Commentary

Kevin Correia's journey after tragedy

Free-agent pitcher slowly moves forward following death of his 21-year-old brother

Originally Published: November 29, 2010
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

CorreiaCourtesy of Correia familyTrevor Correia, the brother of free-agent pitcher Kevin Correia, died this May in a hiking accident.
A box seat at a Major League Baseball game entitles fans to a close-up view of the action but no access to hearts and minds. If your favorite player seems preoccupied, maybe it's because he's worried about a sick child at home or coping with marital issues or some other personal trauma. A multi-million dollar contract and a shoe deal might make an athlete feel special, but those perks don't earn him a lifetime dispensation from reality.

Kevin Correia, starting pitcher for the San Diego Padres, experienced one of those moments of raw humanity to the umpteenth degree the night of May 8, 2010, in Houston. Teammate Jon Garland had just beaten the Astros 2-1 with seven dominant innings, and Correia had watched intently from the dugout in anticipation of his start the following night.

The postgame handshakes ended, and Correia walked into the clubhouse and found a message in his locker: Call your wife, it said. Within moments, his life was permanently and irrevocably changed.

Diana Correia broke the news as gently as the circumstances would allow: Kevin's younger brother, Trevor, had spent the day hiking with friends at the Channel Islands National Park off the coast of Santa Barbara, Calif., and there had been an accident. For reasons no one could fully understand, Trevor had fallen from a cliff and suffered major internal injuries. Rescuers had transported him by helicopter to a local hospital, but he failed to survive the ordeal and died later that afternoon. Trevor Brent Correia was only a few weeks away from his 22nd birthday.

Six months later, the memories remain an open wound. After sharing the news with Padres manager Bud Black, Kevin took the bus back to the team hotel, then wandered around the Galleria Mall in Houston just to escape the confining walls of his room. It seemed like an eternity until the sun came up and he could begin the trip home for the memorial service.

[+] EnlargeCorreia
Correia familyTrevor Correia, weeks shy of his 22nd birthday, had been accepted as a transfer student to UCLA.

"It's a surreal moment,'' Kevin said. "You sit there thinking, 'God, this feels like it's real.' But it's almost like you're in a dream. I had been lucky in my life to never have to go through that, to lose somebody that close to me. It's almost indescribable.''

The turnout at St. Agnes Catholic Church in Point Loma, Calif., was a testament to Trevor's impact. Waves of friends and well-wishers showed up for the funeral mass to express their condolences and share stories about Trevor, from the poignant to the comically tender.

Trevor, a wiry 6-foot-5, was partial to sandals and shorts and liked to wear his hair long and curly until friends prevailed over him to trim it -- at which point he got a buzz cut and began the process of growing out that unruly mop of hair anew. Some friends jokingly compared him to the "Shaggy'' character in the Scooby-Doo cartoons.

During the ceremony, Kevin sat stoically, his jaw clenched, and barely spoke, as if fearful that his anger, grief and confusion might spill over into a display of public emotion that was out of character. A day later, Kevin, his sister Jenny and Trevor's girlfriend and best friend traveled to Sunset Cliffs, a natural park adjacent to Point Loma. They swam out into the Pacific Ocean to a spot not far from where sightseers gather to watch the California gray whales make their annual migration from the Bering Sea to Baja and spread Trevor's ashes over the open water.

The mourners all said a few words for closure. But for Trevor's survivors, there is no closure.

On May 15, Kevin returned to the Padres' rotation from a 12-day layoff and pitched valiantly for 5 1/3 innings in a 4-1 loss to the Dodgers. But a season that should have been a celebration became an emotional war of attrition.

The Padres, widely regarded as afterthoughts in spring training, led the National League West for most of the summer before a September fade ruined their playoff chances. Kevin, who grew up rooting for Tony Gwynn and the Padres in the 1990s, had a chance to help put the team over the top but failed to pitch his best no matter how much energy he expended. A week on the bereavement list couldn't begin to heal the rift in his psyche.

With the passage of time, it's easier to get out of bed each day, to take a deep breath and put one foot in front of the other. Kevin is happily married with a 23-month-old son and another boy due in early December, and he's ready to build on his breakthrough performance of 2009, when he won 12 games and logged 198 innings for the Padres.

But the void in his life is palpable. When Kevin returned to the San Diego rotation in May and the tension hung heavy in the air during his first postgame interview, reporters wondered if he might dedicate the season to his brother. The thought, quite honestly, had never entered his mind. To scrawl initials beneath the bill of his cap or point to the heavens after a big strikeout? The conventional gestures seemed so pointless and hollow

"As a baseball player, I'm motivated to go out and pitch well,'' Kevin said. "I'll be thinking about Trevor the whole time. But I'm not going to say, 'I'm pitching for my brother.' What does that mean? It's apples and oranges.

"I would quit baseball right now to have him back. Nothing will be able to compare to that.''

Like father and son

It was a turbulent and challenging upbringing for Kevin, Trevor and Jenny, who is the middle child in the Correia family. Their parents divorced when Kevin was in 10th grade, and the three siblings went their separate ways. The Correias, a sprawling clan of Portuguese descent, had aunts, uncles and cousins in abundance, and there were lots of places to find sanctuary. Kevin went to live with his grandparents, while Jenny and Trevor landed with other relatives. The children were estranged from their parents, who barely elicit a mention now.

[+] EnlargeMatt Correia
Matt Kartozian/US PresswireKevin Correia had a breakthrough 2009, but his numbers dropped during an emotionally trying 2010.

Kevin, rangy and athletic, gravitated to the ball field. He was a star pitcher and shortstop at Grossmont High in San Diego and played college ball at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, the same school that produced Ozzie Smith and Mike Krukow

When the St. Louis Cardinals selected him in the 23rd round of his junior year, Correia decided to return for his senior season, and the gamble paid off when he received a $105,000 bonus as a fourth-round pick by the Giants. When Correia made his debut for San Francisco in July 2003, he became the first player from MLB's 2002 draft class to reach the majors -- ahead of No. 1 overall choice Bryan Bullington and first-round "Moneyball'' picks Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton and Mark Teahen of Oakland.

Trevor, born eight years later than Kevin, played high school volleyball and was a gifted athlete in his own right, but he had too many other interests to commit to sports for an extended period. At the time of his death, Trevor had been studying anthropology at Santa Barbara Community College and had been accepted to UCLA, where he planned to pursue a degree in archaeology.

Beyond a yearning to travel and explore new cultures, Trevor had a disarming sweetness and a rare sense of compassion. As a young girl, Jenny was a magnet for homeless dogs, cats and birds with busted wings, and Trevor shared that love of animals. When the siblings grew older and took a vacation trip to Mexico, Trevor always made sure to bring along extra food for the stray dogs.

In the final year of his life, Trevor worked as an intern for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History. He also took on a part-time job as a caretaker for a blind woman, and Jenny laughingly recalled how he phoned her one day while wandering the supermarket aisles in a frantic search for "feminine products.''

In time, the brothers developed a sort of father-son relationship. Kevin was the role model, providing guidance, advice and lessons in the importance of a strong work ethic. Kevin signed a $1 million contract with the Giants in 2008 and landed a $3.6 million deal with San Diego this year after a big 2009. But when he tried to give his brother a few bucks for rent, food or walking-around money, Trevor refused to accept it.

"He was really driven to do as much as he could himself,'' Kevin said. "I was in a situation where I could help, obviously, but he didn't want any handouts, and he wasn't going to take any shortcuts. It made me proud because I think he learned from watching what I had been through. He wanted to prove he was a strong enough person to do it the same way.''

Socially, the brothers found plenty of vehicles for bonding. They both loved fishing, camping, surfing and the feel of a white sand beach. Trevor introduced Kevin to various underground bands, and they developed a mutual affinity for the Coen Brothers' film "The Big Lebowski.''

Yet they were polar opposites in many ways. Kevin is serious and introverted, while Trevor was more fun-loving and outgoing. Kevin is politically conservative and Trevor was liberal, and they had spirited discussions on the government's role in giving society's less fortunate a helping hand.

While Kevin lived a regimented existence as a professional ballplayer, Trevor was more of a wild child and a throwback to the California "hippie'' lifestyle. He dabbled in vegetarianism and tried skydiving and bungee jumping -- daredevil stunts that scared the pants off Kevin.

"They were really different, but they kind of envied the qualities that the other person had,'' Jenny said. "Trevor thought it was really cool how Kevin always sets his mind to something and achieves it. No matter how screwed-up our upbringing was, Kevin always figured out a way to do what needed to be done. Trevor was a much more free-spirited, whimsical kind of guy, and Kevin thought that was really cool, too. They found a lot of enjoyment in each other.''

The accident

The Ventura County Medical Examiner's five-page report provides a heart-rending chronology of Trevor's final hours, yet no definitive answers as to why the tragedy occurred.

The investigation by deputy medical examiner James Baroni summarized the harrowing details. At 9 a.m., Trevor, his girlfriend Katie Smith and five others boarded an Island Packers boat from the Santa Barbara Harbor to Santa Cruz Island. They arrived at 10:30 a.m., received an orientation from a park ranger and hiked past Cavern Point to a section of the island known at Potato Cove.

"

Dobbs I would quit baseball right now to have [Trevor] back. Nothing will be able to compare to that.

" -- Kevin Correia

By all accounts, Trevor had been looking forward to the day and was in a positive frame of mind. He had just been accepted to UCLA as a transfer student, and he was planning to save his money in anticipation of the move to Los Angeles next fall. Although Trevor took an anti-anxiety medication, his friends said he did not use recreational drugs and had shown no signs of depression or ever mentioned the word "suicide.''

But alcohol did play a major role in Trevor's death. He had been drinking at a friend's surprise party the previous night, and he consumed wine and beer throughout the day of the hike.

According to eyewitness accounts cited in the investigator's report, Trevor professed his love to his girlfriend Katie, then "got up and ran to the edge of the cliff on purpose.'' He hesitated five or six feet from the edge, and then "ended up looking like he dove off the cliff.'' Trevor jumped from a point located about 200 feet above the water and landed on some rocks and scrub brush below.

When a paramedic arrived on the scene at 3 p.m., Trevor was being tended to by friends and a park ranger. He was wearing a cervical collar and breathing through an oxygen mask. The rescue crew hooked him up to an intravenous tube, placed him on a back board and loaded him onto a helicopter bound for St. John's Regional Medical Center in Oxnard, Calif. Trevor's conditioned worsened during the flight, and he was pronounced dead at the hospital at 4:35 p.m.

Dr. Ronald O'Halloran, the county medical examiner, performed an autopsy and ruled the death an accident. The final coroner's report listed blunt force chest injuries as the cause, with alcohol intoxication a significant contributing factor.

Trevor left behind a million questions, dozens of disbelieving friends and $44 in the pocket of his swim trunks.

Coping his own way

The Padres were wonderfully supportive of Kevin in his time of need. They set aside a suite for his family at Petco Park for his first start back against the Dodgers and made a counselor available in case he needed an outlet for his grief, but Kevin politely declined the offer. He would mourn his own way, even if that meant soldiering on quietly and almost willing his way back to normalcy. As the elder child in a broken home, he had fashioned a personal code built on self-sufficiency, and it didn't feel right to pour out his innermost feelings to an unfamiliar face with a diploma on the wall.

The baseball clubhouse is not the "Oprah Winfrey Show'' set, and the same macho ethic that drives professional athletes prompts some to seek refuge on an emotional island. Kevin and Padres pitching coach Darren Balsley become close friends during their time together in San Diego, but on fishing excursions or one-on-one sessions in the bullpen the topic of Trevor's death rarely came up in conversation. And if it did, the discussion was brief.

[+] EnlargeCorreia
Correia familyTrevor Correia was more free-spirited than his more conservative brother, major league pitcher Kevin Correia.

"You don't want to pry into somebody's personal life,'' Balsley said. "That's a very delicate thing. I have so much respect for Kevin and I like him so much as a person. Every organization has people that can help, but I felt he was level-headed enough to approach this and deal with it in his own way.''

Did his brother's death affect Kevin on the mound? How could it not? There were glimpses of effectiveness during the 2010 season, marked by sudden lapses of concentration. Three or four solid innings would ultimately be obscured by an ill-timed walk or home run ball to ruin the day. Kevin posted a 10-10 record but finished the season with a 5.40 ERA and a mere 145 innings pitched, significant drop-offs from his breakout 2009 season.

He is not the type to make excuses but acknowledges that his drive and competitive spirit waned at times last summer. The Padres were in the middle of a pennant race, and there were too many days when he felt like a spectator.

"Before this happened, baseball was my life, and it was easy to work hard and be motivated and think, 'Baseball is the most important thing in the world,''' Kevin said. "After that, it just didn't seem that important. I didn't have the same emotions toward winning and losing. At this level, unless you're an extreme athlete who is so much more talented than anybody else -- which I'm not -- you're not going to get away with a drop-off like that.''

San Diego finished second in the NL West and missed the playoffs despite a 90-72 record, and now it appears that Kevin and the Padres will go their separate ways. He is a free agent, and although the Padres have offered him salary arbitration and he could return on a one-year deal, lots of teams are intrigued by the thought of a 30-year-old, loose-limbed righty with a clear head and 200-inning potential.

Given the attention and the stakes, Kevin wins merit points for the mere act of taking the mound 28 times in 2010. Beyond the initial bereavement period, he never asked for or expected a day off.

"I think it says something about Kevin's makeup and his intestinal fortitude,'' said Damon Lapa, Kevin's agent. "A lot of guys could have packed it in and no one would have said a thing. It was a nightmare for him going to the field every day. His heart was in one place and his head was in another. But he didn't want to give up on his team. He didn't want to give up on his family. He didn't want to give up. He wanted to fight through, partly for Trevor.''

If time doesn't heal all wounds, its passage at least makes the pain more tolerable. Kevin has some of Trevor's personal belongings in his possession but has yet to summon the strength to take them out and let the memories come flooding back. That's a chore for a later day.

In the meantime, he chooses to celebrate the attributes that made Trevor such an inspiration: the winning smile, the sensitivity, the openness and innocence that brightened so many days.

"He was my brother, my best friend and almost like a son to me,'' Kevin said. "I hope I did him right.''

The older brother passed along life lessons, and the younger brother gave them in return. And their strong yet fragile bond came to serve as evidence of another real-life and baseball truism: In the end, we are all just day-to-day.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer