The Fourth of July holiday certainly holds many memories of exciting fireworks, family picnics and lengthy naps in an oversized hammock. But ahead of all those recollections is the memory of a tragedy that took place exactly 20 years ago today.
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a lifelong baseball fan, and over the years I have had a reoccurring dream in which I am signed out of high school to play for the New York Yankees — then marry my high-school sweetheart at home plate of Doubleday Field in Cooperstown and, upon my death, have my ashed spread throughout the monument section at Yankee Stadium.
Can you say wishful thinking?
My baseball “career” ended sometime during my sophomore year in high school when, according to my father, I wisely chose a job over a starting outfield spot on the junior varsity.
So, my thinking began to settle on at least being able to eventually pass away while doing something I truly enjoyed — like playing softball. Of course, I liked to think that my passing would take place at the age of 107 or so, but I barely paid attention to the fact that it’s not up to me.
And then came July 3, 1995.
I was playing third base for the The Tribune team in New Albany, Ind., where we were known around the league as The Mighty Yucks (we just weren’t all that good). On this night, the three fields were full with holiday tournament competition and the stands were filling with fans, none of whom realized that their world would soon be rocked to the core. Hard.
Within moments of a “Play ball!” on each field, a player on another field took his stance in the batter’s box, took a swing at the first pitch and … collapsed. He was dead.
It all started out innocently enough. Hollers were heard that called for an ambulance and a quick glance in that direction revealed a man laying across home plate. The word being filtered to our field was that he might have a broken leg or arm.
But something about those hollers — approaching the edge of screams, really — burned into the hearts and souls of any who could hear them. They were laced with an urgency that slammed right up against fear and panic. Still, being somewhat removed from the actual scene, nobody from our field made any effort to investigate the situation.
Someone from up the hill near the concession stand yelled that an ambulance was on the way, but things were taken to another level when a player standing near the fallen teammate responded with “We need help NOW!”
Those words brought our game to a grinding halt.
It was about then we began to hear reports of a heart attack and the need for CPR. Having once been a practicing paramedic for five years, I instinctively took three steps toward the pleas — but quickly realized that it had been almost 15 years since I’d compressed my last chest cavity. All I could do was freeze in my tracks and watch the situation unfold.
Finally, after what seemed like 30 minutes, an ambulance arrived. In reality, it had only been a few moments.
Our game remained in limbo as the tragic scene unraveled just a bloop single’s distance away, and none of us had any thought of resuming our contest. Sadly, word of the player’s death filtered our way shortly after.
I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wondering right then and there what would happen if it were me laying in the dirt that night. After all, I’m sure this man, who was in his 40s, was leaving behind a loving family. It made me wonder if I consistently tell those I love how important they are to me.
In those days, there was almost nothing that could get in the way of me grabbing my bat and glove and heading for the softball field — but never has my perspective of the game, and life, been made more clear than on that evening.
To say this man may have died doing something he loved to do is but a small consolation. I knew then that, if I were given the choice of dying on the diamond or living a few extra years, I would put down my bat and glove forever. But choices of that magnitude are not common.
Perhaps thankfully, circumstances and age took my playing days away at the age of 48, relegating me to the bleachers. Though it means I’m not playing the game of softball anymore, it hardly means I’ve removed myself from the game of life — where God almost never tells you you’re on deck.
— W. Curt Vincent can be reached by calling 910-862-4163.