Freak accidents like the one Gunnar Sandberg experienced last year are a terrifying part of the game. I've been hit in the head with a baseball twice — once as a pitcher and once as a hitter, which is in the video you see here. These incidents occurred within 18 months of each other. The first time I only received a few stitches. The second time was much more serious.
The first time a baseball almost killed me, I was 15 years old and playing in a competitive fall ball league. It was my first game pitching for this team and a lot of the guys were varsity players from my high school, so I wanted to make sure to have a good outing.
Through the first few innings, I allowed only one baserunner. I threw hard and had good control. Things were going as planned, and I wasn't intimidated by the older players at all. Except for the three hitter. He carried himself differently, more professionally. And he was big. The first time he came to the plate, I had walked him on four pitches.
Our first baseman, Luke, saw how uneasy I felt about this behemoth and came out to the hill prior to his next at-bat to reassure me.
"Don't worry about this kid," Luke said. "He sucks dick." I smiled and watched him jog back to first.
I stepped onto the rubber, took my sign (a fastball away), then set, kicked, and delivered. The ball started just off the outside corner, but tailed back over the plate. I remember seeing a loose piece of white athletic tape flopping off the bat handle, then a wooden barrel, then a glowing white ball. I tilted down to the left; it was a useless instinctive attempt to avoid the fuzzy round object coming at my forehead. I heard a deep, dull thud.
The ball hit me on the right crown of my head. I don't remember feeling the blow, but my head felt as if it were moving simultaneously from side to side and from back to front. The earth was shaking. I felt very sick. My legs disappeared. I was face-down on the ground breathing in mound dirt. Still, my body told me to find the ball and throw it to first, so I tried to get up.
"Stay down. Stay down," Luke yelled as he ran toward the mound. I dropped to the ground again. The blood started to pour out of my head and into my eyes. It was very hard to keep them open, but I did see my mom sprinting from the stands.
I lay face-down on the ground, conscious, and waited for the ambulance to arrive. I wasn't dazed. I really didn't feel all that different except for all the blood. I even remember joking with the paramedics. I got a CAT scan, some stitches, and they released from the hospital that night.
I was later told that the ball landed in short left field.
Roughly a year-and-a-half after that, my high school was in the regional final, playing our rival for the title. We were heavily favored, but I remember being unusually nervous about the game. I was playing first and hitting seventh. We went scoreless in the first and left a runner in scoring position. The next inning, our first two runners got on, and I was next in the order. Everyone in the stadium knew I was up there to bunt.
I jogged to the plate, put my right foot in the righty batter box and looked for my sign. Our third base coach went through a set of mock signs and then yelled, "Base knock," our verbal for "bunt for a hit." I stepped in and wiggled the bat over the plate, shifting my weight from one leg to the other. This routine always kept me loose and calm. The pitcher set. My hands moved to shoulder height. I felt a sudden jolt of nerves shoot from my stomach to my throat. Pickoff to second. I remember feeling very tense at this point. I took a deep breath and repeated my in-box tradition.
As the next pitch came, I jabbed my left foot out and squared my bat head toward the third-base line. I remember the ball looking strange to me — like it wasn't going where it was supposed to. I realized then that it was in line with my face, but I was committed to the bunt and already moving across the plate. I tried to bring my hands in toward me to adjust the bat vertically. Too late.
I don't actually remember what happened next: the ball hitting my face, the seizure, or the ambulance ride. The medics gave me smelling salts, and I came to with my jersey cut open and plastic heart-monitor attachments pulling at my chest hair. I remember the taste of blood and my face and left shoulder throbbing with pain. I asked my dad if we had won. He said yes.
I stayed at the hospital that night due to the nature of the concussion. For about a week, the left side of my face was twice its normal size. I have a small baseball-seam scar above my upper lip, but no other noticeable physical or psychological effects. I even closed out the sectional final a week later.
My dad filmed the video. You can hear him say, "God dammit" when he sees the blood rushing out of my nose and mouth and then he shuts the camera off. You can also hear my coach yell, "it got him in the face!" over and over again to argue the foul ball call because, well, yeah.
Z.W. Martin writes for ChicagoNOW's Stumbling Through and Tremendous Upside Potential. He is the director of baseball operations for AcademyELITE Baseball in Glenview, Ill. Follow him on Twitter @ZWMartin. Email him at email@example.com. He is also known to you around these parts as When_you_get_the_money_you_get_the_Micah_Hoffpauir.