The ball pinged off the aluminum bat and headed toward the hole between shortstop and third base, the sort of one-hop screamer that the high-school junior shortstop, my son Chris, had backhanded a thousand times.
Only this time, the ball hit a pebble and caromed weirdly toward his head. With a sickening crunch, the ball caught him flush in his left eye, and he went down in a heap. Bad hop, and a bad break.
The ambulance came onto the field, and he was taken away, something that just doesn’t seem to happen in the pastoral world of high-school baseball.
At the hospital, Chris was diagnosed with a blowout fracture of the bones in the orbit of his eye socket – a classic sports injury easily resolved by a simple surgical procedure.
Except that things went wrong, and when the surgeon finally screwed up his courage enough to tell my wife and me what happened – an undetected blood clot had cut off oxygen to the optic nerve – the long and short of it was that Chris would be blind in his left eye, probably for the rest of his life.
In one instant, the college scholarships Chris had contemplated and the dreams of a professional baseball career vanished.
Chris was still groggy from the surgery when we went into his hospital room, his bandaged eye holding a secret we now had to share with him.
We chatted about small things until he was alert enough to ask the inevitable, “Did everything go okay?”
My wife, Sue, gripped my hand as I told him that, no, it had not. That there had been complications. That the doctors had done their best, that medicine was still more art than science.
Halfway through my semi-prepared speech, Chris interrupted me:
“Dad, am I blind?”
“Yeah, son. I’m afraid so.”
“Will I be able to see out of it at all?”
“We don’t know – the doctors don’t know. Maybe a little. Someday. Not now.” It was the toughest thing I’ve ever had to do.
Chris sort of nodded and looked away toward the window. Outside it was spring, and we listened for a time to a robin’s territorial song from a nearby tree.
“Can I have a Coke?”
The duty nurse brought Chris a soft drink in a can with a cup and some ice. His mother poured the drink and he sat up and drank some of it through a straw, and then peered at the can on his bedside table.
“Dad, could you see if they have a pencil and paper I can use?”
I walked outside to the nurses’ station and borrowed a notepad and a pencil and returned to Chris’s room, where his mother was talking with him in hushed tones.
I handed him the pad and pencil, and we elevated his bed. He raised his knees and propped the pad against them, looked at the soda can, and began to draw. Sue and I said nothing as long minutes passed.
Finally, he tore off the sheet of paper and handed it to me. We looked at it – a photo-likeness of a Coca-Cola soft-drink can. Chris had always had an uncanny artistic ability: if his eyes could see it, his hand could draw it. We had thought of art as his second love – right behind baseball.
In those brief moments, Chris took a bad hop, made a decision and changed forever the course of his life.
“I’m okay, you guys. I can still draw.”
With that, he lowered his bed, turned onto his side and fell asleep.
That was eleven years ago. Since then, about 40 percent of the sight has returned to Chris’s left eye. Even with this handicap, which severely affects depth perception, he went on to hit .385 and shortstop a state-championship baseball team the very next season, earning all-state honors in the process.
But his focus had changed. Chris took his college degree – with the help of an academic and not an athletic scholarship – in fisheries and wildlife management as a background for his career as a wildlife and sporting artist.
Today, his paintings and pencil renderings grace the pages and covers of magazines and more than a dozen books, and they hang in galleries and museums in New York and Tennessee.
Human courage manifests itself in countless ways, countless times every day in every city and town and hamlet on every continent around the world.
One bad hop, one routine ground ball, one instant of pain, and what could have been months of despair. But instead, that bad hop – and the courage to accept what could not be changed – altered the course of a life for the better.
In sports we call such things great comebacks. I suppose in Chris’s case, there is no reason to call it anything else. Proving, I guess, that some bad hops can be fielded cleanly after all.