When we talk about the occurrence of tragedy during a sporting event, we’re typically referring to something that isn’t actually tragic. It might be a bullpen blowing a save, a missed shot on an open net, a failed uncontested layup, or a shanked field goal attempt. We use inaccurate terminology as a means of describing the goings on of a sport because it’s a vicarious experience for us. We suspend our understanding of reason for three hours and allow what’s ultimately a distraction from our day-to-day inanities to take over, entertain us and allow others on the field of play to be vessels for living out our own fantasies.
If the language we use to describe this event enters the realm of hyperbole, it’s not merely a coincidence. It’s all part of the charade. It’s part of the ritual we use to fully immerse ourselves into the distraction. This also includes the morbid: he murdered that ball; they’re killing him out there; that crossover left him for dead. The use of such terms seems silly and grotesque when serious incidents awaken us from the suspension of our belief and the distraction that we willingly allow while watching sports.
Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ was hit in the head by a line drive and taken off the field on a stretcher with one out in the second inning of his team’s eventual 6-4 victory over the Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field. The last half of that sentence seems very unimportant.
The ball, after leaving the bat of Desmond Jennings, caromed off the left side of Happ’s head and went all the way into the bullpen in foul territory. The blow knocked the pitcher to the ground, where he held his head in frightening agony. The ballpark went silent. Trainers, paramedics and medical officials rushed to where Happ was laying on the ground. Players and coaches stood on the field and in the dugouts, looking almost suppliant with concern.
As fans at the stadium and at home watched the aftermath and recalled the unique sound of the baseball hitting the pitcher, the vicariousness that baseball offers was extended in a different direction. Instead of us living out home runs and strike outs through our favorite team, it was the players on both squads who stood as representatives for our own emotions. Visibly shaken, the look of confusion, fear and sadness on their faces made us all aware of the seriousness of the situation, and perhaps allowed us to better understand our own feelings.
After ten minutes, Happ was strapped to a backboard, lifted onto a stretcher and wheeled off through an opening behind home plate. Amidst the strange applause that is customary when an injured athlete leaves the field, court, or rink of play, Happ raised his right hand and waved to acknowledge the crowd’s support. The cheers grew louder, no longer customary, but now out of relief that the player was at least conscious.
I always feel a bit conflicted writing about potentially tragic circumstances when they occur in sports. As emotional as an incident like this renders us, I remain unable to escape the feeling that whatever is happening is only receiving an additional dose of magnification because of its particular stage. I feel a sense of guilt over giving one particular moment of tragedy more attention than others simply due to who is involved.
However, there is something that is especially jarring about frightening circumstances occurring on the field of play that goes beyond the sadness that’s present elsewhere. We spend a lot of time on this blog exploring our relationship with sports, often coming to the conclusion that it’s at best an important distraction for many of us.
When we’re taken out of that distraction and reminded of reality in the brutal way that we were with J.A. Happ, it’s especially impactful, like being jolted out of sleep by electricity instead of gently woken up as part of the natural conclusion to our rest. Injury, life and death are serious business, and it becomes especially serious when we’re reminded of it in a setting that is anything but. Stark contrasts concentrate feelings unlike any other phenomena.
Happ was admitted to hospital, and according to the last report, was in stable condition. We’ll await further information, all while hoping for the very best for J.A. Happ.
Update (10:15 AM ET): A hospital spokesperson said that Happ was admitted to hospital on Tuesday in fair condition, and updated to good on Wednesday morning. The pitcher released the following statement:
I’m in good spirits, I definitely appreciate the support of the baseball community. It’s been overwhelming the messages and kind words I’ve been getting. I just want to thank everyone for that and I look forward to getting back out there soon.
After more tests, it’s expected that Happ will be released from the hospital later on Wednesday afternoon.
Update (12:15 PM ET): Happ left Bayfront Medical Centre in St. Petersburgh on Wednesday afternoon, using crutches with a bandage on his head. According to Barry Davis of Sportsnet, there was some concern last night that Happ had injured his right knee in addition to the head trauma.