All sporting events are meant to be, on some level, pleasurable — but few are pleasurable in the afternoon nap way a spring training baseball game is. The fans in attendance aren’t there for spectacle. They want to sit in the warmish night air and take in a semi-competitive contest in which pitchers are experimenting with offspeed stuff and hitters are rediscovering their rhythm. They want to luxuriate in something that distantly resembles a midseason Reds-Royals tilt. They want to have a hot dog, maybe score their daughter a couple autographs. One of the effects of the prominence of sports in our culture is that they tend to take on an inflated importance — think about the pomp and circumstance surrounding even a nothing-special slate of NFL games — but preseason baseball is straightforwardly low-stakes and uniquely enjoyable because of that.
It’s not as if this relaxed atmosphere rendered Aroldis Chapman taking a 110-mph line drive to the face somehow more catastrophic, but where most terrible and terrible-looking injuries interrupt the flow of games that are charged in some way, to see Chapman’s blood pooling on the mound must have been like glancing up from a magazine to realize your kitchen is now a wall of flames. You can hear it in this upsetting fan-shot video of the incident: amiable ballpark chatter interrupted by sudden gasps.
It’s technically a good sign that Chapman was writhing on the ground after getting drilled because it means he didn’t lose consciousness, but the whole scene had a grisly vibe. Details on Chapman’s condition are still filtering out — he needs a plate in his head, has a mild concussion, and he’s got a broken bone over his left eye — but considering that liner could have killed him, the prognosis is better than anyone would have initially surmised. Reds team doctor Timothy Kremchek is calling Chapman “a very lucky guy.”
I would like to think that sports are becoming increasingly grounded in reality in the sense that a larger share of the discourse is being devoted to conversations about race and gender, and there are more and more journalists examining the effects of football on the human body and the implications of publicly funded stadiums, but the games themselves should and hopefully always will be a window into joy and transcendence, or at least just something to do on a Tuesday night after you’re burned out from work. What’s great about games is that they are not fictional, but also not consequential. They are real, but might as well be unreal.
Or that’s what they are most of the time. Tragedy visits sporting events from time-to-time. Kevin Ware shatters his leg. Rich Peverley passes out on the bench. Kevin Everett is partially paralyzed. There we are, taking in a ballgame, and then someone’s fibula is sticking through their skin. It’s a reminder that superhumans are destructible, but mostly it’s viscerally awful. The Chapman video is especially unsettling because every time I watch it, I expect him to be dead as the ball rolls toward the third base dugout.
I can’t actually watch the video anymore. It makes me slightly dizzy, even though I know Chapman is relatively OK. I think the reason injuries like this are jarring in a specific sort of way is because we are in the habit of empathizing with athletes on a bodily level. I assume most people have watched a replay of a diving catch and imagined their body going through that motion. You’re sitting, but you’re also flying through the air, and there’s grass in your face. I’ve been doing the same thing with Chapman’s injury. I’m imagining myself getting knocked to the ground by a comebacker, wondering if Chapman even registered a split-second of fear before he was blinded by pain. The fan experience is usually hot dogs, warmish night air and ballpark chatter, but it can also be horror that screams up the middle.