Baseball, fear, and a life-or-death struggle

Posted: Oct 30, 2001 12:00 AM
Terrifying. Menacing. That's how batters describe Arizona Diamondback pitcher Randy Johnson, who has hit 18 batters this year with pitches that cross home plate at almost 100 miles per hour. Johnson and his teammate Curt Schilling assaulted New Yorkers this past weekend, deliberately propelling potentially deadly missiles close to the heads of nine uniformed Yankees. The occasion, of course, was the World Series, which even under heavy security remained a festive event. The sports pages Monday related how the New Yorkers lost both games, managing only three hits against each of the power pitchers. But they and all the other batters who stand in against major league fastballers impress me. Since my own baseball career was like the state of man according to Thomas Hobbes -- nasty, brutish and short -- I'm no expert on this. But batting against a Johnson or a Schilling strikes me as not only a test of eye-hand coordination, but a feat of courage. The natural tendency of a batter in such situations is to back away from the danger zone. If he does that, though, a good pitcher can throw over the outside of the plate and garner a strikeout. So a batter has to bully his emotions to get them to obey his will. And that's what all of us have to do in the face of anthrax-via-envelope terrorism. Major League batters need to be aware of the facts. The chance of getting badly hurt by a fastball is small, and the prospect of death even more remote. In over a century of Major League Baseball, only one batter (Ray Chapman, in 1920) has been fatally beaned, and that incident came in the days before batting helmets. We need to check the facts similarly concerning our current anthrax scare. The Philadelphia Inquirer provided a public service by comparing the total of three deaths from anthrax during the Oct. 6 to Oct. 26 period with deaths from other causes during an average three-week period. Over 20,000 die from smoking-related causes. Over 2,000 Americans die from auto accidents. Nearly 1,000 are murdered. Nearly 500 die from prescription-drug errors. I don't want to ignore the sorrow of those three anthrax deaths and the concern of those who have to stride up to the plate each day in Washington, aware that not a Schilling or a Johnson, but someone who wants to kill them is on the mound. I also don't want to minimize the potential for much greater harm. Fully aerosolized, weapon-grade anthrax dispensed in a crowd is scary, because we might not know about the attack until weeks afterward, when infected people are already mortally diseased. But let's realize that anthrax sent in envelopes is akin to a high inside fastball: There's generally time to react (in this case by taking antibiotics) and avoid a fatal beaning. With anthrax, we should not back up at the plate and become easy outs. Columnist Maureen Dowd, other journalists who have written panicky columns and some Washington politicians, as well, have all been easy outs. The great biological warfare danger is yet to come. Smallpox has brought down civilizations in the past. Nearly 500 years ago, smallpox was unknown in the Americas, but Spanish conquistadors introduced it and the disease devastated both the Aztecs and the Incas. What is now Mexico had about 25 million residents when the Spanish arrived in 1518. A century later, the number was 1.6 million. Every day that goes by without a report of smallpox or some other contagious disease unloosed is a day for rejoicing. Think about the unthinkable, and it's likely that a brain dwelling on destruction has thought about it first. So let's hold the scare headlines for what is really scary. Just as New York gave us a lesson in how to respond to an attack like that of Sept. 11, so the New York Yankees, even in defeat, showed us how to hang in against ordinary baseballs. To very loosely paraphrase Shakespeare, "Better to have swung and missed than never to have swung at all." But maybe the better phrase to keep in mind is what God told Joshua: "Be strong and courageous."