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September 29, 2011

The Lineup Card

14 Scariest Things to Happen While Driving

by Baseball Prospectus

The inspiration for this week’s Lineup Card comes from former MLB pitcher Pascual Perez, who once missed a start while driving around looking for the stadium.

1) Please Wait for the White Pedestrian Silhouette
The day was Friday, October 24, 1986, between Games Five and Six of the Mets/Red Sox World Series. My brother's birthday was the following day, but since my parents had plans, they decided we would celebrate a day early by going to see The Color of Money after having ribs for dinner. 16 going on 17, already with a car at my disposal—a boxy, white 1981 Buick Skylark—I went on some errand-running mission after my final class of the day but had to double back in front of my high school on my route home.

Driving along at about 35 miles per hour on a four-lane road as I passed my high school (East High School, Salt Lake City, Utah), I was about to go through a light a few milliseconds after it turned yellow when BAM! Something struck the lower corner of the driver's-side windshield — the elbow of a girl who had darted into the crosswalk while the light was still green. I hadn't seen her until the moment of impact. The windshield was cracked, as though a baseball had hit it.

I made a right turn and pulled over the car. Fortunately, the girl—a freshman whose sister was a classmate of mine—was sitting up in the middle of the crosswalk as her friend tended to her, and while she was wailing mightily, no blood was in sight. Nonetheless, an ambulance showed up to take her away while a policeman showed up and took down my license and insurance information. Two witnesses, one a pedestrian (but I don't think a student) and the other a driver who had been in the other lane but far enough behind to stop at the yellow light, gave their reports to the officer, corroborating my story that she had been in the intersection early and that I hadn't been running a red light. Not that simply being in the right would have made me feel any better had she been seriously injured. Fortunately she was not; shaken, I called her parents shortly after coming home and spoke briefly with her mother, who apologized to me for the bother and said that x-rays of her arm and hip proved negative and that there was no internal bleeding. Even 25 years later, I try very hard not to think about what might have happened had my car been a fraction of a second late. —Jay Jaffe

2) Wedding Night Bliss
On my wedding day, my car was totaled after someone in a Ford F-350 crushed the front end of it. They doped me up enough to get through my ceremony, but I spent my wedding night in a hospital bed. Had I just skipped the ceremony, I may have saved myself a divorce five years later. It was clearly an omen that I ignored. —Jason Collette

3) Metro Detroit Black Ice

Simply put, you've never driven in extreme conditions if you haven't driven through three feet of snow covering black ice. Growing up in Metro Detroit meant growing up learning how to play baseball and knowing how to skate. The most important part of those lessons was learning at age 15 how to handle the unknown, the invisible, the "black ice," all while driving a car. Of course, this lesson came as a learn-as-you-go kind of experience, since there was no planned course for practice and no safety net to catch you.

The scariest moment behind the wheel for me was my introduction to this unknown. The first time I hit black ice, I felt more like Steve Yzerman weaving into the offensive end and less like Alan Trammell rounding the bags. The car wanted to go one way, I was turning the other way, and the car behind me was going a third. I had no control, no traction, and despite being told what to do, no ability to remember that lesson. I was at the mercy of the "black ice" and, with just enough luck, was able to maintain enough control to reach the end and correct the car. There were no injuries, I learned how to handle "black ice," and I now look forward to someday teaching my kids this same lesson. — Adam W. Tower

4) That Time With the Truck
My wife and I were driving home to San Diego from Cooperstown, where I had attended Tony Gwynn’s Hall of Fame induction ceremony in 2007. In western Missouri, somewhere between Sarcoxie and Joplin, my wife noticed a truck carrying vintage cars. The truck, unfortunately, did not notice us. It shifted lanes and ran our Saturn off I-44 and into the median.

We were doing 65 mph when the truck sideswiped us, but I slowed it to 45 mph before veering down a 5-foot grassy embankment. Had I not slowed the car, the truck might not have hit us; then again, we might have flipped the car on our way down the embankment, so it was a reasonable tradeoff.

As crashes go, it wasn’t pretty, but it could have been worse. The car still ran, and with more than 1,500 miles ahead of us, folks gave us plenty of leeway on seeing the damage. There is something to be said for being thought crazy by fellow drivers.

We were supposed to catch an Albuquerque Isotopes game that night, but due to our unexpected delay we made it only as far as Tucumcari. After a night’s stay there, we swung by the Grand Canyon and headed home. Oh, and the truck that hit us? Remarkably, we saw it again on I-40, somewhere between Needles and Barstow, California.

We took down the license plate, but since there had been no witnesses, it was our word against the truck driver’s. And as the body shop back home told us, “If he didn’t hit metal, he never even knew he hit you.” On the bright side, the car wasn’t totaled. That wouldn’t happen until two years later, while I was driving home from work, 20 minutes into my vacation. But that story will have to wait for some other day. —Geoff Young

5) The Things Young Guys Do for Girls
I spent my formative years in the rural Midwest, where most rites of passage involve vehicles—usually, my beloved ‘68 Plymouth Fury III equipped with black vinyl roof, a Kraco car stereo, and a trunk capable of smuggling a half-dozen teenagers into a midnight showing at the 53 Auto-Vue. Like many others who grew up in places and times where there wasn’t much else to do, I have my share of cautionary vehicular tales involving black labels, black ice, and blackouts, of which I’m none too proud in retrospect. For sheer terror, though, nothing tops the one rare occasion when I let someone else drive.

She was 16, probably—a little younger than me, but not much—with a name I may not have known then and certainly can’t recall now. All I know for sure is that she was from a different small town, she was at the same party, and she very badly wanted to drive my car. My decision-making centers not being state-of-the-art at that point, I tossed her the keys, and before long it became clear I had utterly misplaced the emphasis of her desire: what she really wanted was to drive my car very badly. That moment—the needle edging into triple digits, the imminent curve on County C, no way of knowing whether she knew it was there or could hear me over the sounds of rushing air and Physical Graffiti, that sense of utter helplessness when you realize your fate is no longer in your hands and all that’s left is to brace for impact—is something I can still call up on demand and occasionally do. It all ended happily, as she somehow negotiated a high-speed braking skid around the curve—or so I suspect, since my memory of those moments have been replaced by a Gilliam-penned “Scene Missing” card, likely due to covering my eyes and curling up in a fetal ball. Those precious seconds when it all could have gone horribly awry, though, are always there, ready to teach me all over again where I should and shouldn’t place my trust. —Ken Funck

6) Officer Tender Heart
As a resident of New York City, I ride in more trains than cars, but I can dip into the memories of my youth for a horror story from the road. Growing up, I had this friend named “Jason” and he was a little…crazy. He had a lunatic level story for every occasion, and seeing as how one of his finer moments came while driving in a car, I thought I’d share his tale of lunacy with you, the fine readers of Baseball Prospectus.

At the tender age of 16, “Jason” was driving home from a social gathering, smoking a plant from a water pipe. The water pipe in question was made of plastic and stood 12 inches tall, personalized with a two-inch picture of Mark-Paul Gosselaar (Zach from Saved by the Bell) directly above the stem and bowl which housed the smokable plant. It was important to “Jason” to personalize his products, and yes, “Jason” was smoking from a foot-long water pipe while driving a motor vehicle. He was awesome back then. Anyway, the familiar visual nightmare of red lights soon appeared in the rearview mirror, and “Jason” panicked due to the fact that he was smoking a plant from a foot longwater pipe while operating a motor vehicle. While in the throes of extreme anxiety and borderline hysteria, “Jason” attempted to toss the water pipe and its contents from the moving vehicle while simultaneously slowing his speed and navigating to a suitable stopping point on the side of the road. “Jason” was clearly under the influence of said plant and said panic, as he failed to recognize the fact that the window was clearly up; the twelve-inch water pipe wearing the sweet smile of Zach Morris soon met the window and re-established its existence in the passenger seat, in plain view for the now approaching officer. Normally, one would assume “Jason” had practiced throwing a 12” water pipe from a moving car while in the process of being pulled over for who knows what, but as was the case, “Jason” was dead in the water, sitting casually behind the wheel with an illegal passenger smiling to his right.

When “Jason” first told me this story, I was at once shocked at the eventual outcome and not shocked that he found himself in such a lunatic level situation. After the quick meet and greet with the officer who pulled him over, “Jason” and Zach somehow escaped harm, as no punishment was issued. The hour was late and “Jason” was at the mercy of the man with the power, and for whatever reason (we will never know), Officer Tender Heart let “Jason” drive away with his panic on his sleeve. He often tells the story, and like most of his lunatic level stories, we all listen with a curious amazement, shocked that he is not only alive to tell the tale(s), but not incarcerated for various felonious acts that form the backbone of most of the stories. Good ol’ “Jason.” —Jason Parks

7) Taxi Cab Craziness
(Un)fortunately my contribution to this week’s piece doesn’t perfectly fit the description, but I guess it’s close enough. I never got lost on my way to a baseball game I was starting like our muse Pascual Perez but instead had to deal with a fate much scarier: being in an NYC cab in the winter. For those of you who are not familiar with NYC cab drivers, they have a reputation for being…well, reckless would be one word to describe them. Combine that with the icy conditions of the West Side Highway following a snowstorm last year, and it was a recipe for disaster. I was heading back uptown with a few friends at some extremely late hour, so the ride was going to seem a little rockier than usual.

About halfway through our trip on the highway, our driver decided to speed up and pull into the left lane for no apparent reason. The highway was almost completely clear both ahead and behind us. As he turned, the cab skidded on the ice and the cabbie quickly turned the wheel to counter and the cab spun around in a complete 360 as a car sped by us on the right. Luckily we were all ok, and the driver continued on without missing a beat. He sped back up and everyone survived the trip, but it was a surreal moment that stuck with me for a while. The lesson: try not to travel long distances in a cab in the winter, and if you feel like you’re about to put yourself in that situation, you haven’t had enough to drink. —Sam Tydings

8) Car on Fire
About the time I turned 16, my parents handed down to me a chocolate-brown, late 70s-era Volkswagen Rabbit. The car was 12 or 13 years old and already had racked up 175,000 miles. It wasn’t the safest vehicle in the world, but that’s not usually a priority for a high-school kid. All that really mattered was the freedom that came with having transportation.

The car had a long series of mechanical problems—chronic catalytic converter problems, blown radiator hoses, three flat tires in a two-day stretch, various minor accidents or near misses. One sweltering summer day in St. Louis, with the car packed with friends, I noticed white smoke coming from the front of the car. Determined to get wherever we were headed, I did the only sensible thing: I ignored the smoke, turned up the radio, and hoped the problem went away. A few blocks later, flames were shooting from the hood and my hands shook as I tried to steer. Other cars on the road actually stopped to give us room—or watch the pyrotechnics. Fortunately, we happened to be approaching a Pizza Hut, and somehow we managed to make it to the parking lot, where the restaurant manager doused the flames with the store’s fire extinguisher. After more repairs, the Rabbit soldiered on for another two years, though it now sported severe burn marks on the brown hood. When I left for college, the car sold for the princely sum of $75—a definite overpay on the buyer’s part. —Jeff Euston

9) Oh Deer
I once had an auto altercation with a deer.  The deer that my car hit glanced off the hood, then smashed with a shatter through the back window on the driver's side. It happened so fast that I can't say how far inside the car her head was before she bounced free, but its torn fur and flesh littered the car, and the force of the collision flung scores of bloody ticks off of her and onto the backseat. The ticks were the worst, well, because ticks are the worst, always, and it was weeks until I quit feeling phantom ticks all over me. The deer staggered for a moment then trotted, between cars, back across the freeway. There were three of us in the car, one in every seat except for the back seat on the driver's side, so it turned out okay for everyone but the ticks. —Sam Miller

10) All's Well That Ends Well
Whenever I'm asked about where I'm from or where "home" is, my reflexive answer is always "everywhere." My father was in the military, so I spent my formative years in multiple locations along the Eastern seaboard. I learned to drive while living in Maine, and it comes as no surprise that the most terrifying experience of my life came while operating a vehicle on the Maine Turnpike. The interesting thing is that no snow, sleet, ice, or moose came into play on this beautiful June afternoon. I spent part of the summer of 2000—the summer before my senior year of high school—selling vacuum cleaners all over the Pine Tree State. On this particular day, I was cruising on the turnpike somewhere near Gardiner when the left front wheel on my 1986 Volkswagen Jetta popped off and flew into the woods on the other side of the highway. As the rotor dug its own path into the pavement, I did all I could to keep my car on the road and on the three wheels that remained. After finally coming to a stop in the median, I searched for (but never located) my missing wheel. I did, however, end up selling a vacuum cleaner to the wife of the tow truck driver that hauled me and my car back to Lisbon, so I'd call it a net win. —Bradley Ankrom

11) Highway Spinout
It’s about 8 a.m., and I’m cruising the last wave of Southern California’s morning rush on the 91 West in my Nissan, which I have affectionately dubbed “Silver Bullet” (no, it’s due to a particular distaste for werewolves. Just ask my old car, Green Monster). On this clear March morning, I’m zipping along near Imperial Highway, where drivers hopped up on their third cup of coffee are merging from the right and those not wanting to take the 55 interchange begin to converge from the left.

I’m driving about 65 mph next to the slow lane, since I want to continue on the 91 toward Los Angeles. There are tons of cars, but nothing is amiss. About five seconds later, a white vehicle comes from behind me and speeds into the slow lane. Then I hear a crunch on my passenger-side door. The driver in the white car sideswipes me. My pulse skyrockets and my hands grasp the wheel as though bracing for a NASCAR wreck. Another hit. The same driver somehow managed to bump my front passenger-side tire.
 
Now everything is a rush. No. Dizzy. There’s the black Expedition that was on my back left… and how did I get in front of—holy crap! That’s the toll lane! That’s the concrete barrier! Why am I driving sideways?! Wait. I’m not going sideways. I’m pulling 360s.
 
I’m screaming. Not just any kind of scream, mind you. It’s the kind of shrill girly scream perfected in cheesy, straight-to-shelf horror flicks that would make Emma Span’s Bad Movie Night proud. I desperately pound the breaks (which apparently you shouldn’t do) and turn the wheel like mad.
 
And then I stop, just one foot from bonding with the concrete center divider. By some miracle, my car is facing west. I 360’d through four lanes of traffic and did not hit another car. I get out to inspect the damage, fearing the worst. Nothing. Well, a practically bald tire and some scuff marks that can be buffed out, but nothing more.
 
I call the police to report the accident, and they want me to drive to Tustin Avenue to file the report. I hop back in my car, my adrenaline on overdrive, and find the Carl’s Jr. parking lot. When the police arrive, they ask me one question that makes my head spin more than my 360s did: “Did you get a chance to take a picture of the car that hit you?”—Steph Bee

12) If Only Woody Had Gone to the Police, This Would Never Have Happened
I still don’t know where the car came from. Eighteen and depressed, I drove past an ex-girlfriend’s house to, well, stare at her porch ineffectually—she was out of state at the time, so there wasn’t much I could do except sulk at her aluminum siding. Driving out of her development, I paused where her street met the main thoroughfare, making sure I was clear to turn into traffic, a left across the oncoming lane. I looked left, I looked right, I looked again. All clear: I let go of the brake and pulled onto the road. There was a squeal of tires behind me, a horn honking. Inexplicably, there was a car where none had been a moment before, and the sequence of events suggested that I had somehow pulled out right in front of him, cutting him off.

It took a few minutes for me to realize that an apparently aggrieved nut was following me, intent on dealing out some righteous road rage for what I had done. Until that time, I continued to blithely signal for turns and yield to pedestrians and livestock—things that made it easy for him to follow me. An understanding of the nature of my dilemma was forced upon me when I was held up in a line of cars at a stoplight and the honking car roared up behind me. An enraged Charles Manson lookalike jumped out, ran forward, and, screaming profanely, beat on my locked door with his fists, attempting to pull it open and, I guessed, pull me out for a (best-case scenario) thrashing. I floored the gas, throwing him back and pulling into the oncoming lane. I swerved around the inevitable moving van, just missing decorating its grill with my brains. In my rearview mirror, I saw Manson scramble back behind the wheel of his car to continue the pursuit. Barely avoiding the onrushing tide of the evening rush, I careened down the wrong side of the road for 100 yards or so, finally screeching out of traffic into a quiet warren of residential streets I hoped I knew better than he did. He never caught up to me, but I spent the next several days worrying that he had had the presence of mind to copy down my license plate and somehow trace my address. In telling this story, I am gambling that, more than 20 years later, he’s not still lurking out there, waiting for me to give myself away.—Steven Goldman

13) Stick with What You Know
As a lifelong Manhattan resident and maybe the only member of Baseball Prospectus without a license, the scariest thing to happen to me while driving was having to pass an oncoming car on a dirt road I'd believed deserted during one of my few forays behind the wheel. I managed to avoid striking both the unsuspecting motorist and the ditch I nearly entered in my overcautious attempt to spare him, thereby simultaneously confirming my suspicion that everything I needed to know in life I'd learned in Grand Theft Auto and keeping both myself and my streak of consecutive days without having to give anyone a ride to the airport alive.—Ben Lindbergh
 
14) Mr. Kahrl
July, 2006. I was driving on I-66 from my home in Fairfax in towards the Beltway to drop in on Equality Virginia's field office to talk about doing some volunteer work to help campaign against the Marshall-Newman Amendment. Weekday or not, early afternoon or not, we're crawling along in stop-and-go traffic, around 10-15 mph. The VDOT van in front of me stopped that fraction of a second faster than I expected, and for that millisecond too long, it registers that he's come to a complete stop.

That pause costs me: I hit his bumper. Nobody's air bag goes off, not at this speed. There's an embarrassed pause, I can't see how badly my car's been damaged—not very—but we immediately pull over to the inside shoulder.

So far, so good. I'm an idiot and I'm embarrassed, but the Va. Department of Transportation guys—a West African emigre behind the wheel and a beefy, 50-something old-timer riding shotgun—are good-natured and intent on making sure that I'm okay. It's blisteringly hot, and they genially offer me a Gatorade from their cooler as we swelter and wait for a policeman to eventually show up and collect an incident report. I call Equality Virginia to apologize that I won't make my appointment and then my insurance company—just your average dumb day on the road, the sort of thing you'd rather avoid, but happily enough, nobody's hurt. The rest should be a matter of logistics.

And then the state trooper arrived. He looks at me and then my driver's license, which in Virginia has to have one key letter instead of another. He decides right off the bat that he doesn't much care for the cut of my jib. He sets the tone at the outset, referring to me as "Mr. Kahrl" with a snigger; it's a good three years past the time that title would have been appropriate. With transparent glee, he walks me to his patrol car and chucks me into the back. He immediately demands my confession to driving recklessly. At 10 mph. In a low-velocity fender-bender so slo-mo that nobody's air bag went off.

With the familiar habit of youth, I turn to an old litany from Frank Herbert's pen: "I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death." It's all I remember, but it's all I've ever bothered to. I try to patiently tell him what happened, copping to what I'm guilty of; I figure my best bet is to be polite, direct, stick to the facts, and not rise to the bait. This could get worse; he knows I'm frightened, but getting angry is sure to make it worse.

After asking me again and again if I wouldn't rather change my story to suit his spin on events, he declares that he'd like to charge me anyway, laughs and says, "See you in court, Mister Kahrl. I'll be there; I never miss my court dates. Good luck," he adds with a final sneer before letting me out of his car.

So, a fairly miserable day, with a trip to the auto body shop I've been directed to and so much more to look forward to. But happily, all's well that ends well. Six weeks or so later, we're in court, and my jack-booted friend stomps up to his podium in front of the judge, and I go to my own, resigned over my predicament; maybe I'll get a fair shake, maybe not, but the best I can do is give my version and provide the information from the insurance company on the damage, as well as the observation that I could not have been moving at the velocity the officer made up without the air bags going off.

The judge, a polite, soft-spoken gentleman with a meticulously well-groomed beard, asks the trooper to lead off with his report. Beaming, the trooper starts in with a familiar tone: "Well, Mister Kahrl..."

The judge interrupts, "You do mean Ms. Kahrl, don't you?" with an arched eyebrow and a hard stare. It is not really a question, let alone a suggestion.

The already quiet courtroom goes very, very still. The trooper stands there, goggling. He stammers for a second before changing tack and starting in again, but he never recovers that swagger, let alone that voice of confidence.

Hope replaces my initial sense of resignation of doing my best and hoping that whatever minor godling of vehicular justice there is might spare me on this day; certainly, I had no expectation that I'd have cause to be actually happy.

It all winds up a minor rout as the VDOT driver confirms my comments on the incident, which is also confirmed by the insurance paperwork and the photos I have handy. The judge wishes me a good day, and I walk away with a quiet victory. If I've come away from this with an unpleasant memory of the capriciousness of one man with a badge, I've also picked up a measure of gratitude to one man on the bench for his simple courtesy, not to mention my debt to a few good guys from VDOT, all people who showed generous civility. —Christina Kahrl

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