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The Indians gave Wickander another chance at the start of the 1992 season. Again, the team sent him to Triple-A, where he performed admirably and got recalled to Cleveland that May. Within a few days, he earned his first save as a major leaguer.

That May 28, Wickander married his high school sweetheart, Kim Pennington, at a wedding chapel in Las Vegas. Wickander's best man was fellow Indians relief pitcher Steve Olin, a good-natured family man with whom he'd risen through the minor league ranks.

The wedding date also marked the first anniversary since Wickander had gone into rehab.

Kevin Wickander excelled for the remainder of the 1992 season, appearing in 44 games. He says he went to spring training in Florida in 1993 fully expecting his best year yet.

But on March 22, 1993, came the tragedy that would define the rest of Wickander's baseball career and, in a way, the rest of his life.

It was the Indians' only day off during spring training, and pitchers Olin, Bob Ojeda and Tim Crews got together with their families for a day of riding horses, fishing and picnicking.

Wickander says he'd wanted to join his pals, but had promised to take his wife to nearby Disney World.

In the late afternoon, Olin, Ojeda and Crews stepped aboard Crews' 18-foot fishing boat for a spin around Little Lake Nellie, in rural central Florida. As the boat circled back to shore at dusk, it hit the underside of a dock that Crews apparently didn't see. Toxicology tests indicated that Crews had a blood-alcohol content well above the legal limit for intoxication.

Olin died instantly, and Crews died the next day, of injuries that were described in grotesque detail in subsequent news accounts. Ojeda suffered severe lacerations to the scalp, and was hospitalized for days. (He'd return to the Indians later that season, but was out of baseball within a year, reportedly suffering from severe depression.)

Steve Olin's widow, Patti, gave Wickander her late husband's favorite watch at the funeral. Wickander still lists the watch as one of his three most prized possessions, with his own wedding ring and Grand Canyon's 1986 championship ring.

Opening day approached in 1993 under what had become a national microscope, and the Cleveland Indians tried to cope with the tragedy. The media constantly called on Wickander to discuss his feelings about the death of his best friend.

But Wickander wasn't doing well. The haunted pitcher turned his clubhouse locker into a shrine -- media accounts at the time described how Olin's mitt sat atop the locker, his shower togs stayed put on the floor, and a framed enlargement of Olin's baseball card faced the room.

Wickander says he tried his best as the season started, but his head wasn't into it. He says he didn't turn to alcohol for solace, but concedes he was increasingly depressed by the deaths. Just a few months into the season, the Indians traded him to Cincinnati, hoping a fresh start would be best for all concerned.

But the change of scenery didn't help Wickander. The Reds released him at the end of the season, and he says no other team expressed immediate interest in his services.

Life had become extremely stressful for the 28-year-old pitcher: His wife was expecting the couple's first child, but he was unemployed and had been anything but thrifty in the preceding years.

"I didn't know what it was like to save money," Wickander says, "and we spent whatever we had, or didn't have."

He temporarily found work in Taiwan, and pitched there for a few months before returning to the States shortly before the birth of his child. He remained out of work in Phoenix, as major league baseball went on strike in August 1994, which ended the rest of that season and the World Series.

But in 1995, the Detroit Tigers signed Wickander, then assigned him to Triple-A Toledo for the start of the season. He did well, and got called up to Detroit that May. It turned out to be the best year of his major league career, and, he says, more than that.

"My daughter was born, my wife and I were happy, and I was playing for the legendary Sparky Anderson, a lifelong dream," Wickander recalls. "My teammates included Cecil Fielder, Alan Trammell, Kirk Gibson, and they respected me. Sparky told me I was a guy he'd go to war with, because I was a gamer, no complaints, just doing my job."

Despite that, the Tigers traded Wickander to the Milwaukee Brewers near the end of the 1995 season. The following year proved to be another tough one, as he suffered an injury to his left shoulder that he says caused him to pitch poorly.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin