I hit the ball so fucking hard that as I approached second base, I remember thinking I should probably send a letter of apology to the ball’s manufacturer. “Sorry I obliterated your product. Nothing personal.”
July, 2003, Newton, Massachusetts
To the extent that men playing softball can be taken seriously by the outside world, I assure you that our league was viciously competitive. To be fair, most of us were competing against the aging process, against the passing of our athletic prime so many years before, and competing against the emotional scalding you endure when you try to explain to someone that you play softball competitively, as they roll their eyes.
But back to the hit.
I don’t even remember if we were winning at the time but I do remember taking a pitch deep into right center field. As I took off for first base, I recall thinking that it had been several games since I had hit a home run. There was no fence in the outfield, so the only way you got a home run was to outrun the throw home. I bore down.
As I rounded second, I lost sight of the ball, which was now somewhere behind me in right center field. I looked towards “Bips,” our third base coach, for the signal to either hold up at third or to go for the home run.
Steaming towards third, I locked eyes with Bips, who looked back at me as if I had just asked him to name his top five favorite German theologians. His stare was blank.
I realized that Bips, though physically standing at third, was mentally somewhere in the Bahamas. I would have to blindly gamble on whether to go for it or not.
I recall thinking, “I’m fast as shit- I’m going for it.”
And so I did.
As I tagged third and made the turn towards home plate, I caught a final glance at Bips, who continued to stare at me as if we were just meeting for the first time (we had known each other for 20 years). I gritted my teeth and charged towards home, arms swinging to drive my momentum through the final yards.
The ball entered my vision from the left , as I was about halfway down the line. The throw first hit the ground, then bounced up into the catcher’s mitt while I still had a good three yards to go.
Our league had a rule where you always had to slide into the base when the ball was in the player’s hand or on the way. This was to avoid injury, both by accident and fist. So I did not have the option of taking the catcher out. Instead, knowing I was dead to rights I lowered my right knee to the ground and slid right into him.
What happened next is one of the most horrifying moments of my life.
Sliding forward, my left foot hit straight into the catcher’s shin guard, and then time slowed as I watched my foot bounce back into my ankle, and then seemingly fall out of the joint. My left foot folded ninety degrees inward and I lost the next 30 seconds.
I have been told that the scream in which I then indulged was of the blood curdling variety, but I don’t personally recall it. I just lay there at home plate, out, and thinking to myself, “Shit- all these years and I’ve never broken a bone.”
My friend Marty was the first one to reach me from our bench. He got right in my face, looked me in the eye, and with one of those overly-calm voices that people use when everything is spiraling out of control, said, “Joe, something pretty fucked up just happened, OK? You don’t want to look down there- OK? Just don’t look- look at me. OK? Just look at me. You don’t want to look at it. We’re calling for help…”
I took his advice, never again looking down at my ankle. Even worse, while I could feel my foot hanging at an obscenely unnatural angle, my right cleat was still a good foot from home plate.
Players came by and checked on me, including the opposing team’s catcher, who offered an apology, though he was completely blameless. It was simply a freakish accident.
I noticed the wife of one of our players getting sick behind the bleachers, apparently from simply looking at my ankle. Her reaction confirmed the soundness of my decision to not regard my dangling extremity.
The guys in the ambulance were vintage Boston- thick accents and absolutely no sense of propriety. They were wearing street clothes, too, which I thought was weird. It was like they had been mowing a lawn when the call came to get me. The two EMTs in the back were having a field day.
“Jesus fahkin’ Christ, buddy. What the fahk were you thinkin’?”
“Yah, we only see shit like this in fahkin’ cahr accidents.”
“Buddy, you were a fahkin’ mile from home plate. Didn’t yah little league coach evah tell you to look at yah third base coach?”
“Jimmy,” one of them called to the driver, “Can you see this kid’s fahkin’ ankle?”
“Holy fahk!” I heard from the front seat.
“Hey pal, you evah have moah-feen?”
“Morphine? No, never,” I said.
“Well yah gonna.”
“Great. I can scratch another one off my list,” I said, finding a little bit of humor in this silvery narcotic lining.
One of the EMTs called ahead to the hospital and requested authorization to give me morphine. He received it and went to town.
After a few moments, I said, “[h]ey, did you guys give me enough? I’m not feeling anything.”
“Pal, yah lit up like a Christmas tree. It’s werkin’.”
“Then can we put on some Allman Brothers or something?” I said. “I need something to kick this into high gear,” I said, as I began giggling uncontrollably, still believing the morphine was ineffective.
The EMTs shook their heads at me as I, unable to stop laughing, continued to try to persuade them that I needed more. Amazingly, I believed it.
When they wheeled me into the ER, I was still lying on my right side, clad in my dusty, sweaty uniform. I had been in this position since the ill-advised slide, frightened to move my left leg at all, due to the freakish sensation of my left foot flapping in the breeze.
The ER doctor was a tiny woman with gigantic empathy. She smiled sadly as she took a look at my ankle, asked me a few questions, and gently poked my silly little foot.
She said “[i]t doesn’t look like a break, but it’s a complete dislocation. I’ll be right back.”
I lay there feeling the morphine wearing off and trying to imagine all the creative ways my girlfriend would surely find to call me a jackass. We had, only weeks before, brought home two golden retriever puppies.
Puppies that were not yet housebroken.
Our “house” being a tiny one bedroom apartment on the third floor of an ancient building on the busiest street in Cambridge.
A building with no air conditioning.
In the hottest month of the hottest summer in a decade.
In that moment, I understood that her summer had just gone from zero to crappy in about an hour.
The ER doctor reappeared with two massive dudes in white doctor coats.
“Mr. Daly, you know what we have to do, right?”
Until that moment, it had not occurred to me that they would have to pop my foot back into place. Missing this detail was likely a consequence of the morphine coursing through my veins. But drugs or no drugs, the way she asked the question led me to believe that the process would be considerably far from pleasant.
The female doctor began directing the two other doctors to hold me down, which raised my anxiety significantly. I could not recall any experience in my life where being held down was associated with something fun.
Then she began, “OK, on my count. One… two…”
“Hold it!,” someone shouted suddenly. I think it was one of the guys holding me down, but I had my face buried in my forearm. “Give him some more morphine.”
They shot me up with more morphine and then got back to business.
“One… two… three!”
I know my scream was loud because when it eventually stopped, the entire emergency room was silent. Not a single word could be heard from the waiting room, the nursing station, or the other patients and doctors around us. Just the beeps of the machines.
But my foot was back in place.
My girlfriend soon arrived and she did call me a jackass shortly thereafter, having long mocked me for being a grown man playing softball. She did take fantastic care of me, which was no picnic for her on a number of levels. While I spent the next couple months beached on the futon, whacked out on Percocets and red wine and watching “Blind Date” reruns, she had to carry two puppies up and down three flights of stairs easily ten times a day in sticky New England humidity. This of course earned her both rock star status and lots and lots of bargaining chips in future negotiations.
I attended the final game of the series on crutches. We won the championship, and the guys gave me the game ball, which still sits on my kitchen counter to this day. It is the one ball the dogs do not get to chew.
My left ankle has lost a considerable amount of flexibility, and whenever I run for too long, I experience sharp pains through the area. Still, I came back the next season, although I moved from second base to right field.
When I moved to San Diego a year later, I entered the San Diego Adult Baseball League’s open draft and got taken second in the AA division. I lasted one season, batting somewhere around the Mendoza line before hanging up my cleats for good. My ball playing career, which begun at age eight on a tiny field in Worcester, Massachusetts, ended on a dusty field just north of the Mexican border, twenty years later.
Given the constant reminders that my ankle provides me, I reflect on the accident pretty regularly. I don’t have many regrets with how it all went down, but if I could change just one thing about the entire experience, it would be this:
I would have asked someone to take a picture of me lying at home plate with my foot hanging off. Seriously, how fucking cool would that be?