His Saving Grace: Perspective

HEATHCLIFF SLOCUMB, the Mariners' new closer, knows there's nothing tragic about a blown save. Losing a wife to cancer taught him that and has helped him cope with late-inning pressure.

When 30,000 fans at Fenway Park would boo Heathcliff Slocumb, here's what he'd think:

"They really want me to do well. They're booing me because they're not too happy. C'mon, Slocumb, turn it up a notch."

In that way, Slocumb says, "I turned that negative into something positive."

Such an attitude comes easily for Slocumb, the Mariners' latest relief hope, who five years ago was dealt a negative of such monumental proportion that it makes a blown save seem about as troublesome as a paper cut.

His wife, Deborah, died of cancer in November 1992 at the age of 27, leaving Slocumb with two young girls to raise.

That the girls - Jessica, now 10, and Heather, 6 - are growing up to be happy and healthy is a triumph that dwarfs, say, the ninth-inning strikeout in Milwaukee on Sunday that brought Slocumb his first Mariner save.

Like their daddy, the girls still cope daily with their tragedy. Like Daddy, they have good days and bad days.

"It's a big, old wound," Slocumb said softly. "That's like someone cutting you and you've got a thousand-stitch gash on you. It's going to take some time to heal. But it will heal."

During the baseball season, the girls live with Debbie's mother, Verda Cross, fulfilling a promise Cross made to her daughter on her deathbed. They had been living in Queens, N.Y., near where Slocumb grew up, but recently moved into a new home Slocumb had built in Florida.

In a 1995 interview, Cross described Heathcliff (who was named Heath by his mother but redubbed Heathcliff by teasing friends as a youth in Queens) as "a loving father. He's a softy. (The girls) play him for things that they want. I just sit back and laugh."

Slocumb sees his girls when he can during the season, often flying to Florida on days off. He has learned to treasure the All-Star break, giving them three unencumbered days together, and the offseason, which always seems too brief. It won't be as easy commuting from Seattle to Florida, but Slocumb hopes to bring the girls west at some point.

"The kids are doing real good," he said. "They've adjusted. They still miss their mom. We don't hide anything. There's pictures all over the house. The little one wants to wear high-heeled shoes because that's what she remembers about her mom. The other wants to wear jeans because that's what she remembers.

"Whatever emotions come out, we talk about everything. Sometimes, in the offseason, we'll be together, and they get a little sad. I can tell that look now. You talk about it, and it makes them feel a lot better."

The Slocumbs are dealing with another change. For six months, Heathcliff has been in a relationship with a woman.

"I threw myself into work so much and into raising the girls so much, I neglected everything else," he said. "You get to where you're so used to having that companionship, and then you got used to not having it.

"It's different. You're learning all over again. I've grown, too. There's a lot that came out of a successful marriage. I know not to make certain mistakes again."

Jessica and Heather, he said, are adjusting to having a new woman in their dad's life.

"That takes time, especially with two girls," he said with a smile. "It's about being friends and being helpful. That's how you have to approach that. Someone's here to help, and we're here to help each other. That's where it starts."

After his wife's death, and that of his father five months earlier, Slocumb relied on his religious faith (his mother was a pastor in a Pentecostal church) and his responsibility as a parent to sustain him.

That, and he threw himself full-bore into baseball. Strong-armed but inconsistent, Slocumb meandered through the Chicago Cub and Cleveland organizations before landing in Philadelphia, where his breakthrough came.

"I used baseball as my therapy," he said. "I'm pretty much an introvert. I don't like to talk about things. That was my outlet. I just totally threw myself into my work. It was work and kids, work and kids. There was nothing that was going to distract me. I didn't hang out. It paid off. I took my game to the next level."

After a solid year as a setup man in 1994, Slocumb's big break came in 1995. Coincidentally, the opening that year in Philadelphia came as it did this year in Seattle. Norm Charlton, expected to be the Phillies' closer, faltered early. Slocumb fell into the short-relief job and had 20 saves in the first half, making the All-Star team.

He wound up with 32 saves but was traded to Boston in a move widely believed to be financially motivated. The trade allowed the Phillies to give their closing job to minimum-salary rookie Ricky Bottalico - nearly traded to the Mariners on Thursday, the same day as Slocumb.

Slocumb had mixed results in Boston. He had 31 saves last year and 17 this season at the time of the trade, but his high-profile failures made him the favored target of Fenway Park fans.

Slocumb learned to cope with booing the way he learned to cope with Deborah's death - by finding the positive lurking within adversity.

"You know, things happen for a reason," he said. "I got through it by having a strong faith in God, praying a lot. It gives you more of a sense of peace, like, `OK, that was then. She left you with two beautiful kids to raise. It's time to move on.'

"It helped me become a better parent, going through the loss. I've been spiritually uplifted. There's a lot of good that came out of that. I don't know where I'd be if I hadn't taken my life to the next level."

When times get particularly tough on the baseball field, as they are sure to do in the final two months of his first pennant race, Slocumb will take a deep breath on the mound and look at his glove.

Etched into the back are the initials D.S.

Debbie Slocumb. ----------------------------------------------------------------- Heathcliff Slocumb

Age: 31. Ht/wt: 6-3, 220. Throws: right. Career highlights: 1996 - With Red Sox, made career-high 75 appearances (fourth in AL, third Red Sox all-time). Scoreless streak for 13 1/3 innings, also career high. Finished year with just four home runs allowed in past three seasons. 1995 - With Phillies, fourth in NL with 32 saves. NL pitcher of the month for May and picked to NL All-Star team. 1994 - In first season with Phillies, become first Phillie right-hander to win on Opening Day since 1966.