A curiously little-known episode in baseball history is the one in which, during a 2011 game against the Los Angeles Dodgers, a moth flew into the ear of Cardinals left-fielder Matt Holliday and refused to fly out. Holliday was led off of the field and into a dark room by his trainers, who, according to team spokesman Brian Bartow, shined a powerful light into his ear in an unsuccessful attempt to lure the insect out before finally retrieving it by means of an unspecified “utensil.” Holliday returned to play in the following game. The moth lived.

Avery DiUbaldo

This story, for some unknown reason, has bothered me consistently in the years since I first read it. In considering it, I am forced to raise several questions, which I will list here in no particular order:

1. What brought the moth to Holliday’s ear? Common wisdom holds that moths are drawn to light sources. There were no light sources inside Matt Holliday’s ear.

2. How did Holliday become aware of the moth? Did he feel it crawling through his skull, or did he hear it? If so, what did he hear? The fluttering of wings? Or was the moth so close to his eardrum that he could hear its breath?

3. If the moth hadn’t flown into Holliday’s ear because it had been looking for a light, then why would his trainers think that a light might have encouraged it to fly out again? Is it not more likely that the moth was in fact seeking the sort of darkness which, in the blaze of the stadium, could only be found inside Matt Holliday? Wouldn’t shining a light in his ear be counterproductive?

4. What was the nature of the “utensil” employed to remove the moth? Was it a pair of tweezers? A dental pick? And why the word “utensil?” Was it too embarrassing for Mr. Bartow to admit that the St. Louis Cardinals had operated on their star slugger with a pair of chopsticks or a lobster fork?

5. In what condition was the moth when it was finally delivered from its hiding place? We know that it was still alive, but was it injured? Disoriented? Did it flutter about the room in confusion — or joy, or fury? Can a moth feel fury? Is it even appropriate to speculate on the emotional state of a creature whose inner life is so different from our own? Or, to put it another way, are moths beyond the realm of empathy?

Empathy, wrote author Rebecca Solnit, finds its verbal manifestation in storytelling. One reason to tell a story well, or to listen to one, is to attempt to “know” another, to share in an existence outside your own. I have been granted a single life, this one, and, as far as I can tell, I will not be so fortunate as to have another. I am not a young girl living in China, and I never will be, nor will I be a man born with one eye, nor will I be the Shah of Persia. But I can listen to their stories, and in doing so, take glimpses into their lives. It’s all that I can do.

I am not Matt Holliday. All I know of him at this moment is his story, the story of Matt and the moth. The above questions, while almost certainly unanswerable, are an attempt to elaborate on that story, an exercise in empathy.

It is possible that the following question does not have any answer at all:

6. When Holliday laid himself to bed later that night, did he feel different?

A trapped moth is no good company, and to pretend that Holliday felt any kind of loss at its removal is to reach for a meaning, or a moral, where no such thing can be found. But it is worth noting that, in all the years before that evening, Matt Holliday had been the only occupant of his own body. He was, as Dickens intimated, the solitary passenger of his own separate carriage, never to enter the carriage of another.

And then, suddenly, he was not. His skull, the skull that had always held only one life, only one mind, now held two, and an alien breathed alien breath in his ear. Where once you could point and say only “Matt,” you could now say either “Matt” or “moth” and be correct both times.

Then it was gone. And he was alone.

Avery DiUbaldo can be reached at diubaldo@umich.edu.

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