CLERMONT, Fla. — The ring sits in a black box at the bottom of a tan ostrich-skin briefcase, the contents of which have been unchanged for two decades.
This was Tim Crews' briefcase. It once accompanied him to Dodger Stadium. Now it sits buried in the back of a closet, under some clothes, from where it is gently removed and carefully unlocked only on special occasions.
Laurie Crews places the briefcase on a coffee table, slowly runs her hands over its faded leather, and asks her youngest son Travis to open it.
It's the 25th anniversary of her late husband's greatest triumph. The solemnity of the moment is broken by the pop-pop of the latches. Laurie glances briefly at the contents, then looks away.
"It's still exactly as he left it," she says softly, her eyes watering. "It's all him."
The ring is there. A life is there. The black box is surrounded by faded photos of the Crews children at Dodgertown, wedding pictures, a tie clasp, various bits of baseball jewelry, and a handwritten pep-talk letter from Laurie addressed to Tim when he was struggling in the minor leagues.
It is a letter that inspired Crews to become one of the many unheralded heroes on the most unlikely ring bearers in Los Angeles history: the willful, wondrous 1988 World Series champion Dodgers. It is a letter that spoke not only to the mission of a man, but the journey of a team.
"Go on," Laurie says, pointing to the letter. "Read it."
"Make them take notice of you . . . show them what you're made of . . . keep up your chin and go for it . . . do it, dammit."
Tim Crews did it, dammit. After spending six years in five minor league towns, the mustachioed, drawling relief pitcher from rural central Florida blossomed in his second major league season, going 4-0 with a 3.14 ERA in 42 games in 1988 while helping lead baseball's grittiest team in its daily dirty work.
He pitched in blowouts; he pitched in both games of a doubleheader; he pitched every other day; he pitched despite vomiting on the mound; he pitched until his arm grew sore, then he lied about it and pitched some more.
He worked so hard, for so little reward, he was given a nickname by somebody whose passion he shared, Kirk Gibson calling him "The Dirt Farmer."
"The Dirt Farmer was an old southern boy with no fear," says Gibson, now manager of the Arizona Diamondbacks. "He had good stuff, not great stuff, but he didn't give a dang. He would just say, 'Give me the ball.'"
In the end, the Dodgers finally wrestled the ball from Crews with reluctance and pain. One month before the end of the season, one day before they were required to turn in postseason rosters, general manager Fred Claire acquired left-hander Ricky Horton from the Chicago White Sox and used him instead of Crews for the playoff games.
The Dirt Farmer was crushed but never said a word, and he allowed just one run in seven appearances in quiet September even though he knew he could not pitch in glorious October. It is no coincidence that, yes, he even pitched in the Dodgers' National League West title-clinching game in San Diego.
"It was extremely difficult to leave Tim Crews off the roster, but we needed a left-hander," Claire says. "The fact that he never voiced an objection speaks volumes about his character. He was the ultimate team player. He was all about winning."
Once the postseason began, the Dirt Farmer didn't go far. In fact, he didn't go anywhere, remaining in uniform and becoming the team's biggest cheerleader. Check out the video of Gibson's iconic Game 1 World Series home run: Crews is hugging him on the field. Examine the photo of the Dodgers' clinching celebration on the mound in Oakland: that's Crews leaping on the dog pile.
Tim Crews and the Dodgers did it together, dammit.
"Every year during the World Series, I'll be in some restaurant and they'll be showing old highlights on TV and he'll appear out of nowhere," says his oldest son Shawn, 25. "I'll be like, 'Wow, that's my dad.'"
The Dirt Farmer was seemingly everywhere, and then he was gone.
Less than five years after winning his first and only championship ring, in the spring of 1993, Crews died in a boating accident. He was 31. He was driving two fellow Cleveland Indians pitchers in a bass boat on a black night on a lake behind his Florida home during spring training when the boat crashed into an unlighted dock. The accident also killed Steve Olin and seriously injured Bobby Ojeda. Toxicology results indicated that Crews was driving with a blood-alcohol level that exceeded the state limit.
Crews had just signed with the Indians after spending his entire career with the Dodgers, yet he never pitched a game for them, so he died essentially as a man without a team. As it was for many of the mostly anonymous 1988 Dodgers, in many different ways Crews' championship was a blazing meteor that he rode into blackness.