DUNEDIN, Fla. — J.A. Happ witnessed a replay of a line drive striking Alex Cobb at Tropicana Field and memories rushed back. Same stadium. Same mound. Same fear. The parallels were stunning. A familiar, eerie hush fell over the crowd.
Happ watched the event for the first time on a news broadcast last Saturday, and the Toronto Blue Jays left-hander responded with a quick prayer. He does not have Cobb’s cell number. Otherwise, he would have sent a text message of goodwill to the Tampa Bay Rays right-hander that day. Happ understands the pain … and the tedious work to return.
“It was weird — the same mound, the almost exact injury, location,” Happ told FOX Sports Florida on Wednesday from the Blue Jays’ spring training facility, where he continues to rehab. “And then to see him go off in a stretcher in the same way that I did was a little bit eerie. It is kind of crazy that it was the same spot, same stadium.”
Happ sustained a skull fracture behind his left ear and a sprained right knee May 7, when he fell to the turf after the impact from a sharp line drive off the bat of Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings. On May 24, he was transferred from the 15-day disabled list to the 60-day DL.
He has recovered from the head injury, but he continues to work to heal his knee. A timetable for his return is unknown, though he is eligible to be activated July 7. The process can be a grind.
So Happ spends his days here, in a focused but slow-paced world under puffy white clouds where it feels like March year-round. On Wednesday, sounds of bats cracking during a BP session filled Field No. 4. Nearby, behind the batting cage, a speaker blared country music as young players in blue shorts and blue T-shirts swung for the fences. Sounds of a lone sprinkler spraying water could be heard from near the third base line on Field No. 3. A small Canadian flag flapped in a slight breeze behind the center-field wall on Field No. 2.
Happ’s schedule in this idyllic setting depends on his day’s tasks. Recently, he has reached milestones in his knee’s recovery process: He ran Tuesday and Wednesday, and he threw a bullpen session Tuesday with plans to do another Friday. Usually, he arrives at the complex at about 8 a.m. and departs around 1 p.m., possibly later if he tosses a bullpen session.
His progress is comforting, given the horrific images from that Tuesday night at Tropicana Field: Him crumbling on the edge of the mound, face down, both hands on his head, his left palm cupping his bleeding ear.
The next day, he called himself “fortunate.” Cobb will face a similar path back.
“Hopefully, he didn’t hurt anything else,” Happ said. “This knee is obviously really frustrating for me. Hopefully, he can come back sooner than it has taken me. He’s got to make sure that he’s 100 percent. That’s the biggest thing. That’s what everybody says. But it’s hard to do because the competitor in you wants to get back out there and get playing again.”
Certainly, Cobb will feel a similar sensation in his attempt to return from a mild concussion. He has yet to speak publicly since he was released Sunday from Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg, Fla., so it is unknown how he has managed since that moment.
Rays manager Joe Maddon spoke to Cobb via phone earlier in the week. On Tuesday, Maddon told reporters at Fenway Park that the pitcher’s recovery would be “a long process.” There is no timetable for his return. So far, there is no guarantee he will pitch again this season.
The risk is one all pitchers accept, of course. A day after Happ’s injury, Cobb described the mound’s unspoken dangers this way: “It’s almost like you don’t talk about getting hit by a car. You don’t talk about those things because you feel like if you talk about it, the chances are it might happen. It’s just one of those things you ignore.”
Recently, however, ignoring the issue has not been an option. Pitching is a lifestyle, a passion, but there is also a dark side to a child-like love for the game. The sight of a line-drive hitting flesh is grisly. The sound? Haunting. Like Cobb six weeks ago, Happ sympathizes with someone who lives through such trauma.
“You know it’s a real possibility, but I guess the percentages are what they are,” Happ said.
“A lot of scary things have been creeping up, more so recently. It’s ugly to watch, that’s for sure.”
Ugly? Yes, but also terrifying, consuming. For those affected, even simple tasks turn hard.
“It’s not a fun process, especially trying to sleep,” Happ said. “You feel like you could literally tilt your head and liquid would pour out. It doesn’t, but that’s what it feels like.
“It’s going to be uncomfortable, I’m sure, for several weeks. It took a couple weeks before I could turn and sleep on my left side. Yeah, it’s not fun what he’s going through right now. But hopefully, he gets back quick.”
Until Happ can return, the seven-year veteran continues his days here, working to place a gruesome event behind him in the thick Florida heat. The hours away from the complex are filled as best he can: By resting in his temporary residence at a golf resort in nearby Palm Harbor, Fla.; by catching a movie; by hoping his return is near.