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Worst Is Over : Angel Prospect Kevin Flora Says He Finally Has Recovered From Death of His Wife

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Kevin Flora glanced down at his body lying in bed, and could feel his soul leaving him. It was so peaceful, so gentle, he began searching for his MaryAnn.

There was no doubt at all what was happening to him. He was shutting down life. He actually could feel himself dying.

He wasn’t sleeping and couldn’t eat.

It was unbearable to live like this, to be in total control and to have no control at all. He finally realized that he needed a dream.

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He needed a reason to keep living.

He needed an excuse to keep playing baseball.

He needed MaryAnn.

“I lost all desire in life,” said Flora, whom the

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Angels are hoping will be their starting second baseman. “I had always wanted to make the big leagues for myself, but my drive was for us . . . for us to have a good life.

“When the accident happened, I just said, ‘What’s the use?’ Without her, baseball didn’t mean anything. Nothing did.

“Everything I ever wanted in life was gone.”

Flora stared vacantly ahead, caressing the jewelry dangling from his necklace.

It was MaryAnn’s wedding ring. The diamond was never found in the accident, but Flora made sure the ring stayed with him, vowing to wear it forever.

“It’s just been so hard,” Flora, 24, said. “There’s not an hour in a day when I don’t think about her.

“I just kept telling myself, ‘She’s gone. My God, she’s 22 years old, and she’s missing out on her own life.’ I just couldn’t handle that.

“I think what finally got me through this is the realization that she’s in a better place. She’s watching me right now, and one day I’ll be seeing her again.

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“That’s why I want to do this.

“I want to do it for her.”

Flora blinked away the tears from his reddened eyes.

*

Flora stood in the shower on the evening of April 22, 1993, allowing the hot water to sooth his aching muscles. Most of his teammates had already left the visiting clubhouse in Calgary, but Flora was in no hurry, still savoring Vancouver’s 15-9 victory.

Life couldn’t be better. He was batting .359 with five stolen bases in the first 10 games of the season, and it would be only a matter of time before the Angels would call him up to the big leagues to stay.

He actually was feeling exhilarated, come to think of it, but he knew the real reason was because of MaryAnn, his wife of 17 months. MaryAnn had left two weeks ago to see her family in Midland, Tex., but now she was driving 12 hours to their home in Chandler, Ariz., and would be rejoining Kevin in Vancouver by the weekend.

He couldn’t wait. He constantly was being teased by his teammates for being so in love with MaryAnn, but he couldn’t care less. He called her each night on the road before going to bed, talking for two hours sometimes, and earlier this afternoon, he had bought her a card expressing his love.

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It’s funny, he thought, how madly they had fallen in love. He’d met her three years ago at a restaurant in Midland. It was love at first sight. Kevin told her he played baseball, and she confessed that she’d never seen a baseball game.

He used to wrinkle his nose and tease her for saying, “It makes me so nervous when you get off those little white things.” They are called bases, he kept reminding her.

These three years together had been the greatest time of his life. They went to Hawaii on their honeymoon, Venezuela on vacation, and bought their first home in Chandler, 10 minutes from the Angels’ spring training complex. He was even starting to teach MaryAnn how to play golf.

“They were so in love,” Angel pitcher Mike Butcher said. “It was like they were in their own world. Nothing else really mattered.”

Flora’s daydreaming was suddenly interrupted when he was summoned by Vancouver Manager Max Oliveras. It was Flora’s father calling from California.

Immediately, Flora thought the worst. Something had happened to Mom. Maybe his brother. This could not be good.

“But you know something,” Flora said the other day, “the thought that something happened to MaryAnn never even crossed my mind. I knew MaryAnn was traveling, but I never imagined . . . “

Oliveras handed the telephone to Flora, and moments later he heard a ghastly scream. Flora threw the phone against the wall and collapsed in shock.

MaryAnn and their 4-year-old nephew, Alec, had been killed in a car accident. Her mother, Alice McCombs, was in critical condition.

“Even today, I’m not sure just what happened,” Flora said, “and I really don’t want to know. I can’t even think about it. I just get sick to my stomach.”

MaryAnn had been on the road for 2 1/2 hours, driving on a lonely stretch of Interstate 10 outside Van Horn, Tex., when it happened. She had passed a car and moved back into the right lane when the wheels touched the dirt median. She lost control. The vehicle veered to the left, back to the right, and over to the left. It flipped into the air, and MaryAnn and Alec were dead upon impact.

MaryAnn’s mother was the only passenger wearing a seat belt. She suffered a broken hip, broken collarbone, separated shoulder and multiple fractures of her right leg. She remains in a wheelchair, unable to care for her husband, Don, who recently underwent brain surgery for the second time.

“I went to the scene of the accident a couple of days later,” said Randy Crook, MaryAnn’s brother-in-law, “just to see what caused it. We were looking for anything to blame it on, but there was nothing.”

Said Vancouver pitcher Mark Holzemer, who accompanied Crook: “I think that’s what made this so difficult to accept. It wasn’t like you could blame the accident on a drunk driver or anyone else. We knew she was driving.

“It just made no sense, no sense at all.”

Had the Angels not urged Holzemer to fly with him to the funeral, Flora wonders if he would be alive.

“He was a godsend,” said Bobbie Flora, Kevin’s mother. “I don’t know what Kevin would have done without Mark. I don’t know what we all would have done.”

Holzemer accompanied Flora on the flight from Calgary to Ontario. There they met Flora’s parents and the Angels’ Bill Bavasi, but still had a two-hour layover.

They stood uncomfortably in the airport, no one saying a word. Finally, Bavasi suggested that they get away for a while and rented a car. Holzemer drove, going no place in particular, as everyone sat in virtual silence.

“The worst moment came when a light turned green and we weren’t moving,” Holzemer said. “There was a long line of cars coming and we couldn’t move. Well, it was a funeral procession.

“I think that just hit everyone at once.”

They boarded the plane to Texas, and once again, sat in silence. Nobody knew what to say, so no one tried.

“My God, I can’t begin to tell you how hard it was for all of us,” Bobbie Flora said. “MaryAnn was like a daughter to us. She was absolutely perfect for him.

“Then, to see this happen, to see how it affected Kevin, to be 23 years old and be a widower . . . “

Said Randy Crook: “That’s what everybody was worrying about. We lost MaryAnn, would we lose Kevin, too?”

Flora, who was comforted by seeing Tim Salmon, Damion Easley, Butcher and nearly a dozen members of the Angel organization at the funeral, decided to stay in Midland after the services. He wasn’t sure what he was going to do with the rest of his life, but he knew right now that he needed to be with MaryAnn’s family.

“I needed to be around somebody who was suffering like I was,” Flora said, “people who knew what I was going through.”

Flora continued to grieve long after his friends and teammates left, and showed no signs of recovering. There was no malice, or any other emotion.

“For weeks, it was like talking to a zombie,” Bobbie Flora said. “There was no inflection in his voice, nothing. We’d call him every night, and then just cry when we got off the phone.”

It took three weeks before Flora dared even to venture outside again, and that was only when Valerie Crook, MaryAnn’s sister, purposely forgot to bring home the newspaper. It was two months before he picked up another baseball. It was three months before he left Midland, and even then, it was too early.

“He had spiritually died,” Bavasi said. “He looked like a guy who was telling himself, ‘I’m going to go right down to the ashes, and then I’ll rise again.’ ”

Flora returned to Vancouver on July 18 to resume his baseball career, but it was useless. He didn’t feel like playing and he remained angry at the world. He became frightened the way he so easily lost his composure, whether sitting in traffic or watching TV.

He would have these intense mood swings in which he would be smashing his locker in anger one minute, and be sobbing in the middle of the clubhouse the next. The only constant was that he didn’t feel like playing baseball.

The Canadians twice traveled to Phoenix after Flora’s return, but he couldn’t bring himself to go near his home. He wasn’t ready to be reminded of the way life used to be.

The season ended with a final trip to Calgary, site of that fateful phone call. Flora begged off, and one week before the Canadians’ season ended, Flora was on his way home. He had played in only 20 games since his return, mostly as a designated hitter, and the Angels were wondering if they would ever see him again.

The Angels, Flora said, couldn’t have been more supportive and generous to him. They provided first-class airline tickets for him and his family, even paying the way for those Angels who attended MaryAnn’s funeral. Owner Jackie Autry told Bavasi to spare no expense, and Flora and his family remain deeply moved by those gestures.

Still, there were some in the organization who were growing impatient. They asked Flora to play winter ball, but he came back from the Arizona Fall League after one week. He told them he couldn’t play in any of the Latin countries, either, because it would stimulate memories of their time together in Venezuela.

In truth, Flora wouldn’t have felt like playing if they set up a league in his back yard. He was not ready. Instead, he went to Riverside to live with Larry Gonzalez, a high school buddy who played four years in the Dodger farm system. Gonzalez’s best friend drowned when he was 19, and he helped Flora in trying to cope with such a tragedy.

“I was pretty worried about him,” Gonzalez, said, “because this is the kindest, gentlest guy I’ve ever met in my life. If something like this was going to happen to one guy, it would crush Kevin the most.”

Gonzalez, whose brother-in-law is Angel scout Darrell Miller, knew the club was worried about Flora’s future. It had been nearly seven months since the accident, and still, Flora remained traumatized. He didn’t feel like going to the batting cage, he got bored after 15 minutes of their workouts and he was dreading life without MaryAnn.

The break finally came in November when his agent, Bill Moore, and Moore’s wife Pam, convinced him to sell his Chandler home. Flora knew he could never live there again, but now it was time for him to return there and collect his belongings.

Bracing himself for the moment he had long dreaded, and accompanied by Moore and Butcher, Flora finally stepped into the house. He was immediately engulfed in emotion.

“It was the second toughest day in my life,” Flora said.

Flora excused himself several times while inside the house, unable to hold back the tears while thinking of MaryAnn, but he was able to get through it. He wound up keeping only a small pile of pictures and love letters. MaryAnn’s clothes were sent to her four sisters, and the rest of the household items were sold or given away.

“It was the best thing that he could have done,” Gonzalez said. “When he came back from that trip, I knew he was going to make it.

“He went from not being able to listen to certain songs without crying, to singing those same songs by the time he left.

“The only thing that really got him after coming back was at my wedding rehearsal dinner. We played, ‘Unforgettable.’ It turned out that was the first song at their wedding, too.

“He started crying, and before you knew it, the whole place was bawling right along with him.”

*

Flora returned to the Angels’ clubhouse this week for the first time since last spring. He knows it won’t be easy this spring. It is his first major league camp without MaryAnn, and the Angels will do everything to ease his discomfort.

Flora, who moved to Tempe last month and has been working out every day, said he has never been more prepared in his life. This is where he has wanted to be ever since his father, Jerry, began coaching him in Little League. This is where he belongs.

“He’s the guy we want to win the job,” Bavasi said. “It’s not to take away anything from the other guys, but when you look at a kid his age, and being the fastest guy in camp, he’d fit in perfectly.”

Flora, who attended Bonita High in La Verne, realizes that he has the talent. He believes he has the will. The rest, he says, is up to the grace of God.

It was MaryAnn who inspired his religious beliefs, and Flora became a devout Christian, was baptized in front of her family. It’s this strong belief that convinces him things will again be all right. His life will never be the same, of course, but he will survive.

“I’ve worked harder than anything in my life preparing for this day,” Flora said. “I don’t know how to say this, but it’s just so different now. It’s almost like I wish I was a football player so I could just go out there and sacrifice my body. They could break my bones, whatever, I couldn’t care less.

“I just don’t have anything more to lose. I’ve already lost everything in life. Now, I want to do it.

“This is for MaryAnn.”


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