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Tuesday, September 18, 2012
Getting hit by a batted ball

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

Brandon McCarthy is out of the hospital, he's at home, and his exceptionally clever and funny tweets suggest that he's going to be all right. Still, keep praying.

On Sept. 5, McCarthy was hit by a line drive on the right side of the head by the Angels' Erick Aybar. The sound was sickening, the ricochet so forceful that A's third baseman Josh Donaldson fielded the ball on one hop and threw Aybar out at first. McCarthy went down in a heap but never lost consciousness and, without help, miraculously walked off the field.

Brandon McCarthy
Brandon McCarthy walked off the field after getting hit by a line drive on the right side of his head back on Sept. 5.

McCarthy suffered an epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion and a skull fracture. Two hours of surgery on his brain perhaps saved his life. He won't pitch again this season, and we can only hope he will next year. But if not, everyone will understand. He was 55 feet from home plate when he got hit in the head by a rock-hard baseball traveling over 100 mph. Only a baseball player would consider going back out there, as McCarthy assuredly will. The rest of us wouldn't have the courage to go near a mound again with a hitter at the plate. That's what separates them from us, and for that alone, they deserve our total admiration.

One week later, Astros reliever Mickey Storey was hit in the right side of the jaw by a line drive off the bat of the Cubs' Dave Sappelt. The ball first glanced off Storey's right shoulder before hitting him in the jaw, but amazingly, he never went to the ground. He just hunched over, holding his face. He, too, walked off the mound under his own power. After the game, he was coherent in every way, answering questions from reporters and seeming all right.

"It is kind of scary,'' former pitcher Orel Hershiser said. "I tell fans, 'You know how scary it is when you go to a batting cage, you're not even standing in the box, and the ball is coming in at 80 or 90 mph, and it's going right down the middle?' For a pitcher, the ball is coming back much faster than we can throw it. Imagine it coming at you, as a pitcher, at 115 mph. You have just launched the ball, you are not still, and your eyes are not steady. If it's coming right at you, there is no time to move. You can't put a helmet on a pitcher unless it's really lightweight. You'll never see a pitcher wearing a cage like a hockey goalie. You can't put up a screen in front of the mound. You're a pitcher, you're a competitor, you can't think about getting hit. It's part of the game. You can't think about it.''

Pitchers are hit by batted balls every day and live to tell about it. Here are just a few stories.

• April 4, 1994, was Mike Wilson's 21st birthday. He was supposed to throw five innings that day for the Tigers in spring training in Lakeland, Fla., but the first five went so well, his pitching coach asked whether he could go the sixth to work on his changeup. "Sure,'' Wilson said. "What do I care?''

That inning, Boo Thompson hit a changeup that was traveling 100 mph when it hit Wilson in the mouth. "I never saw the ball,'' Wilson said. The ball was moving with such force, it hit Wilson's mouth, then hit his glove, and still landed at home plate.

"I blacked out for 10 seconds,'' Wilson said. "When I came to, I was lying on my back. Blood was pouring out of my mouth. It felt like there was nothing left in my mouth. It destroyed my upper bridge. It tore a hole into my nasal cavity. I put my hand to my mouth, and two teeth fell into my hand. The third tooth that was knocked out landed at second base. Our second baseman brought it to me.''

"Is this yours?'' the second baseman asked.

It was so bloody, Wilson's catcher ran off the field to vomit. Wilson walked off the field and went to the hospital in his blood-soaked uniform. His molars were attached to his teeth, as if they had been stapled. "The oral surgeon looked at me and said, 'Oh mercy, I'm speechless,'" Wilson said. "I thought, 'Great, I can't talk, either.'"

The nurse got ill looking at Wilson and had to leave the room. "The pain was the worst I've ever felt,'' he said. "That night, I thought, 'Thank God I'm alive. Two inches higher, I'm dead.' I've never seen anything in baseball as bad as what happened to me. Other players told me the same.''

Wilson was in surgery for three hours. ("I woke up during surgery; it was not a good day,'' he said.) Ten days later, he was playing catch; two more weeks later, he was facing live hitters in a minor league game. But he had lost so much strength after being hit, his velocity had dropped from 94 mph to 85. He was no longer able to throw his curveball because he was not finishing his motion: When he was ready to release the ball, all he was concerned about was landing in proper fielding position because in proper fielding position, he might have been able to deflect that line drive.

In Wilson's first game back, a line drive went five feet over his head. "I didn't realize it, but I was ducking,'' he said. "My coaches told me I was scared. I said, 'No, I'm not.' I was flinching. I couldn't get over that. I had to see the tape to believe it. As I was going in to the pitch, I was not scared. But when the ball was hit back at me, or if I didn't see where the ball was hit, I'd get scared. … You know, I've never said that before, but I was scared. Psychologically, I was scarred.''

Wilson never regained his velocity or his curveball. In June 1996, the Tigers released him. "On one pitch,'' said Larry Parrish, then Wilson's manager in the minor leagues, "he went from prospect to no chance.'' After getting released, Wilson retired. His front seven teeth are fake. He keeps his two front teeth in a jar at home.

Why?

"I keep them to remind me how life can change in just a second,'' he said.

Another couple of teeth are lost somewhere on the field in Lakeland. Wilson never has nightmares about that accident. "But,'' he said, "players from both teams told me that they have had nightmares about it. The funny thing is, I've had a recurring dream ever since I was 8 years old. It's not about drowning or anything. My dream is always about getting hit in the teeth with a baseball … and then my worst nightmare came true.''

Bryce Florie
It was a scary sight when Bryce Florie was hit in the right eye by a batted ball during the 2000 season.

• Nightmare? Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie was hit in the right eye by a line drive by Ryan Thompson of the Yankees on Sept. 8, 2000.

"It was like it was in slow motion, I saw the ball except for a split second,'' Florie said. "I was lying on the ground; blood was pouring out of my eye. I could hear myself screaming, but no one could hear me because there were 35,000 there that night. It felt like the right side of my face was on fire. And I couldn't see. "When [trainer] Jimmy Rowe got out there, I asked him, 'Is my eye still there?' I knew it was bad, but I didn't know how bad it was because I couldn't see it. I've seen it on tape about 25 times. The first five times I saw it, I just cried. I couldn't believe that was me. I thought, 'Oh my God.'"

Florie was taken straight to the hospital. A doctor, using scissors, with Florie awake and watching, snipped off a part of his eye to relieve the pressure on the optic nerve. "There was a bucket next to me,'' Florie said. "It was full of blood. I had puked up a bucket full of blood.''

A week later, he had surgery. "They pushed my nose back over where it was supposed to be,'' he said. "They put plates in my cheek. I was out for a whole day. When I came to, I could see my mother, but I couldn't see all of her. I could see her forehead, but I couldn't see the middle of her torso. The rest was black. There was a pool of blood in my eye.''

Soon after the surgery, Florie's vision was so bad, he tried to tie his shoes in the car and smashed his head on the dashboard. "I would try to drink from a straw,'' he said. "But I couldn't see well enough to put the straw in my mouth. It was sticking in my cheek, but I couldn't feel it because I had no feeling in my cheek.''

Two months after surgery, Florie tried throwing a tennis ball up against his house, something he did a million times as a kid, only this time, he missed it consistently. "My brother [Bryan, his twin] and I played catch in the yard,'' he said. "We bought some cheap balls at Sports Authority, balls that come in little bags. We had to keep the ball in the bag because the bag would slow down the ball. When my brother threw regular ball, I'd miss it, and it would roll down the street.''

Less than five months after being hit in the eye, Florie was throwing off a mound. A month after that, he was in spring training with the Red Sox, throwing batting practice from behind a screen. "I was scared, I was nervous, I was as petrified as a man can be, but I was as happy as can be because I had made it back,'' he said. "I couldn't see the ball. Half of my brain was saying that I was doing the right thing, the other half was saying, 'You dumba--, what are you doing out here?' When I'd finished my first [batting practice], I went down the left field line, sat on my a-- and cried like a baby. I had made it back. But when Manny [Ramirez] hit a line drive that hit the screen forehead high, that was when the Red Sox ended my comeback attempt. They didn't think I could get out of the way fast enough.''

Two months later, Florie was pitching to a hitter on a back field in Fort Myers, Fla., this time without a screen. "I had a lot of problems, my vision in that eye was 20-80, it used to be 20-20,'' he said. "I saw the hitter, I saw the bat, but I threw every pitch real far inside or real far outside because I didn't want the hitter to hit the ball. I wanted him to swing and miss. And I didn't want it hit back up the middle.

"Since being hit, I've been hit twice, both times in the wrist. No big deal. But I flinched all the time. On a ground ball to the shortstop, when I was finished ducking and finished flinching, I was looking right at second base. Baseball players are cruel anyway, but they laughed at me. You can't pitch, especially in the big leagues, if you're going to flinch on every pitch. I had to get over that.''

It's a miracle that a pitcher hasn't been killed by line drive, especially with the size and strength of today's hitters.

• Herb Score was 36-19 in his career, a left-hander with Hall of Fame stuff, when he was hit in eye by a line drive by Gil McDougald on May 7, 1957. That essentially ended his career, although Score said it was arm injuries, not a line drive to the face, that ended his career.

• Former pitcher Byron McLaughlin has a plate in his right cheek courtesy of a line drive hit by Harold Baines: The ball was traveling 108 mph when it hit him.

• Reliever Dan Plesac was hit in the right thigh by a line drive off the bat of Shawon Dunston in spring training of 1987. Remarkably, he finished the inning. "I went to the clubhouse,'' Plesac said. "There was a white spot from the ball. The next day, my leg was black down to my knee. It stayed black, with the white ball spot, until the All-Star break.''

• Former pitcher Wally Whitehurst often got hit on the mound, none harder than the shot he took to his right thigh off Kevin Mitchell's bat in 1991. Whitehurst was asked in 1995 whether he is still affected by that. "Absolutely,'' he said, extending his right arm. It was covered with goose bumps. He broke out in a sweat at the thought. This was four years later.

• Reliever Norm Charlton, then a Phillie, was hit in the forehead by a 100 mph line drive by Steve Finley in 1995. Charlton was bleeding as he walked off the field but was the first one in the clubhouse the next morning, prepared to pitch. (He didn't.) "I had two black eyes and a huge bump in my forehead, I looked like a unicorn,'' he said. "A couple days after, I had to go buy a TV. I looked so deformed, the sales girl was afraid to wait on me. She had to leave. The store manager had to finish the sale.''

Charlton was traded to the Mariners that year. "The video guy there had a tape of that play, but he told me he didn't have it because I know he didn't want me to see it,'' Charlton said. "I wanted to see it. I enjoyed seeing it because I knew I was ready to pitch the next day.''

It was like it was in slow motion, I saw the ball except for a split second. I was lying on the ground, blood was pouring out of my eye.

-- Former pitcher Bryce Florie
on getting hit in the face

How can he explain not being afraid?

"Because,'' said Charlton. "I'm an idiot.''

He's a baseball player.

And, Charlton said, "what are the odds of that happening again?'' Less than four hours after saying that, the White Sox's Frank Thomas hit a line drive at Charlton. He got his glove up in time to slow it down, but it hit him between the eyes, breaking his nose. He walked off in a trail of blood and asked trainer Richie Bancells, "How bad is it? I've got a date.''

• Pitcher Willie Blair, then with the Tigers, was hit in the jaw by Milwaukee's Julio Franco in 1997. "I heard the sound from the bullpen, and it was sickening,'' said catcher Brian Johnson. Detroit pitching coach Rick Adair said, "It sounded like a boat oar slapping a slab of meat. It was absolutely horrible. My first reaction: Willie is dead.'' Adair and manager Buddy Bell went to see Blair in the hospital that night. His jaw was wired shut. "The first thing he said was, 'I'll be ready to throw Friday,'" Adair said. And he was -- five days after suffering a fractured jaw. He returned to the major leagues four weeks after being hit in the jaw and went 13-6 the rest of the season, the best stretch of his career. He changed his delivery -- he didn't fly open, he stayed more compact -- when he returned, allowing him to land in better fielding position. The mechanical change improved his stuff.

"It was a freak thing, I got over it right away.'' Blair said. "I never thought about getting hit the next time out. I was anxious to get it out of my mind. After that, I still got hit three or four times. On my first start on a rehab assignment, a guy hit one right over my head. The catcher came running out yelling, 'Are you OK, are you OK?' I laughed. I said 'I'm all right, let's go.' In my first start back [Jason] Giambi hit me in the right forearm. I fell right on my back. The next time out Matt Lawton hit me in the right wrist, then the stomach, but I got him out. I've been hit a lot of times, but none like when Franco hit me.''

Blair laughed. "I never went to see a psychiatrist after that. I didn't want to get all screwed up," he said.

It's amazing that anyone can laugh after something like that, but these are baseball players. This is their living. They are different from the rest of us. They stand in front of a baseball when others would not.

Brandon McCarthy is different from the rest of us. He sat in his hospital bed after brain surgery, tweeting all sorts of things, all of them lucid. He is 29 years old, and he has a great arm. You can bet he will pitch again, or at least attempt it. He is a baseball player. They are hard men playing a hard game. Never bet against one of them.

When Hershiser was asked what he will say to McCarthy when he next sees him, he said, "I will tell him that I will be rooting for his comeback. There will be hurdles, but you have to erase what has happened. You're tough. Now you'll have to be tougher than tough.''