“It’s just a real sickening feeling for everybody.”
Those are the words of Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost after last night’s game between his club and the Cincinnati Reds. In the sixth inning of the Cactus League matchup, Aroldis Chapman reared back and threw one of his patented fastballs to Royals catcher Salvador Perez. The pitch was traced at 99.3 mph by the in-stadium tracking system. Salvador Perez stands 6’3 and weights 245 pounds.
For at least the fourth time in the last two years, a very large, very strong batter swung his bat to met an onrushing fastball with disastrous consequences. The pitch came towards the pitcher even faster than he sent it away, all in the span of a half second. Last night, the ball struck the tall Cuban pitcher above the left eye. It struck with such force that “the baseball cracked Chapman’s skull and rebounded back toward third-base line” according to Andy McCullogh of the Kansas City Star.
By the time a fielder scooped up the baseball near the third base dugout, Chapman was on the ground, kicking his feet with blood pooling on the mound. The Reds trainer reached him almost as quickly as the fateful baseball, with his teammates gathering to check on their fallen closer.
It is the worst scene in baseball and an increasingly common one. The biggest question remains unanswered: what can we do?
A helmet solution is on the way, we assume. The current options do not appear viable for big league action, though the current objections (“too hot, too itchy“) start sounding like excuses when you see another pitcher lying on his stomach, kicking his feet and bleeding in the dirt.
Does a helmet save Chapman? Maybe not. Does it matter? Not particularly. Pitchers are still prone on the mound, subject to cruel interventions of fate for those brief moments before they’re able to defend themselves.
The batter, Salvy Perez, was observed weeping as he made is way off the field in the aftermath of an event so far beyond his control. Empathy comes easy for Perez when you envision the sleepless nights he has coming. The entire game was called after Chapman was strapped to a board and taken from the field in an ambulance. An easy gesture in a nothing Cactus League game but in June? The band plays on.
Casting blame is the easy part. Calling the pitchers regressive and backwards brutes for refusing solutions that could well save their life accomplishes nothing. Were the answer so simple, we’d already have it. But we don’t. Pitchers like J.A. Happ and Alex Cobb and Brandon McCarthy just thank their lucky stars and head out to the mound again because it’s their job. It’s their life. How they push fears and doubts deep inside and gut it out is their business, apparently.
While the think pieces and hand wringing explode onto your screens, Aroldis Chapman lies in a hospital bed in Arizona. Though he never lost consciousness and was doing better according to Doctor Brandon Phillips, there are still woods from which Chapman must emerge. There are the physical wounds that must heal (fractures above his left eye and nose for now, with brain scans and MRIs scheduled to determine the full extent of his injuries) and then begins the mental healing. Discovering the nerve to step back onto the mound, knowing it will probably happen with little more between his skull and a repeat encounter with a baseball than the grace of God and his 100% cotton Reds fitted. That’s the real work.
Until such time that a miracle solution prevents this type of pitcher injury, we can only hope that the blows are glancing and the good run of luck (zero deaths, everybody makes it back to the mound) continues. While we’re hoping, let’s hope history doesn’t look back on this era as a stone age easily avoided by a little foresight and the right kind of bravery – the bravery of one guy being the first to take something more than a ballcap to the hill to protect him.