"Writing is like painting," says Associate Editor Mark Kram. "I freeze a scene in my head like a stop-action camera, study the colors and try to feel the mood. A story is a series of colorful scenes arranged to lead the reader to whatever it is I aim to say. The more vivid the scene, the better the story."
The inspiration for Their Lives Are on the Line, which begins on page 32, is a tableau that has lingered with special vividness in Kram's stop-action camera for almost 20 years. It is May 1956 in Minot, N. Dak. Kram, a struggling 22-year-old second baseman for the visiting Class-D Dickinson (N. Dak.) Packers, steps up. The lights atop the rickety stanchions emit a dim haze; bugs swarm over first base and sheep graze behind the center-field fence. Kram digs in and looks toward the mound. A tall righthander pumps, kicks and releases a smoking fastball. As the ball approaches the plate. Kram sees it only as a white blur zooming toward his head. Something inside screams at him to duck. He freezes.
"The ball must have slipped," says Kram. "Who would intentionally bean a .250 hitter still in D ball in his third year as a pro?" The pitch struck Kram above the left ear and knocked him out. He has a fuzzy memory of an ambulance arriving and taking him to a nearby hospital, where he spent a week recovering.
At Calvert Hall high school in Baltimore, Kram had made second-team All-State in 1953 largely because of his batting. But when he rejoined the Packers he discovered he could no longer hit. "The fear of freezing at bat and getting decked again was overwhelming," he says. He quit the Packers only a week after his return and has used neither bat nor glove since. "I consider that aspect of my life absolutely over," he says. "It is like one person stopped the day I was beaned and another person picked up."
Ever since, Kram has been interested in the phenomenon of fear, particularly its effect on athletes. "I was going to write a larger story on fear in all sports," he says, "but I saw I would never get the material. Athletes don't like to talk about it. Like most of us, they hide their real feelings about it because they equate fear with weakness. So I decided to limit myself to the most fearful thing in sport, the bean-ball. It can snuff you out real quick."
Kram avoids first-person writing whenever possible, a preference that nearly prevented him from completing the story. "Personal journalism is O.K. if the writer tells a story without giving his life history," he says. "But today it seems that everybody who goes to a supermarket and gets cheated on the bill feels compelled to write boring tomes about it and themselves. It isn't necessary to get hit in the face with a baseball to perceive the danger. After all, Stephen Crane wrote The Red Badge of Courage without ever seeing a war."