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Outside the Lines: Comebackers

Here's the transcript from Show 67 of weekly Outside The Lines - Comebackers

Host: Bob Ley, ESPN.
Reported by: Ed Werder, ESPN.
Guests: Billy Wagner, Houston Astros; Mike Flanagan, former major leaguer; Harvey Dorfman, sports psychologist.

Announcer - July 8, 2001.

Bob Ley, host - The grace and beauty of Major League Baseball can instantly explode into danger.

Unidentified pitcher - A shot in the face may be the worst fear for a pitcher.

Unidentified pitcher - It's scary to see a baseball lined at your head.

Ley - One pitch can change a life.

Bryce Florie, Boston Red Sox pitcher - It wasn't, OK my career might be over that night; it was my life that might be over that night.

Ley - And then somehow, pitchers must return to the mound.

Mike Mussina, New York Yankees pitcher - It was mentally getting over the fear that every ball I threw, every ball that someone made contact with was not coming back at me.

Ley - Today on "Outside the Lines," how pitchers face down their fears to come back to their game.

If you think that there's no crying in baseball, that the code of the stiff upper lip prevails no matter the injury or the moment, think again. One of the first numbers any kid learns is 60'6" from the pitching rubber to home plate, and while batters can anticipate each pitch, no pitcher can ever know when his world is going to explode in a dangerous millisecond, with baseball instincts competing with survival.

Bryce Florie knows this too well. His first such moment last season left him with his face shattered, his season over, and not just his career, but his eyesight endangered. So, when he fought his way back to the major leagues 10 days ago, Florie's father was reduced to tears. A couple of days later, Florie's dad was imploring his son to retire, that after another ball in another fearful eyeblink left Florie too shaken to continue pitching.

It is a fear many pitchers must learn to at least live with if they want to come back to the game. As Ed Werder reports, Florie had virtually no time to do that before his nightmare came to life again.

Announcer - That one also hits him in the face.

Joe Kerrigan, Red Sox pitching coach - It sounded like an immediate snap, back to back. There was no time in between the sound.

Announcer - He goes down, Florie in agony.

Scott Hatteberg, Red Sox catcher - You could hear it all the way out in the bullpen, and it was just -- it makes your skin crawl. It was really the scariest moment I've had in baseball.

Florie - I was like, what's that? My eye got pushed into the back of my head, and then that's when I started kicking and rolling around. And when I rolled over, I guess I felt the blood.

Announcer - Fenway Park is deathly silent.

Florie - I was saying, is my eye still there? Will I be able to see? And then came thoughts that, OK, this ball hit me going 100 mph in my head. Is there going to be brain damage or swelling or whatever it is that could have happened after that.

Kerrigan - When I arrived on the scene at the mound, I knew that he was in trouble because you could see all the blood that was forming in his eyes.

Florie - It wasn't OK, my career might be over that night, it was, my life might be over that night.

Ed Werder, ESPN reporter - Were you horrified the first time you looked in the mirror and saw yourself?

Florie - Yes -- well, I don't know if horrified was the right word. I knew I was hit, but obviously I didn't know what it looked like. I walked by a mirror, and someone told me don't look and I looked. And like a car accident, that's not me, I said.

Werder - In addition to emergency surgery, Florie underwent a later operation in which doctors inserted four titanium plates to repair the bones surrounding his right eye. Still, Florie says his appearance remains altered, his vision diminished.

Florie - My face is deformed now. My vision is not back to 20/20, which they don't know if it ever will be.

Werder - Did you talk to guys like Willie Blair, Billy Wagner, who suffered similar injuries?

Florie - Well, Willie Blair is one of my best friends in baseball. So, we talk about it a lot and I think he's a lot like me. He just recovered and says get back out there. If you want to do it, get out there.

Werder - And so as most others have chosen to do, Florie stands there again, 60'6" away, with only his safety glasses and reflexes for protection. In 1998, Mike Mussina confronted the same daunting challenges after he was hit in the face.

Mussina described the physical injuries he suffered as being almost superficial in compared to the emotional trauma he endured while returning to the mound.

Mussina - My injury, it was almost entirely mental. I mean, I got stitches and my nose was broken, but that doesn't affect the way I throw. It was mentally getting over the fear that every ball I threw, every ball that someone made contact with, was not coming back at me.

Werder - Florie has watched the tape of his harrowing September incident about 20 times.

Florie - Part of it is a process of saying, well look, this happened. This is what happened. This is what you're going to have to deal with, this is what you're going to have to answer questions to. That's is part of life.

Werder - How can you ever even think of getting to the point of putting yourself in that position again?

Florie - I don't know. Sometimes I ask myself why, and other times, I know that that's what I wanted. So, there are moments that I realize it could happen again.

Werder - And in just the third game of his comeback, it did happen again. It happened, as these things do, without warning and shattered the sense of well-being that Florie had only begun to experience again. Jeff Frey's liner left Florie with a welt on the wrist of his glove hand. When manager Jimmy Williams visited the mound, he discovered a pitcher he felt was too shaken to continue.

Florie - Obviously, I knew it wasn't bad, but at the same time, when the manager comes out and takes you out of the game because you were hit with a ball, it's not a good feeling, and then three games after what happened to me last year. So, I got into the clubhouse and I was upset, and I don't know exactly why I was upset. But I know that a lot of it had to do with the fact that those nine months that I'd had previous to this had been so tough.

Kerrigan - After we closed the inning out, I went back upstairs during our offensive end of the inning. And he was pretty emotional. He was sitting in the trainer's room.

Florie - I finally had the good cry that I needed, I guess, and that's probably the second time during the whole ordeal that I finally broke down and just lost it.

Werder - While his physical recovery was an intricate and detailed process, it wasn't until Florie was hit again last week that he realized he may have overlooked an important part of the healing process. After his emotional reaction to being struck again, the Red Sox have suggested he seek counseling. And Florie admits it may be necessary.

Florie - I never really tackled the fact that something traumatic happened to me other than by myself, and that's unfortunately the way I am. And people that know me, know that I don't say a whole lot about stuff like that.

Werder - You said he showed no fear. Are you ever scared for him when he's up there?

Kerrigan - I'm scared every time he throws the ball. I'm scared every time he pitches, and it's our responsibility to evaluate this kid, to make sure he is ready to perform. I think about it constantly when the game starts, and when we call his name down from the bullpen, I start thinking about it over and over again.

Florie - The last one that got me didn't knock me off the mound then. I'm not saying the next one won't, but I'm back. I want to play. I've been through too much to walk away from it now.

Ley - Bryce Florie's close call came last Monday. That was his third outing in five games. The Red Sox have not called on him to pitch since that close call.

Joining us this morning, Billy Wagner of the Houston Astros. And after today's game, he will be departing for a second All-Star game. He has returned from last year's arm surgery and just last evening saved his 19th game in 20 opportunities. Three years ago, he suffered a concussion on a liner back through the box.

Billy Wagner joins us this morning from Kansas City.

Mike Flanagan pitched 18 seasons in the major league, winning a Cy Young award. He's one of the great pitchers in the history of the Baltimore Orioles. He has been the O's pitching coach, he's now one of their broadcasters and he joins us from Baltimore.

Harvey Dorfman is a consultant on sports psychology working with the clients of Agent Scott Boras, including Rick Ankiel. Harvey Dorfman joins us from Brevard, North Carolina. Welcome and good morning to you all.

Billy, what echoes of your own experience do you hear when you hear Bryce Florie talk, not just about the original incident, but a close call like that?

Billy Wagner, Houston Astros pitcher - How did I get back out there, because no matter what people say, you think about it for a while every time you go back out there on the mound, is every ball coming back at me. The biggest obstacle for me was just getting back out there, and the sooner I got out there, the better I felt I would be. And you know, you want almost to recreate the situation where you know you could overcome it.

Ley - Would you show -- we're showing it right now, the tape of what happened to you. Have you ever watched the tape of what happened to you three years ago?

Wagner - No, not really.

Ley - Any particular reason?

Wagner - Well, I don't have a copy, and it's not one of my -- you know, it's not something I really want to watch or pay attention to because it's scary. It's something that, you know, as a pitcher I don't want to see it. I don't want to believe it happened that much, I guess.

Ley - Mike Flanagan, you pitched for so long, and you know and coached Mike Mussina. He's talked about this being entirely mental.

Mike Flanagan, former Baltimore Orioles pitcher - Well, that it was, and certainly after he was hit and on the disabled list for a couple of weeks, and we wanted to work on some things to prepare moves to go back. He didn't want to take ground balls off the bat. He sort of wanted to go cold turkey.

But we knew, I guess, psychologically he needed to prepare for some things, and what we wanted to do was really change his follow-through. And when he was hit that night, he peeled off towards first base, and felt that maybe he was only using, really, only one eye in his follow-through. So, I felt he was losing his depth perception. So, he wanted to change that around.

And the other thing that happens, after you have been hit by a line drive like Mussina had, what happens is that as a pitcher, you lose that in the zone feeling. What happens when you are in the zone, you don't see the batter, you don't see the bat. What you see is you hone in on the glove, and so some of the concentration skills that we worked on was for him to block out the hitter.

And we did that by, what is the writing on the heel of the catcher's mitt? Let's pull your focus into that. What is the third letter of the writing on the heel of that glove? Just trying to hone his vision away from the hitter, away from the bat, and he did it pretty successfully, though he had a hard time his first game.

Ley - Billy, did you try some exercises like that to focus your concentration?

Wagner - Actually, I didn't. I asked to be sent down to AA, and I told them to put me in the game, three or four games, and then get me back out there before the season. And when I went down to AA, I threw every single fastball away, trying to get the strength to say, you know what, I can't go out there and be scared; I can't go out there and be intimidated that a ball could be hit back at me.

And I just basically went out there, and said, you know, I'm going to face my fear, and I'm going to -- I'll either find out if I can do it or if I can't right here. And if I can't, I'll just walk away.

Ley - Well, Harvey Dorfman, we had Bryce Florie, who has watched the tape of his incident 20 times, Billy's not watched the tape of his; two different approaches.

Harvey Dorfman, sports psychologist - Absolutely, and one of the distinctions we should make, if you have Bryce or Billy, or Willie Blair or Herb Score is that it is the same situation, but it is a different experience because experience isn't what happens to you, it's how you respond to what happens to you, how you perceive what happens to you.

So, you can hear that different guys go about it in different ways. There is no one way to get it right. The proof is in the pudding. The guy who gets it back has done something right to himself, and you can't have a cookbook mentality.

Ley - So, you've got to sit down with somebody who's been through this, before you decide if you are going to work with a player -- how your approach would be for this particular guy.

Dorfman - Absolutely, you have to know who you are dealing with and first and foremost, the player has to know who he is dealing with, which is pretty helpful to know yourself, and that's why counselors can be helpful for guys who have never really tried to do that.

Ley - Billy, did you ever think about counseling, talking about somebody about it?

Wagner - You know what, I never did. When I got hit, I had vertigo, and I was having a little trouble walking and then, after that, once I could -- and plus I just had my first son. So, I was really not thinking about the concussion or thinking about the line drive back at me because there was a lot going on at that point in time. So, as soon as I was able, I asked them to send me out. So, I really didn't want to think about it or deal with it or talk about it. I just mentally wanted to go and face it on my own, and get it over with.

Ley - Now, it happened about a month ago -- less than a month ago -- three weeks ago, to a rookie on your team. Roy Oswalt got hit with a comebacker in his arm. Did you guys share any recollections? Did you counsel him at all?

Wagner - Not at all. You know what, something that I've always -- I've always felt that the more you sit out there and talk about that stuff, then you become tentative. Once you become tentative, things, you know, find a way of happening to you. So, you know, you go out there and say, man, you don't know how close that ball came to hitting you right in the face.

You know, you don't want to say that, you know. And let's just let something happen. You take a chance with your life every time you walk out there, 60'6". So I don't believe in going out there and scaring yourself to death.

Ley - But Mike, is there some value in talking about it with a coach or a friend?

Flanagan - I think you have to. I think it's probably the biggest secret among pitchers is the line drive back up the middle. I know, I was hit in the shoulder in Toronto, and my next start once I was back and Billy Martin was the manager, and he came out to stop the game. And what he said was, you can't pitch with one long sleeve and one short sleeve. They came out to the mound, and I didn't have any sleeves on, that's how much discoloration I had in the arm.

But what happened is I went 100 hitters without a strikeout during that period, and this is again what I learned, was again, I was seeing the hitter. I was seeing the vender in the stands, I was seeing the catcher, I was seeing the bat. And to me, when you see that much of the bat and the hitter, you're throwing batting practice. You're really not pitching. So, I think I learned from that experience, again, to work on those concentration skills, and get the corners back.

Ley - All right, we'll pick up there in just a second. We'll have more in a moment on the topic of coming back from the injury caused by a comebacker.

Mussina - In 1962, when I started throwing a baseball, 55 or less from the plate and the ball's coming back pretty hard. It happened pretty fast, it happened quick.

J.T. Snow, San Francisco Giants first baseman - There's some doubt, you know, while you're sitting around and while you're waiting, you know, when you can't see out of your eye because it's swollen shut, a lot of things go through your mind about your career and what's in store next for you.

Ley - J.T. Snow, who was hit in the face four years ago by a Randy Johnson fastball. We're back now with Billy Wagner, Mike Flanagan and Harvey Dorfman. And Harvey, we showed that tape just to bring up the point that certainly batters face that danger, and that they anticipate each pitch. But when you sit down to counsel someone, is it different in working with a batter than with a pitcher because of the unexpected nature of being a pitcher; any pitch can come back at you like that?

Dorfman - Well, it is. As I say, it's different with each guy. And just to backtrack for a moment, just think of what Billy said and what Mike said to emphasize that point. A misconception somebody might have about counseling is, you don't dwell on the fear. You dwell on function so that you don't feed the monster, you starve the monster. You don't want to be attentive to the fear. That's the wrong approach, and that's not the approach that I would use. And so, that's one point.

The other is, the bottom line is -- the litmus test is the function. Billy did it his way, and it worked, and there is no arguing with that. But, not everybody can do that. See, there is nothing wrong with fear. Fear is a normal behavior.

What's not normal is the fact that these guys are elite athletes, and they cannot have fear dominate their point of view, and that you heard Mike talking about. So, consequently, an organism's natural instinct is for survival. The acquired instinct is to deal with what you have to do in order to survive.

A great illustration is Mike's point about how he helped Mike Mussina with his follow-through. What he did was, he gave him another weapon. So, that was part of his preparation, like a soldier going to war, and that would, in fact, give him more confidence if you will, that if a ball does come back, he is better equipped to manage it.

Well, that having been said, yes, a hitter is different because, you know, obviously every hitter will tell you, if they're honest -- most hitters, let's say, that they're afraid of the ball. And so that ball is coming. You say, well they anticipate the pitch, but it's just, it's sort of what Mike said, too. You can't anticipate a pitch hitting you. You have to anticipate a pitch in the hitting zone, otherwise you won't get hit with a pitch, but you won't be much of a hitter.

Ley - Billy, you mentioned how when you were down in AA rehabbing, you were throwing all heat but all away. When you came back up to the bigs, was it a conscious step to say, now I've got to start going all over the plate and busting guys inside?

Wagner - You know what, it was funny. I always believed that what had happened to me was that (unintelligible) fastball away. So I went down there and threw fastballs away, and the next thing you know, I get back and I find out I'm throwing -- it was a fastball inside. And, you know, actually after Kelly (unintelligible) actually came up and told me that.

And after I found that out, you know what? I just said, there's no use in me going out there and worrying about where this ball is, where that ball is because, you know, I've just got to go out there and be able to pitch, and not worry about getting hit.

I mean, of course, when I went out there the first time after I came back against the Phillies, I was scared to death. And that was the biggest thing to overcome because I had to go out there and pitch and know that things were not going to happen, I wasn't going to get hurt.

So once I got out there and started throwing and had a couple of games and things kind of went my way and I didn't have things come back at me, it was fine. But, you know, since then I've had a couple balls back at me. Scott Servais, thank God he's with us now, but he's hit two balls back at me in probably a two-year span.

Ley - Mike, it seems anecdotally -- it's tough to keep numbers on this -- but we see this more than before, do you agree?

Flanagan - I think so. I think with the modern hitting style, what I see is a change in the game. Hitters today cover the ball away so much better than they did a few years back, and try to direct everything back towards the middle of the field.

So, you have hitters that are bigger and stronger, covering the outside part of the plate. I think that's why you are seeing hit batsman up an alarming rate this year. But they're covering better away, and when you have a hitter like Frank Thomas coming in, the first thing that goes through your mind as a pitcher really is, today, get your glove up.

Ley - Harvey, at what point do you decide in working with somebody that maybe it is time to sit down and look at a tape if somebody is a little bit reluctant to look at it?

Dorfman - I'm reluctant to show it, because, you know, what we're doing is we're reinforcing the problem. I want to deal with the solution, as I said before. I don't see the value of it, watching it over and over again. I would rather -- you know the case I would put it? I would put in tape where guys don't hit it up the middle or a guy hits it up the middle and the guy fields it.

And that, I wouldn't -- I'd stay away from that myself.

Flanagan - I think what happens is pitchers develop a flinch. I guess as a coach or as a broadcaster, what you watch for to happen, a pitcher may say he's over that incidence and that it's all in the past, but even David Wells today, if you watch David closely, after he finishes a pitch and the ball is swung at, he will flinch. And Mike Mussina did the same thing for a while -- long after, I think, he felt he was over the incident.

Dorfman - You know, Mike...

Ley - Ten seconds, Harvey.

Dorfman - OK, there are many pitchers who do that, still, and that's their natural instinct. So, it's out there.

Ley - All right, well, gentlemen, thank you. Well, Billy whatever you've done, it's worked, because you're going back to Seattle for the All-Star game. Thanks for being with us. Thanks to Mike Flanagan and also to Harvey Dorfman for joining us this morning.

Next up, we'll update you on some stories we've brought to you on earlier Sunday mornings, including the condition of the former heavyweight champion of the world.

Ley - A couple of updates now on earlier editions of "Outside the Lines." You may remember our report on the many questions surrounding the emergency medical care given former heavyweight champion Greg Page when he was knocked out into a coma in early March. Page underwent 13 weeks of physical therapy.

Patricia Love, Page's fiancee - Ray's a fighter. It's been very difficult for him, but he's never quit. Everything they've asked him to do in therapy, he's done. And it is not always easy.

Ley - He went home this week, Greg Page. His speech is labored and slurred, but he will continue with outpatient therapy five days a week.

We brought you the story of Damien Wilkins before the NBA draft. He left North Carolina State after his sophomore year, and went to the NBA pre-draft camp. A poor showing there, and an early injury led him to withdraw from the draft. N.C. State head coach Herb Sendek, citing what he said were demands by Damien's father, former NBA player Gerald Wilkins, dismissed Damien from the team. Damien Wilkins now announced this past week he plans to transfer to the University of Georgia, where his uncle Dominique played. He'll also asked the NCAA to waive the requirement that he sit for one season as a transfer.

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 ESPN's Bob Ley reports the story of a pitcher's long road to making his comeback.
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