Sixteen minutes from the time Nelson Cruz’s foul ball evaded the grasp of an off-balance fan in the second deck of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, until the next pitch of the ballgame was thrown.
It was as surreal as it was spine-chilling. One moment, we were watching a normal ballgame. Normal Cruz at the plate; normal umpire Chris Guccione behind him. Normal Cleveland fielders; normal dugouts; normal crowd.
Normal foul ball.
And then, of course, it happened: a fan trying to catch Cruz’s foul ball plummeted thirty feet into the seats below. Cruz, Guccione, the players on the field and in the dugouts, and the fans throughout the ballpark reacted with horror. It was hard to watch (and listen to the commentary from Josh Lewin, Tom Grieve, Eric Nadel, and Dave Barnett) and not imagine that the fan had fallen to his death.
While emergency medical technicians treated the fan and Indians players kneeled in prayer at their positions, first-base umpire and crew chief Tim Tschida consulted with his colleagues (Guccione, Tim Timmons, and Bob Davidson) as well as Ron Washington, Indians manager Manny Acta, Nolan Ryan, and other officials from the Texas organization. As their discussions ended, Ballpark announcer Chuck Morgan informed fans that the game would resume.
And so after what had to be 16 of the longest minutes ever experienced by fans watching a baseball game, Cruz stepped back into the batter’s box, and Justin Masterson retook the mound.
All things considered – and almost unbelievably – the story had a happy ending. Within an hour, the Rangers had announced that the fan was not only stable and responsive at Fort Worth’s John Peter Smith Hospital, but was also able to move all of his extremities. Four other fans hurt in the fall received treatment at the Ballpark for what were presumably minor injuries.
Well before that announcement, however, and even before Morgan’s confirmation that the game would continue, fans on online forums (and, surely, in homes and bars and at the Ballpark itself) were asking themselves whether the show really had to go on. And hours after the game’s conclusion, that question lingered: should the umpires, in consultation with the Rangers and Indians, have called the game?
My first reaction – the visceral one, the one driven primarily by disbelief and dread – was that play should’ve been stopped for the night, with the ramifications to be sorted out when a man’s life was not (presumably) hanging in the balance.*
* I’m not altogether clear what would’ve happened if the game had been called. MLB Rules 4.10 and 4.12 indicate that, since the fall took place with the Rangers up 3-1 in the bottom of the fifth, it would have resulted in a Rangers win. It seems possible, though, that the exigencies of the situation and the spirit of fairness would’ve justified a decision to resume of the game at a later date.
My second thought was that I didn’t envy the umpires or teams making that decision. As Rangers television broadcaster Josh Lewin noted during the deliberations, there are no official guidelines covering this sort of situation, and certainly no formal training or preparation that could make dealing with it in real time anything besides gut-wrenching.
The more I’ve considered it, the more convinced I am that league and club officials made the right call. Continuing play was very probably the best way to mitigate the impact for everyone involved. If nothing else, it helped take people’s minds off of the horrific scene many had witnessed. It provided crowd and players alike a chance to reestablish some semblance of normality in the midst of what by all indications appeared to be an unfolding tragedy. It permitted some, at least, to use the game as a way to cheer (and perhaps even play) for the injured fan – to channel the rest of the contest into wishes for his well-being.
Continuing the game also helped prevent every iota of media attention from being focused on the story of the fan and his fall for the next 24 hours. The fall was (and is) still a story, of course. Within minutes, every local media outlet had a blurb up about the incident; ESPN.com put a link to the story on its home page. Justifiably so. But with the game continuing, the fall was no longer the story. It wouldn’t be the only thing Rangers and Indians (and other teams’) fans would talk about until the first pitch was thrown this evening. However diminished in importance, the game’s implications for divisional races and individual lines remained. As a result, the fan (and his family and friends) would, in a perfect world, be spared at least a few lumen of the media spotlight.
I could be wrong about all of this. Perhaps the fan’s friends and family would’ve preferred the game had been called, out of respect for his circumstances. Perhaps that’s true of the fan himself. Maybe it was callous to ask players and coaches and umpires to continue to do their jobs, having seen what they saw. Maybe fans shouldn’t have been asked to care about a baseball game after witnessing that sort of event. I don’t think there are any easy answers to dilemmas like these.
What I do know is that if there’s any game that could accomplish what’s been suggested above, it’s baseball. Whether or not it’s been the one constant through all the years, I have to believe that every fan worthy of that term’s origins would agree that the rhythm of the pastime – through plate appearance and inning and game and season – is what draws and keeps them in. For a few hours each day, for a couple hundred days each year, that rhythm sets the tempo of fans’ lives.
Pitch by pitch, run by run, out by out, inning by inning, the decision to resume the rhythm last night – even in the face of tragedy – helped put those 16 minutes behind us. Until, finally, the good news could arrive.