Aroldis Chapman: Timeline for recovery from line drive to the face can be sooner, later or never

Fear could be obstacle

SURPRISE, Ariz. – Moments after seeing the video of Aroldis Chapman being hit in the head by a line drive, Brandon McCarthy was on Twitter saying there's no point in speculating when – or if – the Reds closer will pitch again "until they do a scan."

McCarthy should know. He's the poster boy for pitchers who got hit in the head by line drives.

The 29-year-old right-hander represents the pitchers who were able to resume their careers when others were not – either because of their physical injuries or because of psychological scars. In the latter case, the fear of getting hit again can be paralyzing.

McCarthy's injuries sustained in a September 2012 game almost killed him. But he was able to come back in 2013, though he is still trying to get back to the old Brandon McCarthy.

If the Reds and Chapman are lucky, the lefty may come back in four weeks like Willie Blair of the Detroit Tigers did in 1991, when a line drive broke his jaw.

In a worst-case scenario, Chapman could be in danger of becoming the next Herb Score.

Most baseball fans have an indelible image of McCarthy after Erick Aybar of the Los Angeles Angels hit a screamer off McCarthy's skull on Sept. 5, 2012.  McCarthy collapsed, but he got up a few minutes later and walked off the field.

But that was a false negative.

McCarthy, 29, had suffered a brain contusion, epidural hemorrhage and skull fracture.

Within hours, McCarthy was undergoing emergency brain surgery.

McCarthy returned to the mound in 2013 with the Arizona Diamondbacks, but statistically it turned out to be his worst season.

McCarthy had 22 starts and went 5-11 with a 4.53 ERA. It was his first losing season since 2007, and his ERA was up 1.29 from the previous year.

While it remains to be seen if McCarthy can come all the way back, the early results this year are more encouraging. He has made three spring training starts with the D'backs and has a 1.93 ERA in 14 innings.

Blair's injuries were not nearly as serious and his results were more encouraging.

On May 5, 1991, Blair was hit in the jaw by Julio Franco of the Milwaukee Brewers.

"It sounded like a boat oar slapping a slab of meat. It was absolutely horrible," Detroit pitching coach Rick Adair said.

When Adair and manager Buddy Bell went to see Blair in the hospital that night, Blair's jaw was wired shut.

"The first thing he said was, 'I'll be ready to throw Friday,'" Adair said.

And he was, albeit not against live hitting.

Blair missed four weeks and went 13-6 the rest of the season, the best stretch of his career.

"It was a freak thing, I got over it right away.'' Blair said. "I never thought about getting hit the next time out."

Score is a famous case of a young pitcher whose injury ended a promising career.

On May 7, 1957, the 23-year-old Cleveland Indians left-hander was hit in the right eye by Gil McDougal of the New York Yankees.

Score's blurred vision essentially finished him, though he blamed arm injuries, not the line drive. Score was 36-19 in three seasons when he was hurt and 19-27 after that.

It is baseball's most frightening moment – a line drive hit like a bullet toward a pitcher's head. 

Batters at least wear helmets to protect them from a pitch. And some batters wear shields on their batting helmet to protect the side of their face exposed to the ball.

Chapman's injury – depending on how serious it is – could raise a louder call for mandatory protective gear for pitchers or increase the numbers of pitchers willing to wear the padded cap that's already available.

Baseball approved a padded cap in January and made them voluntary in spring training.

But only a handful of pitchers are wearing them,  and the rest have only their gloves and quick reactions to protect them from a projectile going perhaps 115 mph from less than 60  feet away.

Sometimes, as you saw Wednesday night,  that's not enough.

Baseball players may be too macho for their own good.

Batting helmets didn't become mandatory in the majors until 1971. That was 51 years after the death of another Chapman -  Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians. He was struck in the head by a pitch from the New York Yankees' Carl Mays.

Ray Chapman is still the only player to die from an on-field injury.

Perhaps base coaches have more sense. At least some of them started wearing helmets after minor league first-base coach Mike Coolbaugh died in 2007 when he was struck in the neck by a line drive.

Still, it's so rare for pitchers to get hit in the head that most resist the idea of wearing head protection. It happened only 10 times in the five seasons between 2008 and 2012, ESPN The Magazine reported.

But that doesn't mean pitchers don't think about it.

"It is kind of scary,'' former Dodgers pitcher and Cy Young winner Orel Hershiser told Tim Kurkjian for an article in ESPN The Magazine after McCarthy was hurt in 2012.

"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.''

But some do.

Some pitchers who couldn't get out of the way and have heard the sickening sound of the ball hitting their skull – or their nose or their jaw – and had to go through the pain and surgery that followed told Kurkjian they couldn't shake the fear of being hit again.

Here are a few of their stories:

➢ April 4, 1994 – Pitching in a spring training game, Mike Wilson of the Detroit Tigers is hit in the mouth by a Boo Thompson line drive going 100 mph.

"I never saw the ball,'' Wilson said.

He needed oral surgery because the impact destroyed his  upper bridge and tore a hole into his nasal cavity. It also knocked out three teeth.

It was so bloody, Wilson's catcher ran off the field to vomit.

In Wilson's first game back, a line drive went 5 feet over his head.

"I didn't realize it, but I was ducking,'' he said. "Psychologically, I was scarred.''

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.''

> Sept. 8, 2000:  Boston Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie is hit in the right eye by a line drive by Ryan Thompson of the New York Yankees.

"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. "

A week later, Florie had surgery, and soon after that, his vision went bad.

But Florie didn't give up then. He went to spring training in 2001 and remembers 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 dumb---, what are you doing out here?'

"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.''

> Then there was Norm Charlton, one of the members of the Reds' Nasty Boys bullpen that helped lead them to the World Championship in 1990. Charlton was playing for the Philadelphia  Phillies in 1995 when he was tattooed on the forehead by a 100-mph line drive by Steve Finley.

"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."

Charlton said he never thought about quitting.

Why?

"Because I'm an idiot," he said. "What are the odds of that happening again?''

Less than four hours after saying that, Chicago White Sox slugger Frank Thomas hit a line drive at Charlton.

Charlton got his glove up in time to slow it down, but it hit him between the eyes, breaking his nose.

"How bad is it?" he asked trainer Richie Bancells. "I've got a date.''

Print this article Back to Top

Comments

or Subscribe now so you can share your opinion! It’s only a penny for a month trial.