Thursday, June 04, 2009

I don't want to die watching baseball like that guy's mom did in A Prayer for Owen Meany.

Why can't I ever remember that character's name, when this was my favorite book my sophomore year in high school (shut up)? Anyway, update on the muffled hearing/ringing tone/ear ache situation: I just have to wait it out, and this fluid in my ears should go away after a few...weeks. Until then, I will be saying "what?" a lot, and there will be plenty of private in-jokes about how we're just like one of those odd couple sitcoms/mixed race buddy movies in which every line is a funny misunderstanding that generates a laugh track. And TD comes back tonight (before I go away again on the 16th to visit my parents, so we at least have some together time between our many trips), so maybe I'll stop being emo.

On Friday we're going to a baseball game, and the forecast is for thunderstorms. I am planning on packing soup and tea, and hoping that it won't be completely rained out. I will also hope to not die in the pursuit of America's favorite past time:

It's weirdly moving, if not exactly consoling, to learn just how many of baseball's casualties made the play before expiring. There's the amateur shortstop who, in 1902, caught a bad hop in the throat and used his last moments to throw out the runner at first. The third baseman in an Indiana league who, in 1909, tagged out the runner plowing headfirst into his gut, then succumbed to the resulting internal injuries three days later. There's just something about baseball that inspires a kind of heroic resolve. John McSherry, the major league umpire who collapsed at Cincinnati's Riverfront Stadium in 1996, had actually postponed treatment for the heart condition that felled him so he could call the game.* It was Opening Day.

All the old romantic baseball tropes turn up again and again in Death at the Ballpark. But the effect is haunting, since here each is mercilessly punctuated with a death. There's the aging minor leaguer, battling his way back to the majors after a couple of stints in the show—except that Millard Fillmore "Dixie" Howell, who played in the White Sox farm system in the '50s, never gets called up again and dies of a heart attack instead. A few incidents are such ruthless perversions of our shared baseball idylls that it's as if Roman Polanski had recut Field of Dreams. One July night in a backyard in Houston in 1950, a 7-year-old boy asks if he can throw his dad one more pitch before heading inside. The father says OK. The son pitches. Then the father swings and connects, inadvertently "striking his son over the heart." The son dies before they can make it to the hospital.

There's no underestimating baseball's versatile capacity for killing us. Late Commissioner A. Bartlett Giamatti famously wrote that baseball "is designed to break your heart," and the statement takes on new meaning reading Death at the Ballpark, particularly Gorman and Weeks' section on commotio cordis, or concussions of the heart. A commotio cordis can be brought about only by getting struck at a particular place in the chest at the exact moment between heartbeats. And yet it manages to dispatch several pages' worth of victims.

Then there's a story Gorman and Weeks had both heard versions of but always assumed was apocryphal until they ran down a local newspaper account confirming it: In Morristown, Ohio, in 1902, one man asks another if he can borrow his penknife so he can sharpen the pencil he's using to keep score. The second man hands his penknife to the guy seated between them, named Stanton Walker, and asks Walker to pass it on. At that exact moment, a foul ball whaps Walker on the wrist, and he stabs himself.

Still, in the end, you could choose to see something slightly uplifting about the sheer volume of these freak and incomprehensible accidents. Take it as an indicator of just how much time Americans have spent on and around baseball fields over the last century and a half—of what baseball means to us. We've managed to die on the diamond in so many crazy ways only because it's one of the places we've done the most living. We've all been shagging flies in that minefield together.