No longer 'why me?' -- now it's 'when me?'

January 12, 1994|By Terry A. Dalton

FIGURE skater Nancy Kerrigan's clubbing last week in Detroit reminded me of Eddie Waitkus and what it takes today to get our attention when it comes to random acts of violence.

Waitkus played baseball when Truman and Eisenhower were in the White House. He was a better-than-average first baseman, initially for the Chicago Cubs and later the Philadelphia Phillies. But he is most remembered for a violent incident involving a "fan" that shocked the nation.

Waitkus, a bachelor, was invited to a room at the Edgewater Beach Hotel in Chicago late one June night in 1949 by a 19-year-old woman he did not know. There, Ruth Ann Steinhagen took out a .22 caliber rifle and shot the first baseman in the chest. She was said to be infatuated with Waitkus but clearly chose an unconventional way to express her love.

Waitkus survived, and actually was able to resume his career, which ended quietly in 1955. That same year, a six-year-old charge of assault with intent to kill against Steinhagen was dropped after doctors testified she had been incapable of determining right from wrong that June night at the hotel.

Years later, the Waitkus shooting was revived -- first in author Bernard Malamud's novel, "The Natural," and later in the baseball movie of the same name, with Robert Redford taking the bullet from a fictionalized version of Ruth Ann Steinhagen.

Which brings us back to Nancy Kerrigan, and the deranged man who smashed her right knee with a metal bar inside the Joe Louis arena last Thursday. It reminded us, of course, of the horrific stabbing incident last April involving tennis star Monica Seles, who has yet to resume playing. In Miss Seles' case, the assailant apparently acted out of an infatuation with rival tennis star Steffi Graf. No one knows what prompted Nancy Kerrigan's attacker.

Speaking of Miss Seles, who could not be impressed by her reaction the Kerrigan incident? "Crimes against us are more public," she said of assaults against star athletes, "but no more tragic than what happens to too many innocent victims every day." And how right she is!

But violence against ordinary victims has become so common, so expected, that our reaction to it is measured in seconds, not tears. Only the most horrifying or bizarre acts of violence today seem capable of making us stop for more than a moment to consider the consequences, ponder the pain, share the senselessness.

Sadly, just as the startling Eddie Waitkus shooting in 1949 moved violence from the front page to the sports page, it may once again take violence against an athlete -- a Seles stabbing, a Kerrigan clubbing, a Larry Stewart shooting -- to force us to think the unthinkable: There, but for the grace of God, go I. And in that respect, something good may actually come of these incidents.

For until we accept the fact that no one is safe from wanton violence -- whether it be alongside a tennis court or inside a tenement house -- we will think of a reason to put this epidemic of killing and maiming out of our mind at a time when it desperately needs to be confronted. In much the same way, alcoholism didn't get our full attention until Betty Ford spoke out; AIDS remained a disease affecting "other people" until Rock Hudson, Magic Johnson and Arthur Ashe were afflicted; breast cancer seldom made headlines until nationally-known figures like Nancy Reagan and Betty Rollin suffered.

"My hope," Monica Seles said in reacting to Nancy Kerrigan's assault, "is that this kind of terrible incident will focus society as a whole on something we can all do to stop senseless violence against innocent victims."

We might begin by asking ourselves who among us is truly safe from violence in the land. One answer came from an unexpected source last week. Robin Williams, the comedian, appeared on the Baltimore-based police drama "Homicide." He played an Iowa tourist who takes his family to a baseball game at Camden Yards. After the game, Mr. Williams' character's wife is shot to death outside the ballpark. Later, Mr. Williams sits on a swing in a playground and ponders the ever-shortening odds of escaping the horror of violence.

"It's no longer 'why me?' " Williams tells a detective, "it's 'when me?' "

L Terry Dalton teaches journalism at Western Maryland College.

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