Monday, May 04, 2015

Sports and Risk-Taking Abilities

The Academy Award winning 1953 film From Here to Eternity tells the story of Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt. Earlier in life, before joining the army, he was a successful boxer, but he hung up his gloves due to a tragic accident. While sparring with a close friend, he inadvertently put his best friend into a coma, which left the man blind after he regained consciousness. Following the accident, Prewitt no longer wished to fight.

The incident reminded me of a situation I experienced myself. Much earlier in life, I was a light-hitting center fielder on a baseball team. Ideally, a player at my position would bat third or fourth in rotation. But instead I batted ninth, the last and final slot. It designated how rarely successful I was when it was my turn at bat. This was disappointing to my father, who had been a home-run hitter in his day. His own father was an intensely shy, painfully awkward man who kept to himself most of the time, but news of his son's success on the baseball diamond coaxed him out to the bleachers.

At the end of what had been a largely forgettable game, in the bottom of the eighth inning, a new pitcher was introduced. I'm sure the manager of the other club felt it was a harmless gesture. The hurler I was to face had rarely pitched in any setting before, but what damage could it do? The softballs he lobbed in my direction were like taking batting practice, designed to be easy to hit. I swung and missed at the first pitch, but the second pitch was a different story.

Proving that I'd always had the potential to be a good hitter, if I'd only had more confidence, the bat made solid contact with the ball. I was a line drive hitter and this particular blast headed directly to where it had started out. Baseball is a game of seconds, rather than minutes. The action on the field, especially the exchange between the batter and the pitcher, is often over and done with barely enough time for either party to react.

It was the most powerful drive in my otherwise underwhelming career, and it ended up headed on a beeline for the pitcher's mound. I saw the ball take aim for his face as I reflexively and instinctively dropped the bat slightly outside the dirt of the batter's box. He'd had enough time and reflexes to begin to move his glove upward, in order to protectively deflect the hit, or at least mute its impact. But he hadn't quite been given the time to adequately respond, to place his glove over the entire face.

Had the ball traveled lower, towards the nose or chin, he would have been safe. The drive, instead, headed dead center for his forehead. His glove didn't quite get there in time. Many in attendance thought at first, as I did, that he'd been able to defend himself sufficiently. Instead, the ball nailed him squarely, slightly above the eyebrows. It was directly in my field of vision and I couldn't help but see the whole thing as it unfolded.

After a minute or two of stunned silence, the game was called. I can't remember whether the paramedics were called, or if the injured party was whisked away to the Emergency Room. My father drove me home. The two of us were too shocked to speak. Had the ball traveled any other direction, it would have been a solid single, a source of pride for my father. The irony was not lost on the two of us.

News trickled out slowly. The impact of the baseball had fractured his skull. His mother stayed up all night at the hospital, applying ice packs to the site, which kept the swelling down. The following day, surgery was performed, and surgeons added a metal plate. Aside from a new piece of hardware, a surprisingly swift recovery followed. He was fine and able to live a normal life. Everyone was greatly relieved.

His family, nor he himself ever blamed me for what happened. After all, it isn't like I meant to do it. But after that incident, I lost what little enthusiasm I had for the game. Like the example cited first, what happened falls under the category of freak injury. Unlike the example cited above, the person I injured fortunately did not experience a lasting disability. Regardless, I'm not the sort of person who easily shrugs off these sorts of things.

Accidents happen in sports, and we tacitly accept them. More recently former football players, especially quarterbacks, have recently talked about how a history of concussions produces brain damage over time. Medical evidence increasingly supports this fact. Baseball is seen as somewhat less problematic because it is not as much of a contact sport, though collisions at home plate do occur. A 100 mph fastball can be very dangerous and has even ended the careers of some.

I do think there is a need for sports in our culture. When much is divisive and contentious, sports bring people together. In particular, sports brings many men together, though I do tip my hat to the many women who enjoy them as well. Still, there is often a distressing undercurrent of violence inherent in every play, every pitch, every inbound pass. In some ways, we haven't changed from the days of gladiatorial conflict.

Games need to be made safer, if they can. But we must keep this in mind. Regardless of whatever reforms are made, pitchers will still need lightning-quick reflexes. There's a very limited method of dictating the course of the ball once it makes contact with the bat. Players can only respond with their God-given athletic ability, which is why the best and first responders in the game of baseball win Golden Glove awards. Part of the game is adaptation with great accuracy to challenging circumstances, and that's why we watch. Writ large, we want the same skills for our own lives.

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