Tuesday, September 29, 2015

99 MPH

As I lay motionless on the ground, a single thought entered my mind : "Please don't let my father see me die." Then I passed out.

My fastball was clocked at 99 MPH, but I knew as it left my hand that it was going to catch too much of the plate.  In slightly less than .4 seconds the 36 ounce bat had done its damage. In that small window of time the batter, a man standing 6 feet 5 inches tall, weighing 235 pounds, who had already hit 46 home runs in the 2015 season, had gotten a visual read on the pitch (after about 12 feet), decided to swing (after about 30 feet) and began his attack on the less than 150 gram (about 5.25 ounce) sphere hurtling towards him.

The exit speed of the ball after the collision of the two moving objects was estimated at 113 MPH. A study stated that a 90 MPH fastball can be returned by the hitter at up to 110 MPH. But as my offering was 10% faster than the study, and thrown to one whose bat speed was off the charts, the study be damned. The ball hit me before I even had time to flinch.

My mother had died that spring. She was 60 years old and had suffered through a three year battle with cancer. There had been the usual treatments with chemotherapy and radiation, and she had undergone surgery to try to eliminate the tumor after it had shrunk due to the medical attack upon it. But,in the end, it had been too far progressed before it was discovered. And despite every effort of the doctors, and the incredible will of my mother to live, the disease had proven too strong.

My father was heartbroken. He and my mom met just after he finished college and was entering law school. She had been lukewarm to his attentions which drove my father absolutely nuts. After repeated efforts to convince my mother that he was worthy of her, she relented. A one year courtship began and in the spring of 1977 they were married.

I was the oops baby. My oldest sister was born in 1981, followed by a second child, another girl, in 1983. Even though both my parents would have liked a boy to give some symmetry to the family, it was decided that two was enough. But then, in a scene that must be repeated in many households in every country in the world, one night in November,1988 something went wrong (or right) and so here I am.

If my father was a talented attorney, which he was, he was as inept in every other phase of life as was humanly possible. My mom always used to lament the fact that she had four children. The truth was that she had three children and one infant. While my sisters and I developed at a normal pace of growth, mentally and physically, my father was stuck in a holding pattern, unable to perform the most basic of tasks. And so the roles of chief cook, bottle-washer, worker, mom and, in many aspects dad, fell on the tiny shoulders of my mother.

The one area where my father and I could bond, and did, was over baseball. He loved the game, loved the smell of it, the sound and touch of it. He loved everything about it, and most of all he loved to watch me play. From my earliest contact with baseball, I was as drawn to it as my father, and because of my father that love was only enhanced. We talked baseball, we listened to baseball, we watched baseball and we always, always played baseball. My first recollections are of me with a mitt on my hand. My first pictures are of me in the crib, with a ball and bat mobile over my head. And from the first, from the very beginning, it turned out that I had a special talent for the game.

My dad was assistant coach on my Little League team. He used to rush home from working in New York City to appear in our suburban community in Bergen County in time for the beginning of the game. Often he would change out of his shirt and tie in the dugout seemingly only seconds before the first pitch was thrown. But I never remember him being late and I never remember him leaving until the last member of our team was picked up by a parent and safely on his way home.

When I was 11, I pitched a perfect game,  dominating the other team, embarrassing most of the hitters. After it was over, my teammates and I joked, in the cruel way that young people do, about the shortcomings of an over-matched opponent. When my dad and I were the only ones remaining in the dugout, he told me to come over to him. "I have never been as disappointed in you as I am now." His words were almost spit out at me. "You have been blessed with a special talent, but that does not make you any better than the next person. Those players on the other team may not have your athletic skills but today they were far superior to you in ways that are much more important. They tried as hard as they could, they took their defeat with grace, they were true sportsmen and athletes. Today they were the winners and you and your buddies showed yourself to be nothing but a bunch of immature losers." There was only silence on the car ride home.

Soon after my mom was diagnosed, my parents sat me down to tell me of the prognosis. I was in Triple A ball at that time, in my first year after having graduated from college. My parents had insisted that I finish my schooling before embarking on my career, even though I had been drafted in the second round immediately after finishing high school, and even though a very sizable financial incentive had been dangled in front of me to forego my education. I loved college and while I had occasional regrets about not taking the money and heading off to the rookie league, I came to appreciate my parent's insistence that I put my baseball career on hold.

I was in the living room of my parent's house when my dad began to cry, softly at first, then more loudly and finally uncontrollably. My mom told him to stop, that it was not doing her any good and it was certainly not making it any easier on me. And then she almost whispered to me that she had between 6 and 12 months to live. I watched the tears stream down my father's face,even as he tried to stop them. 

I headed back to my team the following day. I had only been elevated to Triple A  three weeks earlier. I hadn't really made any good friends there and so I dealt with my mom's "situation" on my own. And not very well. I was treated very rudely in my two outings the week that followed the revelation.

And then one night there was a knock on my apartment door. There stood my parents, my mother with a scowl on her face, a deep, full look of disgust and displeasure directed at only me. "What the hell is the matter with you?". My mother NEVER talked to me that way. and certainly not after just having completed a 350 mile journey in a 14 year old Audi with intermittent air conditioning, in order to visit her one and only son. "Stop feeling sorry for me and STOP feeling sorry for yourself. Get over it. Your father and I are dealing with this and you are NOT allowed to make this any harder on us. Go out and pitch like you know you can. Make us proud." When she finished speaking she closed the apartment door in my face. She and my father got back in the car and drove the 350 miles home without a stop. I did not give up another earned run over the 34 innings of relief I pitched the rest of the 2011 season.

I am told that I appeared to be unconscious even before landing face first in my descent from the pitching mound which is elevated 10 inches from the rest of the diamond. . The ball hit me squarely in the left temple. I had always been known as a good fielding pitcher, as my follow through set me up well to gather any ball hit back to me. If I had been less adept, maybe my body motion would have put me in a different stance and the bullet might have laid a glancing blow or even whistled by me entirely. 

As it was, after striking my head, the ball retreated in the direction from which it came, bounding with much speed just next to the dugout where my teammates watched in horror. One camera angle panned in and captured the faces as they realized what they were witnessing. My best friend on the squad came running out to me even as the play was still unfolding. It was a violation of every rule of the game to enter in the midst of the action, but for this wrong no punishment would be meted out. 

My father had come to very few games during the 2015 season. In the early months, he was still in deep mourning, most days only working part time and on occasion not even bothering to get out of bed. He was, in my opinion and that of those around him, clinically depressed. Baseball, which had always captured his heart and his soul, was unable to even capture his attention. And even as I was having the best season of my career, making the All-Star squad for the first time, and getting close to signing a 6 year mega-deal with my team, even then, he was unable to gather any pleasure from what was happening.

Reluctantly, he attended the All Star game with me and took in some of the festivities. In the past, his being shoulder to shoulder with the greats of the game would have brought him to a place of unadulterated joy. But without my mom around, he was a lost soul. Even my appearance, striking out all three batters I faced, with one pitch being clocked at 101 MPH brought only a somber "job well done" when I met him in the locker room after the game.

As July gave way to August and then September, the race heated up. We were only two games out of first place on September 13, and the team that stood between us and the pennant was in town for a three game set. We managed victories in both of the first two contests and so, on the morning of September 15 there was a deadlock at the top of the standings in our division. And, for the first time all season, my father seemed genuinely interested in what was going on with me and with the game we both adored.

We drove to the park together, arriving about 3 hours before the first pitch. On the way in, we talked about the excitement of the moment and the electricity that would be felt at the stadium that night. We discussed how good my arm seemed, even this late in the season, and how eager I was to get the ball in my hand. I wanted to pitch on the night of September 15 maybe more than at any time in my entire career. I felt that I could bring my dad back into the world if only I could do my job well on this night. That he could stop grieving and start living. And I wanted to do this for my mom to show her that I had learned the lesson she taught the day she yelled at me and closed the door in my face.

On October 16,1920 Ray Chapman was hit in the head by a pitch from Carl Mays. It was twilight, the ball was scuffed up, and reports are that Chapman never saw the pitch that killed him. The ball hit his skull with such force that Mays thought the ball had made contact with the bat. As the ball rolled out to him on the mound, he fielded it and threw it to first. Chapman took several steps before collapsing to his knees, the blood pouring out of his left ear. Twelve hours later he was dead. It remains the only fatality of a player in the history of the major leagues, dating back about a century and a half, and involving pitches and hits in the many millions. As I remained apparently lifeless on the field, the question everyone watching was pondering was whether I would be the second. My dad's face turned ashen and he sunk deep into his seat, almost fully slumped over.

I had pitched the bottom of the eighth inning in this tie game, thrown only thirteen pitches and retired the side in order. It was not my routine to pitch two innings, having only done this once in the season. But this was a pennant race and the rules of engagement were now changed. And so I headed back to the mound for the last of the ninth with our team leading by a run, thanks to a massive home run from our clean up hitter. Three outs away from the sweep, and headed to first place. I hoped my dad was enjoying the moment.

Herb Score arrived on the major league scene as a 21 year old phenom in 1955. He would strike out 255 batters that season a rookie record that stood for almost 30 years. He won 20 games in 1956. On May 7, 1957 he threw a fastball to Gil McDougald. The ball sped off McDougald's bat and hit Score squarely in the face, breaking multiple facial bones and damaging his eye. McDougald, seeing what had happened, ran not in the direction of first base, but directly to the mound. While Score would recover, his career never did. He eventually retired in 1962, well short of his 30th birthday.

The 6 foot 5 inch 235 pound man instantly knew that I was in trouble. Much like the reaction of McDougald, and even in the most heated of moments of a pennant race, his instincts took over. He sprinted from the batter's box, not to the base that was awaiting his arrival as the potential tying run in the most important game of the season, but towards me. He would be called out for running outside of the base paths. 

The protocol in baseball, when an injury happens or is suspected, is for the team trainer to head out to the field to inspect the problem. Then, except in the rarest of instances, the player is helped into the dugout, if that is required, or walks off "under his own power". In all the years that I had watched baseball and in all the years my dad had been around the game we had never seen the ambulance go through the outfield gates in the first instance. But, within a matter of what seemed only a few seconds, there they were, ready to attend to me. They knew this was serious.

My dad had been seated several rows back from the field, along with family members of many of the other players. After sitting slumped over for an instant, he suddenly righted himself and stood up erect and focused. He was going to his son, his only son and no one was stopping him. 

The security guards formed a protective shield around my dad and brought him to the edge of the field. There he jumped over the three foot barrier and ran towards me, in full stride. In what was but a brief moment from when I went down, a most unusual group huddled over me; the medical team, the batter, my best friend and my father. As the umpires attempted to restore some sort of order and the teams stayed a respectful distance away, this strange entourage assembled. In the days that followed, the picture of these people thrown together in the worst of circumstances went viral, receiving almost 30 million hits within the first 72 hours.

And as I lay there and the medical team worked furiously to try to get me stabilized so they could move me into the ambulance, the voice of the most senior of the medical personnel could be heard. "This does not look good", he said reflexively and no one in particular, "this does not look good at all."

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