DETROIT — Until 2009, Southfield, Mich., native Darin Downs never thought he’d be compared to Harry Potter.
Since one terrifying moment that summer, though, he’s been “The Pitcher Who Lived.”
Downs was called up to his hometown Tigers on Tuesday and made his major-league debut in the ninth inning of an 8-6 loss to the Minnesota Twins, but he knows that things could have been much different.
“It’s a blessing that I’m here,” he said after his debut. “It’s good just to be able to put on a jersey.”
On Aug. 17, 2009, Downs was pitching for Double-A Montgomery when he was hit in the head with a line drive off the bat of Christian Marrero.
“I remember everything,” he said before Tuesday’s game. “The count, the hitter, the score and who we were playing.”
His memory wasn’t the problem. Downs was unable to speak and had lost the use of the right side of his face.
Within minutes, while vomiting blood, he was being rushed to a nearby hospital in Birmingham, Ala. He had a fractured skull and dangerous swelling of his brain. The attending doctor told his fiancee Christy that Downs was in serious danger.
The neurosurgeons decided not to do surgery, and Downs remained in intensive care for the next two days before the swelling began to subside. He stayed in the hospital for nine days before being flown to Florida on a medical charter.
“I think I thought I was out of danger when they put me on the charter,” he said. “But it was still a very tough recovery.”
First, Downs had to deal with the effects of post-concussion syndrome, which included depression and fatigue.
“I slept all the time, and I told myself that I wasn’t going to play again,” he said. “I was scared of getting hit again, but eventually I said the heck with it and got back out there.”
By spring training 2010, Downs was ready to face live batters again. He freely admits now that it wasn’t easy.
“I was a little timid when I started throwing batting practice, but I eventually convinced myself that whatever was going to happen was going to happen,” he said. “It was one in a million. How many guys will throw a pitch today and nothing will happen? I just got over it.”
That season, Downs went 12-4 between Double-A and Triple-A in Tampa Bay’s system, and he split times at the same two levels last year for the Marlins.
This winter, he moved to his fourth organization, signing a minor-league deal with the Tigers. Pitching as a left-handed short reliever, he had posted a 2.15 ERA in 25 games when his life abruptly changed again.
Monday night, as he and Christy — now his wife — were heading home from the Mud Hens’ game, he got a call from Toledo manager Phil Nevin.
“Phil called me and told me that I needed to come back to the park and talk to him,” he said. “He didn’t tell me anything directly on the phone, but I could tell from the tone in his voice that it was something good.”
It was. It was the call he’d been waiting for since joining the Chicago Cubs system as an 18-year-old in 2003. He was going to the big leagues.
“It’s been a long road for me, so this is a blessing to say the least,” he said, pulling on a big-league uniform for the first time.
Downs didn’t get an easy debut — he came in with a runner on base and
Justin Morneau at the plate. He got Morneau on a fly ball to right,
making the rest of his scoreless inning a little easier. He finished it off by striking out Brian Dozier.
“It’s always great to get that first guy — you don’t want to put
yourself in a jam right away,” he said. “I was excited running out of
that bullpen — going from playing in front of 8,000 people to playing
in front of 35,000.”
Christy and their daughter, Briana, were at Comerica Park on Tuesday, along with her parents, and they got to see Downs make his major-league debut.
“The atmosphere, the whole experience with my wife and my daughter here, the whole day,” he said. “It was a good time.”
His mom, who flew to Birmingham immediately after the accident, was getting on another plane — this one to Detroit to see Wednesday’s game.
The family mood, obviously, has changed a great deal in three years — from terror to joy.
“It’s a feel-good story,” he said. “I’ve come so far from that moment — to be so close to not making it, and now I’m here.”