The conventional wisdom in pitching says that if you hang a changeup, get ready to turn around and watch it leave the yard. I would make a slight amendment: if you hang a changeup, get ready for a lifetime of driver's license restrictions and some really awful prom pictures. I was throwing a no-hitter through five and a third against Charles City's Babe Ruth team in a meaningless pre-season game my senior year of high school in what is, statistically, the safest activity in amateur athletics. My curveball was especially sharp because of a light April humidity, and I was locating my fastball better than usual, so the need for changeups was slight. One particular changeup, though, instead of tailing knee-high down and away, sailed belt-high down the center of the plate to one of the team's more average batters, and he crushed it back at me at an estimated one hundred and twenty five miles per hour. If you imagine the eye as a series of concentric circles, with the pupil as center and the orbital bones surrounding it as the outermost ring, then the ball hit a perfect bulls-eye. I like to think of it as the eye as a crosswalk button on the side of a stoplight pressed violently by some really thick fingers, probably akin to those of my father. In either case, I fell to my knees without losing consciousness and broke the by-now-awkward silence with a steady string of loudly-projected profanity, trying desperately to stanch the blood spilling out of my eye socket. The ambulance arrived shortly after.
One twelve ounce Minute Maid apple juice: $1.49. The cost of John Deere health insurance: $400 a month. The low murmurings punctuating the silence of a small-town Iowa county hospital signifying confusion over what to do to stop a profusely bleeding eye socket: priceless. When one is ill every bodily sensation seems to take on a certain value relative to others. The pain from the two-inch gash beneath my eyebrow or the one-inch cut on my eyelid was minimal compared to the desperate agony coinciding with the nausea arising from shock. The first two retches went smoothly enough since they consisted of the apple juice which I drank ritualistically before every game. It was the next dozen or so over the course of four or five hours that made me realize the amount of pressure exerted on the eyes during vomiting, which in this case was intensified exponentially. After an indeterminate amount of time lying on a bed in the hospital room, the wound below my eyebrow was stitched, and it was decided that the best course would be to transfer me back to Waterloo to be treated at a better-prepared facility.
My conversation with the medical technician in the back of the ambulance seems to have consisted entirely in non-sequiturs, involving questions like "Do your teeth hurt?" and a fumbling, but well-intentioned, anecdote from her about a cousin who got hit in the crotch with a softball bat once. At the end of the 45-minute ride there was a quarter-sized raw patch of skin on my left cheekbone where she continually wiped away the stream of blood that still ran from my lower eyelid.
While waiting in the hospital room for an eye specialist, I was witness to a painful scene in which my tear-stained mother informed a septuagenarian eye doctor, whose hands evinced a noticeable tremor, that she would prefer to wait for Dr. Mauer, a younger specialist who was especially well-regarded in the community. My half-sight was enough to notice his pained look of diminished ability as he gently tried to persuade my stubbornly protective mother before recognizing the futility of the effort, sighing, and shuffling slowly out of the room. Dr. Mauer arrived in what were clearly his golf clothes minutes later, his speech marked by a raised pitch in the last syllable of every sentence, drawn out to unnatural lengths. With his index finger and thumb placed on my upper and lower eyelids, respectively, he quickly separated the congealed seal of dried tears and blood and looked at the back of my eye with some sort of monocular device. After examining it for two minutes, and between my attempts to empty my stomach, he prepared a small syringe with perhaps a one inch needle, proceeding to inject it into the soft pink tissue which surrounds the eyeball. The pain was the most excruciating I had ever felt, or am ever likely to feel; it made my retches seem like sneezes. Ironically, it was anesthesia for the eventual stitching of my eyelid, which I am happy not to remember the details of (and which I pulled out days later because they were too itchy). The end product of the injury is a significant amount of scar tissue on my retina, resulting in a permanent Pacman-shaped blind spot at the center of my left field of vision. A surgeon later reconstructed the lower orbital bone with a combination of special gauze and plastic and a small steel pin holds the top of my nose in place.