OAKLAND I've been going to baseball games for 40 years and they've almost always been joyful experiences. But that changed Wednesday with the crack of a bat and the sickening sound of a baseball striking a human head.
A's starter Brandon McCarthy, a thinking man amid language-mangling jocks, didn't have time to put up a hand in defense when a screaming line drive slammed into the right side of his head in the top of the fourth inning.
The 6-foot-7 McCarthy hit the deck in one frightening motion as fans and players reacted in horror.
Struck with great force off the bat of Los Angeles Angels shortstop Erick Aybar, the baseball ricocheted just above McCarthy's right ear and then bounced to A's third baseman Josh Donaldson with enough speed for Donaldson to field it and throw out the speedy Aybar at first.
I've never felt so sick at a ballgame and I know I'm not the only one who felt that way at O.co Coliseum.
Not a man prone to exaggeration known to be cool and droll in the clubhouse and on Twitter McCarthy grabbed his head frantically and then forced himself to sit up before he should have.
The A's medical staff and his manager, coaches and teammates ran to their fallen colleague with great concern. Aybar looked stunned at first and then as if he wanted to cry. He could be seen in the Angels' dugout a short time later, cupping his head in his hands.
Who could blame him?
Until McCarthy got up and walked off the field under his own power, with his team trailing 3-1 in an eventual 7-1 loss, a lot of people were feeling emotions normally a world apart from an afternoon at the ballpark.
McCarthy was quickly taken to nearby Summit Hospital, where he was described as alert. But doctors kept him overnight as a precaution, and he won't be with his teammates when they depart for a critical trip today.
You wish there would never be fear in baseball. But in those moments when everyone present feared for McCarthy, the competitive stakes of Wednesday's game became meaningless.
Despite there being only 15,404 paying customers in the house, Wednesday's game was hugely important for the playoff fortunes of both teams.
Before Wednesday, the Angels had come in here and won the first two games of this series the A's first back-to-back losses since the second week of August.
Oakland will spend much of September on the road, vying for an unexpected playoff spot amid a killer schedule, and the A's were loath to lose again to the Angels before packing off to Seattle.
But lose they did. The gray skies over Oakland and the futility of A's batters were emblematic of a troubling, frustrating day for the home team.
With the speed of social media, concern for McCarthy poured in from across the digital universe as the Angels frustrated the A's on the field.
Before McCarthy had even been taken to the hospital as a precaution, he was trending worldwide on Twitter. You would hope that your name would be trending worldwide on Twitter just below #DNC2012 and God and Jerusalem for happier reasons.
McCarthy would never view himself this way, but Wednesday's accident was the latest setback for a hard-luck young man. He has been plagued by shoulder issues in his pitching arm and always seems to be on a roll when he encounters misfortune.
The 29-year-old is almost as well known for his funny, irreverent Twitter posts and for his social consciousness. He's raised money for victims of wildfires in his native Colorado. And most impressively, he took to Twitter earlier this season to stick up for gay people, who he felt were being demeaned at some major league ballparks.
McCarthy is a good guy at a time when they sometimes appear to be in short demand in big-league baseball.
As for the A's? They had won a season-high nine in a row before the Angels swept them. The A's story of the bargain-basement club still in the playoff hunt when no one expected it is still a viable story.
But as Wednesday illustrated, sometimes the best stories of summer don't translate come fall, when competition and fortunes can be very cruel.
The A's are embarking on a brutal stretch of games against some of the best teams in the American League. They are going to have to earn that playoff spot no one expects them to get.
Hopefully, they can do it with McCarthy back on the mound in September and with Wednesday's scare but a memory buried in the past.
Editor's note: This story was changed Sept. 6 to give the correct hashtag #DNC2012.