Five years ago Jeff Ballard unknowingly put his career in jeopardy while serving on the players association negotiating team trying to resolve a labor dispute. It is a decision he came to regret.
This time around, the ex-Oriole left-hander is as far removed from negotiations as his Billings, Mont., home would suggest. He said he thinks a settlement between the owners and players is long overdue -- but isn't overly concerned that his career could be over.
These days Ballard is just glad to be alive. Had it not been for his seat belt, he may well have been another highway statistic.
It was four weeks ago yesterday that Ballard escaped death, or possible permanent paralysis, after a near head-on collision on an isolated two-lane highway in Idaho.
"I was driving to Stanford [his alma mater in Northern California] to get ready, like I always do, in case they settled [the strike] in time for spring training," said Ballard.
"A semi [tractor-trailer] came across the median line and, I guess, hit me almost head-on. I really don't know exactly what happened -- I don't remember anything about it. There's kind of a void.
"All I know is that when I came to, I hurt. It's a good thing I was driving something big -- the same 1988 Bronco I had when I was in Baltimore."
According to Cpl. Ismael Gonzales, a five-year veteran of the Idaho State Police, it's also a good thing Ballard was wearing his seat belt.
"He was very lucky," said Gonzales. "He told me he was wearing his seat belt and I think that's what saved him."
For Ballard, who is used to driving long distances, it was a natural reaction.
"Whenever I'm out driving like that," he said, "I've always been pretty diligent about wearing my seat belt."
When Gonzales arrived on the scene, on U.S. Route 20 in Island Park, Idaho, Ballard had already been transported via ambulance to the hospital in Rexburg.
"It was snowing and very windy," he said.
"The semi was headed north when a snow plow [traveling ahead of Ballard] passed in the opposite direction," said Gonzales. "The truck driver was blinded by swirling snow and went to the left of the center line. He and Jeff saw each other at the last instant and both veered to their right, which enabled them to avoid hitting full head-on."
Still, when he observed the scene, Gonzales was not optimistic.
"When I saw the Bronco, my first reaction was that the driver was either dead -- or would die," he said. "I remember taking extra time taking my measurements."
Ballard said he isn't sure how he got out of his vehicle, but vaguely remembers being helped to a store, where emergency assistance was requested.
"They had the Steelers playoff game on and I asked what the score was," said Ballard, who spent most of last year with the Pittsburgh Pirates. "It seemed important at the time -- I was hoping to listen to that game on the radio."
After spending three days in a hospital in Rexburg, Ballard was released after being diagnosed as having four crushed ribs and extensive bruises in the areas of both arms, his left hip and thigh. It wasn't until his parents returned him to their home in Billings that it was discovered Ballard also had suffered a fractured vertebra in his neck.
"They had to fuse the C6 and C7 vertebrae after taking bone from my hip," said Ballard. "Two scars for the price of one."
Dr. Steve Rizzolo, who headed the orthopedic team that performed the surgery, labeled Ballard's injury as "career-threatening, if not ending, considering his previous problems.
"It was a severe fracture that left his spine unstable," said Rizzolo. "With much more force [from the accident], or without correction, the injury was potentially capable of paralyzing Jeff from the neck down. Probably because of muscle spasms, the fracture wasn't as apparent on his X-rays in Idaho, which is not unusual.
"We realigned the vertebrae and held them together with a plate, wire and screws and took a bone graft from his pelvis so they would fuse together."
With a plate and screws helping to keep his body together, Ballard would have a tough time passing through a metal detector. He's also wearing a collar around his neck, which will stay on for another two months.
He had been looking forward to rejuvenating his career in 1995, but that is of little concern to Ballard at the moment. "After seeing pictures [of the vehicle], I'm lucky to be breathing. I was very fortunate."
In 1990, Ballard was the Orioles' player representative and was coming off an 18-win season. He also underwent off-season surgery to remove chips from his elbow.
He was part of the team that negotiated away his rights to arbitration that year -- which union director Donald Fehr noted was a strong example of the players' willingness to compromise. In the process of helping arrange a settlement, however, Ballard's rehabilitation program suffered a severe setback.
"It was a stupid thing to do then," Ballard says now. Does he have any regrets? "Yeah -- I wasn't in a good enough physical state to be doing all of that.