easy task," Slocumb said. "You do things, you wonder, 'Am I doing the right thing?' You know that kids need structure, discipline. They need a routine, to eat at a certain time, go to bed a certain time.
"Then you have to instill values, being independent, having confidence, self-esteem. It's a huge job. It just does not stop."
Neither does Slocumb. He can't always be with his children, not with spring training opening and another season beginning. But Heather and her older sister, Jessica, 12, are left in good hands.
They live in Orlando with a nanny and Slocumb's fiancee, Tonya. And they frequently spend weekends at their maternal grandparents, with whom Slocumb remains close.
Slocumb moved to Orlando from Queens, N.Y., after the 1996 season. He bought two homes -- one for him and his daughters, and another for his in-laws, who also lived in New York.
The girls will visit Slocumb on weekends this spring, then join him in Baltimore after they finish school in May. He longs to spend more time with them. But for now, he's a baseball player.
"It's admirable," said Mike Timlin, Slocumb's teammate in Seattle the past two seasons and now in Baltimore. "He gains a lot of strength from God, which is good. That's where you need to get it.
"He got put into a difficult situation, more difficult than probably anything we've been through. But he held his head up high, through good times and bad professionally. I find that awesome."
The Orioles are Slocumb's sixth team in seven years. He was an All-Star closer with Philadelphia in 1995, but the last two seasons with Boston and Seattle, he was 2-14 with a 5.24 ERA.
Whatever happens next, he already has met his greatest challenge. He had just finished his second season with the Chicago Cubs when Deborah died at the age of 27. Jessica was 6 then, Heather 2.
"Being a spiritual person, you never question why things happen," Slocumb said. "If something like that happens, obviously 'The Man' feels like you can handle it. We got through it.
"We did a lot of praying, spent a lot of time reflecting. It's a test of faith. It's like, 'OK, if you allowed this to happen, you are going to help me. You are going to be my crutch.' "
Not that it ever gets easier. In addition to dealing with his grief, Slocumb must continue to navigate through a series of delicate family issues with sensitivity.
Deborah was an only child. Jessica and Heather are her parents' only grandchildren. Slocumb said his own mother -- a grandmother of 13 -- "sort of stepped away" to allow his in-laws to assume a greater role.
Slocumb needed them, especially before he met Tonya three years ago. But naturally, there are occasional differences, times when he feels, "You've done great. You've raised your kids. Let me raise mine."
Once Tonya entered his life, his relationship with his in-laws was tested further.
"No matter who you are, it's a tough situation, asking someone to jump in and just accept that -- everyone's mom would be leery," Slocumb said. "But you look at the person first. You look how they interact with the kids. It takes a special kind of lady who would step into a situation like that.
"It was tough at the beginning. You can't expect everything to be smooth. There has to be a lot of communication. You have to sit down and talk about things, your concerns, their concerns. A lot of things are valid. You try to be considerate of that person. But I really can't ask for more. I've been blessed."
Blessed with his children. Blessed with his in-laws. Blessed with his own family.
And now, blessed with Tonya, too.
They became engaged a year ago, but have yet to set a wedding date. Slocumb said he prefers to focus on one thing at a time. Also, he wants to make sure he is ready to be married again.
"I don't believe in divorce. You're there, you're there for life. When you do it, you want to do it right," Slocumb said.
"I have fond memories of being married. It feels really good, knowing you have a partner, someone in your corner. I miss that. It's someone you can learn from, who can help you be more compassionate, romantic, considerate."
He doesn't sound like your average baseball player, but then, his life experience doesn't resemble that of your average baseball player.
Slocumb met Deborah when he was 17, married her when he was 19, lost her when he was 26. And now, as he begins his Orioles career, he understands what is truly important.
"They are my girls," Heathcliff Slocumb said. "I'm a father first."
Pub Date: 2/23/99