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WIDOW TRIES NOT TO DWELL ON `WHAT-IFS'

Felicia Shotkoski dabs her eyes with a tissue, smudging her mascara. Her other hand caresses a small, gold baseball glove pendant, her first Christmas present from her husband, Dave.

She's trying to hold back the tears, trying to focus on the memories, trying not to dwell on what might have been.What if the baseball strike hadn't given Dave Shotkoski a second chance at his dream of pitching in the major leagues? What if he hadn't left his job at a bottling plant to try out as a replacement player for the Atlanta Braves? What if he hadn't gone for a walk the night he was shot to death near the team's spring training hotel?

"Dave taught me that I can't change things, so I try not to think of what-ifs," says Felicia, a widow at 29 and mother to 9-month-old Alexis. "If I do, I just get angry. And anger can't help me or my baby now.

"But yes, I have thought that if there wasn't a strike, my husband would be alive today. The only thing that keeps me going right now is knowing that he died chasing his dream."

Dave Shotkoski was drafted by the Braves in 1985. He never made it to the majors, pitching in the Atlanta, Oakland and California systems before being released in March 1992.

He and Felicia, who had known each other since high school and dated since 1988, got married. Dave went to work for the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. in the Chicago suburb of Niles.

When teams started looking for replacement players because of the strike, Dave got a call from Stu Cann, the area scout who originally signed him for the Braves.

"I told Dave, `You just don't get a second chance like this in life.' So he decided to go for it," Felicia says. "You should've seen him. He had baseball again; he was on cloud nine."

Dave, 30, took all his vacation time and then an unpaid leave to attend spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla. Felicia and Alexis lived on her salary as a reservations supervisor at United Airlines and the meal money he sent home.

Early in camp, Shotkoski started taking evening walks to strengthen a sore ankle, clear his mind and help pass the time.

"I usually called him at night," Felicia says. "But the day it happened, I called him in the afternoon. I was like a mom, telling him, `Be careful on your walk.'

"He said, `I always am.' "

On March 24, police say Neal Douglas Evans, a repeat felon wanted for parole violations, tried to rob Shotkoski. When the ballplayer tried to run away, police say, Evans shot him. Evans, charged with first-degree murder and attempted armed robbery, was indicted by a grand jury Thursday.

The days since the incident have been full of pain for Felicia.

"Dave was my life, Dave and the baby," she says. "I don't know what I'll do with my life now. I'm lost. I'm empty. I feel like my heart's been ripped out. This is all so senseless, all so unfair."

She's returned only once to the house she shared with him, staying instead with her parents.

"Everything reminds me of him," she says. "I saw the ceiling fan in the family room, and I had memories of us putting it up together."

When baseball owners met at a Chicago-area hotel Sunday to accept the players' offer to end the strike, Felicia went to "represent all the replacement players."

"I heard (Cubs first baseman) Mark Grace and a couple other guys saying that `real baseball' is back and it made me upset," she says. "If you think about it, the replacements were the real players, the ones who played for the love of the game."