For eight minutes last night, J.A. Happ lay splayed out on a sickly green carpet in St. Petersburg, Florida. I cannot imagine how he felt in those moments, but I assume it wasn’t good.
For those eight minutes, from the time a fastball left his hand to the split seconds later when it struck the bat of Desmond Jennings to the split second after that when the line drive struck Happ in the left side of his head just above his ear to the brief, horrible moments when the dozen or so men on the field and several thousand people in the stands realized what had happened, there was no longer a baseball game going on.
Players held their heads in their hands and stared in stunned silence as medical personal tended to the Blue Jays tall left-hander. In those moments, nobody cared about the Blue Jays slow start or Fernando Rodney’s release point or any of the normal, run-of-the-mill distractions from working life drudgery provided by slickly-packaged professional sports.
It was a profoundly human moment, where all pretense and income disparity was set aside for eight minutes while a bunch of people just hoped another person would be okay.
As Happ was wheeled away under the stands, reality slowed dawn on the proceedings. The show must go on, so on it went. Eventually, the distracted Blue Jays came from behind against the equally-distracted Tampa Bay Rays to win 6-4. – two groups of professionals who struggled to maintain their professionalism but had a job to do so they did it. This game counts in the standings just like a sunny Sunday afternoon at Fenway Park where the atmosphere couldn’t be any different.
As Happ was rushed to the Bayfront Medical Centre, where he spent the night, his teammates staged their second-consecutive spirited comeback. The narrative-weaving began in full force, as pundits and fans assumed the Blue Jays rallied behind their fallen teammate, winning one for Happ. Maybe they did, maybe they just focussed on the game to keep their minds off the scary thoughts of their teammate bleeding from the head or face, waving weakly as he left the field with his neck immobilized.
Emotional wins are all well and good but there remains a tiny doubt in my mind. How many teammates thought “we gotta win this one for J.A.” versus how many thought “I hope that guy I live and breath with every day for seven months is okay.” or “I hope my friend doesn’t die at work.” Nobody in the 21st century should die at work.
In those moments, it’s okay for baseball players to think like regular people, to fear for their work friend’s health and hope he will just be okay and push out fears that one day it might be them lying prone on the field. In those moments, it’s okay for a baseball player to his his as an annoyance instead of a once-in-one-hundred lifetimes blessing.
After those minutes of reflection fade away, it is back to business as usual. Sports talk radio fills with opportunistic hucksters shilling their plastic safety crap while passive-aggressively admonishing the teams and leagues for not adopting it sooner – “all this could’ve been avoided!”
For eight minutes, J.A. Happ wasn’t a commodity dressed as a person. He wasn’t service time concerns or a regressed home run per fly ball rate. He wasn’t pitching poorly or lamenting his status as a fringe starter in the big leagues. He was a man in need of help, and his teammates were equally helpless – unable to do more than list back and forth in a circle around the mound until Happ’s stretcher slid into the back of an ambulance and disappeared.
The Blue Jays and Rays play tonight and again tomorrow night. By that time, hopefully they’ll have more information on their friend and teammate than the broken telephone and clipped messages currently reaching their eager ears. The show must go on, 162 times a year. As important as it is to remember it is just a show, just a heavily-serialized drama played out on our TV screens from April to October.
I wish it wasn’t this way. The pain and guilt and fear on display at Tropicana Field is the worst way to gain perspective on the role of professional sports. I don’t think I’m alone is hoping J.A. Happ is okay. That’s it.