The Most Dangerous Pitchby BJ Neblett
Blood dripped onto the hard, cracked, sun dried earth, creating puddles of crimson mud. This was the first time I’d been hit and unable to complete a play. That’s what made me the maddest; that and the fact that we were ahead, winning. I was pitching a shutout into the fourth inning: no walks; a couple of strike outs. The nine guys behind me were doing a great job of handling the ball. And our opponents, a team made up of tough, young Dominicans and Puerto Ricans, were no slouches in the field.
“Easy, take it easy.”
My hand cradled my swollen right eye. It felt as if it would pop from its socket. Adrenalin still surged in my body as my good left eye desperately searched the infield around me. “Where’s the ball… where’s the damn ball?”
Someone hollered to stop the play. “He’s hurt,” they shouted, “It’s a ground rule double.”
A double, which would mean Jose would score. I cursed silently and then caught myself, asking for God’s forgiveness; and to save my sight. By now my eye throbbed, swollen shut, swelling to nearly the size of the softball that struck it.
“Damn,” I repeated out loud as my team mates began to crowd around. Shock and concern showed through their troubled cries of, “Oh, God,” and “Wow!” Then again, head and face wounds do tend to bleed a lot. You’d have thought someone spilt a quart of red ink into the parched dirt just behind the pitcher’s mound.
As a pitcher, you have an invisible target painted on your chest. You are fair game for every line shot, bouncing drive, and screaming grounder that burns its way up the middle. On the mound you have two responsibilities: pitch the ball, and get set. Or, better put, catch the ball without getting killed in the process. In baseball, you are sixty feet, six inches away from the batter, and raised ten inches. Softball plants you on the same plain as the hitter, some forty seven to fifty feet from home plate. And the extra feet can make all the difference, the difference between a hit and an out; between a bad bruise and a career ending injury.
Baseball rookie for the Cleveland Indians, Herb Score led the American League in strike outs each of his first two seasons. In 1957, during a game against arch rival New York, Score was struck in the eye by a line drive off the bat of Yankee Gil McDouglas. His comeback lasted five frustrating seasons. But the one time overpowering pitcher never again posted a winning record.1
Being known as possibly the first and only person ever blinded during a softball game was not a distinction I was interested in carrying.
No one intentionally tries to hit the pitcher. That would be stupid. Chances are you’d be thrown out at first; maybe out of the game if your intentions are known. It just happens, more often than many people realize. Hairline shin fractures, battered knee caps and dislocated fingers are a part of a pitcher’s life. I should have known better. I have the experience, and the scars, to prove my point.
Getting sloppy on the mound can shorten your career considerably. A combination of recent victories, plus having avoided being seriously hit for some time, conspired to make me careless. Instead of watching the travel of the ball, estimating where the hit ball would travel, and getting set, I found myself remaining planted on the rubber, no better than a spectator, after the pitch.
To compound matters, I’d been working on a new pitch. The past couple of weeks, while honing my curve ball, I discovered a sharp downward breaking ball. During batting practice, the new pitch proved devastating to right handed hitters, and frustrating for lefties. Cutting sharply inside and dropping with a wild spin, no one seemed to be able to strike the ball squarely. The best efforts of some of the most skillful hitters resulted in a bouncing hard grounder or a low line drive. A few were able to get the ball in the air. When they did, it usually went straight up for a short pop fly.
Because of the propensity of even pull hitters to send the pitch back up the middle of the infield, I jokingly dubbed my new weapon my ‘come back pitch.’ During practice I threw out several surprised opponents at first base. My come back, often as not, came back right into my waiting glove.
I worked on perfecting my new pitch. Slow pitch softball is far from an exact science. Tossing the oversized sphere at the proper height and arc, the ball falls victim to the slightest breeze. Sometimes you can make the wind work for you, bending an outside lob right into the face of an unsuspecting hitter, or cutting the edge of the plate. That is, if you are lucky. Otherwise, the best you can hope for is a corner plate strike. Knuckle balls, spinners and curve balls can also be used to thwart hitters, but are difficult to master. My ‘come back’ pitch had the added advantage of a fast, tight spin, making it extra difficult to place squarely on the bat.
One of my heroes of the old time players is a pitcher for the hapless Washington Senators, nicked named ‘the Big Train.’ From around 1900 through the ‘20’s, Walter Johnson terrorized hitters with what most consider to be the fastest fast ball in the major leagues, then and since.
Consider Ray Chapman.
Chapman once took first one, then a second blazing fast ball from the Big Train, Johnson. Stepping out of the batter’s box, the stunned hitter headed towards the dugout only to be reminded by the umpire he had another strike coming. Chapman continued on his way, calmly calling back over his shoulder, “Keep it. I don’t want it.”
Perhaps the ill-fated Chapman should have taken the event as an omen. On October 10, 1920, while up at bat, Ray Chapman was struck and killed by a fast ball from pitcher Carl Mays.3
We jumped out to a quick two run lead our first at bat. I managed to set down three of the four batters I faced in the bottom of the first, including a strike out. Our team went three up, three down, as did the opposition, in an uneventful second inning. We went up four to nothing with two more runs scored in the third off of left fielder Ron’s triple. The last of the third started off innocently enough with a routine pop fly. Then the bottom fell out. A single up the middle, a misplayed grounder followed by a line shot, and the bases were loaded. And the top of their lineup was coming to bat.
It was time to try out the ‘come back.’
The first pitch caught Alfredo, a good hitter, by surprise. Looking at first like it would fall short and outside, the ball veered sharply inside, slicing the edge of the plate. The look on his face was priceless.
Ok… strike one…
So far, so good...
I gave him two junk pitches to think about, then another come back. It tipped off the edge of his bat and rolled harmlessly towards the mound, right to me. A quick throw home for the force and there were two outs.
Franco wouldn’t be so easy. After a couple of called balls and a come back called strike, I gave him a sharply curving breaking pitch, thanks to a friendly cross breeze. He swung hard. But the backspin sent the ball straight up. It was caught by the catcher. Out number three and we were out of the inning. The come back had done its job.
Our fourth inning produced a couple of hits but no runs. Then it was their turn again. And their three best sluggers were coming to bat.
Jimmy is a strong pull hitter. He had managed a double and a triple off of me in other games. He wouldn’t bite on a short lob which fell ineffectually in front of the plate. My second pitch, a come back, he sent past me to my right. Our short stop bobbled the hard hit bouncing grounder, but managed to throw Jimmy out at first.
Next was Jose, the team’s cleanup hitter and a threat to send one out anytime at bat. He’d gotten a deep dangerous fly off of me in the first inning which thankfully turned into a long out. I toyed with him best I could, giving him nothing to swing at until the count was three and two. Then he saw my come back. He not only saw it, but lined it like a rocket past me, the short stop and the infield for a double. My come back was earning its name. Those two shots should have told me something. They didn’t. I was still standing flat foot on the rubber.
Bugara hits the ball probably as hard as humanly possible. His drives jump to the outfield before anyone has a chance to react. He once hit three tape measure homers over center field in three consecutive at bats in one game. I didn’t have the time or the inclination to foll around with him. Not with Jose at second and only one out. Even a sacrifice fly to the outfield would result in a run scoring. I took a deep breath, let it out, and tossed a come back.
And it did…
As best I can figure, the ball came off his bat and tipped off my glove in about half a second. That works out to something like 75 or 80 miles per hour.
And there I stood.
I raised my glove, but not quickly enough, not far enough.
Victims of automobile accidents often report that at the moment of impact time seems to move in slow motion. I now understand what they experience. For one protracted fraction of a second time stood still. The din of the spectators faded to a distant thunder in my ears. My gloved hand crept skywards. It paused motionless in front of me about nose level. The dull white leather clad ball balanced precariously on the edge of the mitt’s webbing, frozen in space. One thought replayed in my mind over and over, like a stuck 45 RPM record: I’m not going to catch this.
And then someone hit fast forward.
The speeding projectile tipped off my glove, mercifully slowed slightly. It slammed into my face, catching the cheek bone and upper eye socket squarely with a brain jarring, sickening thud.
I was helped off the field, still holding the bloody wad of tissue someone provided, against my eye brow. It is interesting and strange to note that I never experienced any major pain, especially considering the seriousness of the injury. At the time of the impact, I felt as if punched by a gloved boxer, more surprising than painful. After, a dull, achy throb and a feeling of pressure against the eye ball were the main discomforts. By morning, and for several weeks, the entire orbit around my right eye remained extremely tender, swollen and sore.
In the ‘60’s, Tony Conigliaro was well on his way to a hall of fame career. Joining the Boston Red Sox in 1964, in just a few seasons, the twenty two year old right fielder hit an amazing 104 home runs, running up 294 RBIs, with a .276 average.
Conigliaro was carried off the field on a stretcher. It wasn’t immediately known if he would survive the injury. Tony survived and returned to the Red Sox in 1969, moving to the Angel’s in 1971. After three disappointing seasons, it was evident the damage done on that August night on 1967 was too great, and he retired.
Tony C suffered a massive heart attack and stroke in 1982 which left him in a vegetative state. The one time Cooperstown bound slugger passed away shortly after his 45th birthday in 1990.4
Sunday, October 14th. It was too soon. I knew it was too soon. The days were growing short, the air chilly. Softball would be ending. I wasn’t about to spend the winter wondering how it would feel; wondering if I would pitch again; if I could pitch again.
But that was on the outside.
The pressure on my eyeball subsided, returning from time to time. And my depth perception was nearly normal. At least that’s what I told myself. But I was starting to be bothered by sparks of light, flashes they are called, and they can be harbingers of more serious problems to come.
Still, I was determined; stubborn.
For the first time in my life, nervousness and doubt accompanied me to the mound. Doing my best to shake the feeling, I steeled up some counterfeit courage and took my warm up pitches.
Not good either…
Then again, a four week layoff will rust up anybody’s arm. Even without a batter to face, I found myself purposely avoiding the pitch that had nearly blinded me. It’s too soon I rationalized. Just stick with the basics.
It did little to easy my churning stomach.
The first hitter of the game dug into the batter’s box. A familiar, reassuring voice reached me from left field. It was my friend Ron. “Give ‘em the old ‘come back,’ Billy!”
And so I did.
2. Cahan, Richard and Jacob, Mark, The Game That Was, p. 231
3. Cahan, Richard and Jacob, Mark, The Game That Was, pp. 24, 138
4. David Eisenthal, davideinsenthal.typepad.com