X

Remembering Dave Shotkoski: Pitcher killed 25 years ago in spring training

Dave Shotkoski is shown on the mound for the California Angels farm team the Midland Angels in this undated photo Shotkowski 30 of Hoffman Estates Ill a replacement player for the Atlanta Braves was murdered in an apparent robbery attempt Friday night March 24 1995 in West Palm Beach Fla.
Dave Shotkoski is shown on the mound for the California Angels farm team the Midland Angels in this undated photo Shotkowski 30 of Hoffman Estates Ill a replacement player for the Atlanta Braves was murdered in an apparent robbery attempt Friday night March 24 1995 in West Palm Beach Fla.

Editor's note: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will spend the year looking back at the 25th anniversary of the 1995 World Series champion Atlanta Braves. In a season-long series that will run through October, we will capture all the key moments and hear from the participants as they share their memories. Today's installment focuses on the tragic death of replacement player Dave Shotkoski during spring training - and his family's life 25 years later.

She has none of her own memories of her father. To Alexis Shotkoski, her father is the tuxedo-clad man smiling in a photo from his wedding day.

When Alexis was only 8 months old, Dave Shotkoski was murdered while trying to fulfill his dream. He was trying to earn a spot on a major league baseball team when he was shot and killed. The 30-year-old left behind a wife and baby daughter.

Twenty-five years later, that little baby is now a grown woman who says her father’s death has shaped her life. But it forced her to grow up faster than other children.

“It opens your eyes that life is very fragile and anything can change in a second,” Alexis said. “It makes you consider your choices and where things lead you.”

Thanks to a heroic teammate, Dave Shotkoski’s killer was quickly captured and later pleaded guilty. But his prison sentence was shortened. Shotkoski’s widow, Felicia, and Alexis are adamant that changes are needed in the criminal system to keep other families from experiencing the same pain.

“That’s what so frustrating for us to see,” Alexis said. “Twenty-five years have passed, but what has changed? There’s been no change made. There’s been no forward steps.”

Chasing a dream

He could stay home with his wife and baby and continue his office job. Or Dave Shotkoski could try one more time to earn a spot on a major league baseball team. If that didn’t work, maybe he could still get another job in the game, such as scouting or coaching.

“He was realistic about going,” Felicia Shotkoski said of her husband. “But how many times does someone get a second opportunity to get a chance to do something you love to do?”

It was an opportunity the right-handed pitcher couldn’t pass up. A players’ strike ended the 1994 season prematurely the previous August, and it was anyone’s guess when it would end. If those already on major league rosters weren’t going to play, team owners would find others to take the field.

FILE Pitcher Dave Shotkowski is shown in this undated family photo Shotkowski 30 of Hoffman Estates Ill a replacement player for the Atlanta Braves was murdered in an apparent robbery attempt Friday night March 24 1995
FILE Pitcher Dave Shotkowski is shown in this undated family photo Shotkowski 30 of Hoffman Estates Ill a replacement player for the Atlanta Braves was murdered in an apparent robbery attempt Friday night March 24 1995

And in February 1995, Dave Shotkoski left Illinois and headed to Florida for spring training with the Braves as a so-called replacement player. It was an easy decision to give baseball another shot. But leaving his family behind was not.

RELATED: Braves pitcher's killer freed from prison

Five weeks after the 30-year-old arrived in West Palm Beach, where the Braves trained then, Shotkoski was shot and killed as he walked back to the team’s hotel. He had been the target of a robbery, but nothing was taken from him, according to investigators. Except for his life.

At his home in Illinois, local police knocked on the door to tell Felicia Shotkoski her husband had been killed. The couple’s daughter, born the previous July, would never know her father.

Tuesday marked the 25th anniversary of Shotkoski’s death, a senseless murder by a lifelong criminal. Baseball — the sport he loved — had cost him his life. But the game didn’t define Shotkoski.

“He was an athlete,” Felicia Shotkoski said. “But we also have to remember that he always was a father, a husband, a son, a brother, a coach, a friend, a mentor. There’s so much more that goes into him.”

A second chance

Dave Shotkoski met his future wife through friends when the two attended separate high schools in suburban Chicago. After college, the two started dating.

The Braves signed Shotkoski out of a community college in 1985, and for several years, minor league baseball was his life. After two seasons with the Braves organization, Shotkoski joined Oakland, where he spent some of the 1989 season playing Triple-A ball.

By 1992, Shotkoski’s playing career was over, or so he thought. He married Felicia, and in the summer of 1994, the couple welcomed Alexis. Shotkoski gave lessons to younger players, but now had an office job to support his young family.

In August 1994, disputes over money led major league players to strike. A few months later, Shotkoski got a phone call from the same Braves scout who observed him in college.

MORE FROM THE SERIES

» About the series
» FURMAN BISHER: Atlanta's finest moment
» SPRING TRAINING: Starting with replacement players
» MARK BRADLEY: A subdued season, a giddy ending
» BUILDING THE BRAVESHow the championship team was built
» CHIPPER JONES'No bigger beneficiary of '94 strike than me'

-♦-

Deciding to give baseball another shot was the easy part. Leaving behind his wife and newborn was not. But it was the chance for Shotkoski to create a better future, and he couldn’t pass it up.

“That was work. He was working,” Felicia Shotkoski said. “He was trying to earn a spot in something. At that time you didn’t know when the strike was going to be over, if it was going to be over.”

In February 1995, Shotkoski left Illinois to join spring training in West Palm Beach while his wife stayed home to work and care for Alexis. In early March, Felicia and Alexis flew to Florida for a visit before returning home.

On March 24, Shotkoski was on the mound during an inter-team scrimmage when he faced Terry Blocker, a center fielder who hadn’t really wanted to be at spring training. Blocker, a first-round pick for the Mets in 1981, played one year in New York and later in Atlanta in 1988 and 1989. He also played in Mexico.

Shotkoski’s first pitch was a fast ball, high and away. Blocker couldn’t get a bat on it, he said. The next pitch was the same.

“He threw me a pitch, and I sent it back up the middle between his legs,” Blocker said, laughing.

He didn’t know Shotkoski well, and the two stayed in different hotels. Blocker was shocked to learn late that night Shotkoski had been shot and killed. He knew what he had to do.

An unexpected hero

A few years earlier, Blocker had met a friend while at spring training who had grown up in the area and knew the rough neighborhoods. Blocker called his friend and the two set out.

“I was in the moment,” Blocker said.

He wanted to find Shotkoski’s killer, but doing so nearly cost him his own life. Blocker remembers standing on a sidewalk, surrounded by men pointing guns at him, after he explained why he was there.

“I was at peace then. Why, I can’t explain,” he said. “All of a sudden it was like my spirit left my body. I’m looking at this from above. I’d never experienced anything like that.”

The next day, Blocker returned to the area. He was sitting on his car outside a laundromat when a man from the previous night walked up. He didn’t kill Shotkoski, but he knew who did. Blocker took the information to police and told his team. Neal Douglas Evans was arrested and charged with murder. He already had served multiple terms in prison before the murder.

Terry Blocker during Braves spring training. (LOREN G HOSACK/PALM BEACH POST)
Terry Blocker during Braves spring training. (LOREN G HOSACK/PALM BEACH POST)

Blocker was a hero, though he didn’t want the attention. And despite his bravery, he was cut from the team the next day, ending his baseball career.

“I figured I had done what I was supposed to have done,” Blocker said. “It didn’t bother me at all. I had tears in my eyes because I felt sorry for his family.”

Blocker, a South Carolina native, returned to his Stone Mountain home and his wife and two children and worked for a cable company for many years. Now 60 and retired, Blocker said he still can’t explain why he had to find his teammate’s killer, but he credits his faith.

“I was led to do that,” he said.

A failed system

In the days after Shotkoski’s death, his widow began receiving letters from all over the country, including from friends, teammates and strangers, she said. One by one, people reached out to share their sympathies.

“Someone on the grounds crew even wrote a letter,” Felicia Shotkoski said.

She received over 700 letters and saved all of them. Felicia also has audio tapes her husband made from spring training on a small hand-held recorder.

“I just save them,” she said. “It’s so hard for me to hear.”

She was a young widow with a baby, so Felicia did what she had to do: She worked and took care of Alexis.

“That was my job, to give her the best foundation I could for the rest of her life,” Felicia said. “It wasn’t about me.”

In September 1996, the first trial for Evans ended with a hung jury. Had he been convicted, Evans could have faced the death penalty, according to media reports. Felicia Shotkoski was in the courtroom every day, seated just feet away from her husband’s killer.

“Of course you have to be there,” she said. “It wasn’t even a decision.”

Felicia Shotkowski wipes away tears as she talks about her husband Dave Saturday afternoon March 25 1995 in Hoffman Estates Ill Dave Shotkowski 30 a right handed replacement pitcher for the Atlanta Braves was found dead on the sidewalk after an apparent robbery attempt Friday evening March 24 in West Palm Beach Fla Behind her is his sister Susan Shotkowski AP Photo Ellen Domke Sun Times
Felicia Shotkowski wipes away tears as she talks about her husband Dave Saturday afternoon March 25 1995 in Hoffman Estates Ill Dave Shotkowski 30 a right handed replacement pitcher for the Atlanta Braves was found dead on the sidewalk after an apparent robbery attempt Friday evening March 24 in West Palm Beach Fla Behind her is his sister Susan Shotkowski AP Photo Ellen Domke Sun Times

Months later, Evans accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to 27 years in prison. He would only serve 17 years before he was free, Florida Department of Corrections records show.

“He should have been in prison for 27 years to protect everyone that is still here,” Felicia told the AJC in an April 2012 interview. “I can’t change it. But what I can try and do is protect other people from going through what we went through. This is just plain wrong.”

Less than two months later, Evans was in trouble again. An arrest warrant was issued for him, and he was soon behind bars again. He’s now 55 and still in prison, with a release date of January, according to the Florida DOC.

Over the years, Felicia has contacted countless politicians and members of law enforcement to share her frustrations. The criminal justice system has failed her family, she said. Felicia said she will never be able to forgive Evans, who has never shown any remorse for his actions, she said.

“The only thing I would want to know from him is what could we have done to change his path,” Felicia said. “If we don’t teach them a trade and we don’t rehabilitate them, what do we expect to happen?”

A mother and daughter bond

Felicia and Alexis share a remarkably close bond having endured the tragedy together. And despite being in different cities, the mother and daughter talk every day.

“It was just the two of us through it all,” Alexis says. “The thing that sticks with us both is that it was a needless crime. It didn’t have to happen.”

Felicia Shotkoski kisses daughter Alexis 8 1/2 months as she answers reporters questions outside the baseball owners meeting in Chicago Sunday April 2 1995 Shotkoski s husband Dave Shotkoski was a replacement player with the Atlanta Braves who was killed Friday March 24 during a robbery in West Palm Beach Fla Shotkoski says she wants people to remember the replacement players
Felicia Shotkoski kisses daughter Alexis 8 1/2 months as she answers reporters questions outside the baseball owners meeting in Chicago Sunday April 2 1995 Shotkoski s husband Dave Shotkoski was a replacement player with the Atlanta Braves who was killed Friday March 24 during a robbery in West Palm Beach Fla Shotkoski says she wants people to remember the replacement players

Still she’s grateful for those along the way — like Blocker — who showed compassion after her father’s murder.

“He was threatened,” Alexis said. “He didn’t have to put his life at risk.”

It’s important to both women that Shotkoski be remembered as more than just a “replacement” player killed during spring training.

“It’s not about the game of baseball. It’s more than that,” Felicia said. “He was more than a baseball player. He struggled with being away. He missed us. He cherished his family. This wasn’t an easy decision. Life is fragile.”