Monday, July 11, 2011

Death Be Not Proud

Tomorrow, major league baseball's stars will be gathering in Arizona to play the annual Midsummer Classic, the All–Star Game.

The first All–Star Game was played nearly 80 years ago; it was part of the 1933 Chicago World's Fair. Only once since that time has the game not been played — when World War II interfered in 1945.

Otherwise, however, it has been an annual baseball tradition. Barring a totally unexpected development, it will be renewed tomorrow night.

Today, friends and family — and even folks who never knew the man — gathered in central Texas to say goodbye to a fellow who probably would have been watching the All–Star Game with his young son, the way they apparently had watched many baseball games together in the past.

But that fellow, firefighter Shannon Stone, fell to his death at Rangers Ballpark last week, trying to catch a baseball for his son — who witnessed the whole thing.

I'm sure you know that story by now. One struggles to find some meaning in it. Death — or fate or whatever — is always doing this. It takes people in horribly random and cruel ways.

We've always known that life isn't fair. Turns out that death isn't, either.

The more religious among us always assure us when tragedy strikes that "God has a plan," and they speak of his incomprehensibly "mysterious ways."

That is intended to comfort those who grieve, even those who never knew the person who died. But sometimes there is little comfort to be found in those words.

For many of us, it is hard to see how this contributes to such a "plan." God's ways are a bit too mysterious for the mortal mind.

As a writer, my inclination on such an occasion is to put my thoughts on paper, but that isn't always easy. Sometimes I want to know what others are saying.

I've re–discovered — as if such a reminder was necessary — that the human mind also looks for someone to blame when terrible things happen. But that's the thing that has been so frustrating about this matter, I suppose. There is no one to blame. Everyone's intentions were good. No one meant for anything bad to happen.

Should we blame Josh Hamilton because his toss was just a little short? He was only trying to accommodate the fans.

Should we blame Stone because he lost his balance? It's true that fans must bear a certain amount of responsibility for their own safety — and I've heard some people suggest that Stone was negligent, at least in part, because of the "recklessness" of his own behavior and because his footwear apparently provided him with little, if any, traction.

But, although there have been similar incidents at Rangers Ballpark in the past, falls were not epidemic. There was no reason for that possibility to dictate what he wore or anything else.

Should we blame the Ballpark management because the railings, even if they do exceed existing city requirements, are lower than they probably should be? The management couldn't foresee this, although I do think, as I have said, that making certain that stadiums are safe and family friendly, not merely that they meet city codes, should be their top concern now.

I guess I feel I am too close to this one — much as I did 16 years ago when I lived about a half hour's drive from where Timothy McVeigh blew up the federal building in Oklahoma City — and I need the perspectives of those who are farther removed.

In the aftermath of Thursday's tragedy, I have been thinking about something that I hadn't thought about in several years.

When I was teaching journalism at the University of Oklahoma, a student of mine died in a freak accident at his fraternity.

There was a ritual at this fraternity that involved the members going outside following a house meeting and shaking the flagpole. I don't know why. How does any tradition begin?

I don't know how long it had been done, but nothing had happened to anyone before. On this occasion, however, the upper one–third or so of the flagpole snapped and fell, striking my student and another boy. The other boy suffered minor injuries. My student, however, suffered far more serious injuries and died the following day.

There was no one and nothing to blame for that accident, either. The students who shook the flagpole had no reason to think it might snap. As far as I know, it had never snapped before. No one intended for anything bad to happen. Even so, a young man lost his life.

And, like the tragic case of Shannon Stone, we were left with lots of questions and precious few answers.

In my quest for understanding, I have found some fascinating observations from some folks who may never have been to Texas — but they understand things like childhood and fatherhood and the need to strike a better balance between fun and safety:
  • Like Steve Solloway of the Portland (Maine) Press Herald, who wrote very movingly of the "purity of the moment" that should have ended in triumph but ended in tragedy instead.

    All that Stone sought, Solloway wrote, was "[a] baseball to forever remind him and his son of the July day they watched the Texas Rangers play a game. It can't be any simpler than that, which makes the sorrow that much harder to bear.

    "Until this week,"
    concluded Solloway, "Shannon Stone was a stranger to most when in fact, he was always one of us."

  • If there is something good to take away from this, it may be that "baseball fans across the country are discussing ballpark safety," reports Paul Blume of FOX9 News in Minnesota's Twin Cities.

    Of course, each ballpark is designed differently, and no facility can be prepared for the sizes of all the people who might buy tickets to events there, but if Stone's death leads to an across–the–board requirement of railings that are higher than most adults' centers of gravity, well ...
... as I say, if that is what ultimately comes from this tragedy, that will be a good thing.
  • Rodger Jones of the Dallas Morning News says, in response to a survey on a blog on the News' website, that baseball players should not be banned from throwing balls to the fans.

    I agree. That would be a knee–jerk overreaction.

    However, he does believe railings should be raised — even if they make it difficult for some fans to see what is happening on the field.

    "Sightlines be damned," he writes. "If you disagree, wonder how you would feel if the next accident (and there will be one) involves someone you know."
Couldn't have said it better myself.

No comments: