Any other day, Buck would have made a joke about it. About being lowered from a stretcher onto a gurney, motionless, through the tight-fit doorway of a lean jet plane--Buck Rodgers, lost in space. About being secured with taut elastic straps, as rigidly as Hannibal Lecter in "Silence of the Lambs," which is the very sort of anything-for-a-laugh comparison the California Angels' manager himself would have made, had he the strength.
But this was not the time, hardly the place. To know Bob (Buck) Rodgers the way so many do, know him to be one of the more robust figures of professional baseball, garrulous and good-natured as anyone in the game, made the sight of him being transferred Saturday from a medical-emergency aircraft to an ambulance and then on to a hospital, far too heavily sedated to utter a word let alone make jokes, an extremely difficult scene to watch.
Frank Sims, the team's traveling secretary, in considerable pain but counting his blessings, stood by.
"I guess God looks out for all of his Angels in many different ways," Sims said.
Rodgers spent much of Saturday's flight from Philadelphia under heavy medication, waking up periodically to ask nurse Sherry Sefcik for water or to ask Sims for details of the Angels' game Friday night at Baltimore. (They lost, 5-3.) Forced to remain horizontal for several hours on the airplane's built-in gurney and wincing in pain with his injured arm propped on pillows, Rodgers endured an uncomfortable coast-to-coast journey, made longer by a stopover in Salina, Kan., for refueling.
"How were his spirits?" Ned Bergert, who accompanied Rodgers on the flight, was asked.
"I think you can safely say they've been better," the Angels' trainer replied.
Team orthopedist Lewis Yocum also was aboard and said Rodgers' surgery at Centinela Hospital Medical Center would be scheduled for this morning at the earliest, adding: "It depends on the extent of the injuries, but I think we're talking a recovery period of several weeks, minimum." John Wathan is managing the team in Rodgers' place.
Doctors also have injured players to care for, among them infielder Alvin Davis, who also returned home Saturday. Davis has a kidney injury that could require his being placed on the disabled list and was left shaking his head at continued bad luck when his and his wife's commercial flight from Philadelphia was canceled at the last minute.
First off the Med Escort jet at the private Garrett Aviation airfield near Los Angeles International earlier in the afternoon were Sims, with six painful cracked ribs but enough pride that he was resisting the suggestion of a corset; and Bergert, his forehead dotted with a nasty contusion, with a bruised kidney in need of further examination but nonetheless determined to be back at work by Tuesday.
Next to Rodgers, they felt lucky.
They accompanied him on the long trip from Philadelphia, where the 53-year-old manager had been hospitalized with a broken left knee and shattered right elbow since the accident early Thursday that sent the team's bus careening from the New Jersey Turnpike into a grove of trees. Whatever bad luck there was caused the bus to crash, injuring and terrifying Angel players and personnel, was offset by the blessing of the trees' having intercepted the bus before it could go hurtling into a nearby pond.
"That was probably the difference," Bergert said. "The difference between injuries and deaths."
Sims still shuddered from the memory of the bus jackknifing through the woods, saying: "Those trees were snapping like matchsticks. Now that I think back on it, I can't believe some of those branches didn't pierce right through the bus."
Players could have been impaled. As it was, some of the 18 passengers went somersaulting from seat to seat, face-first into seat backs and window panes, showered with shards of glass. Rodgers, seated in the first row on the side opposite the driver, bore the brunt of the blow as the nose of the bus made its initial impact. One of the first things Sims noticed upon regaining his own senses was Rodgers, crumpled and blood soaked, virtually in a fetal position.
It reminded Sims of his own seat, and how he came to be there and how his life might have been saved by having sat there.
"I usually take the seat in the first row, opposite Buck, behind the driver, so Buck and I can talk," Sims explained. This time the seat was in the second row.
"Because I wanted to see the movie," he said.
Two buses carried the Angels' traveling party from New York that night, and both had in-transit movies--a new feature of chartered bus travel, in pace with today's airlines. The second bus ran a videotape of "Dances With Wolves," the Oscar-winning film starring Kevin Costner. The first bus showed "Delta Force II," an action feature with Chuck Norris. It was this choice that influenced many of the passengers as to which bus to board. Twenty took the second bus. Eighteen picked the first.
The first bus crashed.
Leading Sims to say: "I think a lot of people now wish they had seen 'Dances With Wolves' again. I think some of us feel like we were in that 'Delta Force' thing."