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When Life Knocks You in the Nose

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, August 11, 2007

All the talk in the baseball world this week has been about Barry Bonds's capture of the title " home run king." And rightly so.

But my celebration of "America's favorite pastime" will take place next Friday, when I observe the 50th anniversary of an event that stands unequaled in the history of Major League Baseball. It will be never replicated in my lifetime. Bonds's feat notwithstanding, my enthusiasm is reserved for next Friday, even if I'm the only one in America raising a toast.

The date was Aug. 17, 1957. Location: the City of Brotherly Love. The Philadelphia Phillies were playing the New York Giants.

Richie Ashburn, longtime Phillies center fielder and a future Hall of Famer, was in the batter's box.

Ashburn hit Phillies fan Alice Roth with foul balls twice in the same at bat.

The first foul broke her nose. Play was stopped while Roth was administered to. When the game resumed, Ashburn fouled off the first pitch -- and the ball struck Alice Roth while she was being carried out on a stretcher.

That, I submit, was one of the great moments in baseball.

The day will come when Bonds's home run record will be broken. Ashburn's feat will stand unchallenged until the end of time.

But the focus of this column is not that wacky August day in Philadelphia 50 years ago. Instead, I'm reflecting on the experience of Alice Roth.

Her rendezvous with Ashburn's foul balls represents a truth universally accepted but rarely acknowledged as we go about our daily business: We have no idea what's in store for us when we leave home in the morning.

Roth, bless her heart, was no doubt figuring on whiling away the August afternoon in a stadium box seat. She survived, thank goodness, and is enshrined in my memory as one of the most notable victims in all of victimhood.

But Roth learned -- and her experience teaches us -- that despite the focus and concentration on ourselves, some matters are beyond our control.

This is where it gets serious. Unexpected moments don't always end up so benign (though a sizzling hardball on the noggin can't be fun). Stop and consider a few recent moments: of students sitting in early-morning classes at Virginia Tech in April; of motorists and passengers crossing the Interstate 35W bridge in Minneapolis last week.

Put yourselves in the shoes of 19-year-old Natasha Aeriel; her brother Terrance, 18; and their friends Dashon Harvey, 20, and Iofemi Hightower, also 20, as they sat in a Newark schoolyard last week.

They were listening to music and talking. Imagine being confronted by armed young men, as they were. Natasha was shot in the face. Terrance, Dashon and Iofemi were marched to a wall where they were lined up, forced to kneel and then executed. Natasha survived to tell about it.

Life's unexpected moments.

Consider the shock of train wrecks, disease outbreaks, Sept. 11.

And then there is this federal city, where control is our raison d'etre.

This town has convinced itself that with the right mission, goals, planning and -- oh, what's that word? -- strategies, it can have reasonable expectations of results. That's what officials tell themselves in U.S. government real estate stretching from Capitol Hill to Foggy Bottom and across the Potomac to the Pentagon.

But Roth's experience tells us something else.

It lets us know that sometimes it takes a whack upside the head -- or in the nose -- to remind us who we are and what we're not; to remember that some things in life are simply not our call; that notwithstanding our smarts and means, we don't have the last word.

That even leading batters hit foul balls; that the best spy agencies can get it wrong; and that elected leaders aren't always right.

Think, too, of Alice Roth's moment in that August afternoon as a wake-up call, a reminder that life on Earth has its hard and unexpected knocks, that there is no way in which we can be protected from all hurt, harm or danger, and that misfortunes, large and small, come with the territory of living.

Roth didn't inspire the following thought, drawn from one of my favorite publications, "Forward Day by Day," but her experience calls it to mind: "Try living one full day as though you have been given some secret knowledge that it will be your last. Don't rush off to get your will in order. Just approach whatever has been scheduled for the day as though these will be your last encounters with the people you see. The experience may yield some habits of mind worth keeping."

And as Alice Roth might counsel as you journey through this vale of tears, don't forget to duck.

kingc@washpost.com

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