ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — Down the hall, in the visitors’ clubhouse, there were signs of the little-discussed danger pitchers embrace each day with their chosen profession.
The stall below a black-and-white placard that read “48 HAPP” stood untouched, a glove tucked into a small compartment in the top-right corner. Two blue caps hung on hooks on either side of a uniform. Feet away, newspapers with the headline, “A sickening sight,” sat folded on a table as players prepared for another night with the Unspoken Possibility as part of life on the mound.
Shortly after, Toronto Blue Jays left-hander J.A. Happ, about five hours removed from being discharged from nearby Bayfront Medical Center, entered a small room at Tropicana Field and shared his brush with the horrific, the possible.
He received treatment for a head contusion and a cut to his left ear after a line drive off Tampa Bay Rays center fielder Desmond Jennings’ bat introduced an eerie hush at Tropicana Field in the bottom of the second inning Tuesday. Happ was placed on the 15-day disabled list after receiving stitches and sustaining a skull fracture behind the affected ear. His future is uncertain, but most of the concern is gone.
He knows he’s lucky. This is the life he leads.
“I feel very fortunate,” Happ said.
The sight Tuesday was as stunning as it was sad: Happ, his face buried in his black glove, cupped the injured ear with his left palm. He remembers releasing the ball — “I thought I made a decent pitch,” he said. Then he recalls a loud ring. Then pressure. Then the sensation that this night was anything but normal.
Normalcy. It’s often assumed, of course. It’s thought when a pitcher takes the mound that he’ll walk toward a dugout, perhaps after six or seven innings, unchanged and unharmed. Each has picked a life in the crossfire. Each crack of the bat could mean a rush of medical personnel … a stretcher … an ambulance ride … CT scans … fear.
Before Happ spoke, those possibilities were understood in the Rays clubhouse. In a rare display, they were discussed. That’s the thing about what happened to Happ on Tuesday: Pitchers often avoid talking about the risk among one another. It hangs there, avoided, like a stained piece of clothing, until dragged out of the closet.
“You don’t want to bring it up,” Rays right-hander Alex Cobb said. “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.”
Cobb was like many Rays pitchers Wednesday. The event involving Happ made the Unspoken Possibility more noticeable. Still, they worry little about their safety. As left-hander David Price put it: “Everybody’s job has a point where you can get hurt, whether it’s using a stapler or Super Glue. Anything.”
Price and others have lived the threat. In September 2011, a line drive from the Boston Red Sox’s Mike Aviles hit Price and forced the pitcher to leave early. About four years ago, the inner right hip of Rays reliever Cesar Ramos was hit by a line drive while playing for Triple-A Portland as part of the San Diego Padres organization. Cobb has been hit multiple times on the body, dating back to high school. Last August, Rays reliever Brandon Gomes, then with Triple-A Durham, took a line drive off a foot.
“I think you’re always concerned about that happening,” Ramos said. “It’s just one of those where you hope it doesn’t. It’s reality. It’s just unfortunate that it happens. It’s just part of the game.”
A part of the game few pitchers choose to think about. And for good reason.
“It was really scary,” Rays reliever Jake McGee said. “Yesterday, everybody was silent in the whole stadium. You hate to see things like that. You’re just kind of shocked. … You don’t really think about (the risks) at all. Then when it happens, it’s kind of in the back of your head a little bit. Once you get back out there, you kind of get locked in, and you think about the pitch you need to make.”
History includes examples of the risk. Former Red Sox pitcher Bryce Florie sustained a facial injury when a line drive from the New York Yankees’ Ryan Thompson hit him in September 2000. Last September, the Oakland Athletics’ Brandon McCarthy sustained serious brain injuries after he was hit by a line drive from the Los Angeles Angels’ Erick Aybar.
There are more. They are unavoidable. They are part of the game.
Cobb compared a pitcher to a NASCAR driver who wants to return after a major wreck. It’s an odds game, one Cobb and others accept as part of gripping a mound, as part of the life they lead.
“We all think about it,” Cobb said. “We know the chances of it happening. It’s a strong dose of reality, the fact of how easily that can happen. It’s not going to be something that’s going to change my approach on the mound. It’s not going to change my intensity on the mound. It has always been in the back of my mind, and it’s still going to be in the back of my mind.”
Said Gomes: “It’s as scary or terrible of a thing you’re going to see on the field. I know we were all hoping and praying for (Happ). You just get that sick feeling in your stomach. You don’t even want to go on with the game for a short moment after that.”
But the games, the threat, go on. Tuesday. Wednesday. More. More. More.
Through it all, there’s danger. Through it all, pitchers hope to avoid the next Unspoken Possibility that becomes a sickening sight.