Close to the plate

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

Issue: "Elaine Chao: Unlikely star," Nov. 3, 2001

This World Series is an intriguing one due to the appearance of the Arizona Diamondbacks, led by stellar power pitchers Curt Schilling and Randy Johnson. Each can throw at nearly 100 miles per hour. Batting against them is not only a test of eye-hand coordination but a test of courage-and a bit like standing up to terrorists.

Let's get into this by getting personal. This past spring I mentioned my youngest son Ben's home run in a Little League game. That, as it turned out, wasn't his best time at bat during the course of the season. The best was his last, when he struck out.

How can a strikeout be a batter's triumph? The answer starts with awareness that getting a hit is not the primary goal when batting against a pitcher who is fast and wild. That's a potential outcome, but the primal process by itself is about one thing: conquering fear.

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Other sports faceoffs induce fear in other ways. Car racing, as we saw this spring in the Dale Earnhardt disaster, may bring death to even the best. The contact sport of basketball yields bruises and breaks, and the collision sport of football occasionally brings death or paralysis.

Baseball, though, is the sport where a batter must do what in hockey only the goalie and the bravest defensemen do: stand and wait as an opponent deliberately propels a potentially deadly missile almost right at him. A batter's tendency is to back away, but if that happens a good pitcher can throw over the outside of the plate and garner a strikeout.

If the prospect of death-by-pitch were 50-50 or even 1 out of 100, discretion would be valor's better part. But the prospect of death is remote: In over a century of major league baseball only one batter (Ray Chapman, in 1920) has been fatally beaned. Still, some players have been badly hurt, so fear here is not irrational. A player sometimes has to bully his emotions to get them to obey his will.

That goes for Little League players as well. Their heads are well-protected by batting helmets that look like football gear, but bodies are exposed. Pitchers often are wild, so a batter in the Littles is more likely to be plunked than his counterpart in the Bigs.

Since my own baseball career was like the state of man according to Thomas Hobbes-nasty, brutish, and short-I remember being hit only once. But Ben already has been hit a few times. That's why it was wonderful when he mastered his fear and stood close to the plate against the fastest pitcher in the league. He took good swings and hit several foul balls before striking out on a foul tip held by the catcher.

The baseball outcome was not important. The outcome in Ben's brain and heart was. That's the way it is in any sports event, and in many news events as well, such as our anthrax scare.

I don't want to minimize the potential for harm: Fully aerosolized, weapon-grade anthrax is scary, because we might not know about the attack until weeks afterward, when infected people are already mortally diseased. But anthrax sent in envelopes is more 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 cannot back up at the plate and become an easy out. Tom Daschle and his U.S. Senate colleagues deserve credit last month for continuing to meet. Many more dangerous attacks may come in the war against terror. The deliberate dissemination of smallpox, contagious and often deadly, is far more than an inside fastball; it's potentially like a nuclear attack. For that matter, the possibility of a nuclear device smuggled into a city and set off there cannot be ruled out.

Sadly, as we enjoy the World Series, we also have to be conscious of our deadly serious world war against terror. Think about the unthinkable and it's likely that a brain dwelling on destruction has thought about it first. That's why homeland security, with the ability to detain anyone connected with Osama bin Laden's network, is so vital.

But when so many hand grenades may be heading our way, we have to hang in against ordinary baseballs. To paraphrase Shakespeare very loosely, "Better to have swung and missed then never to have swung at all." The Bible puts it better: "Be strong and courageous," God tells Joshua, and says it again with even more emphasis: "Be strong and very courageous." God says that to all of us as well.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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