Wednesday September 12th, 2012

It's the second of two sounds that stays with you, when you play the video of what happened to Brandon McCarthy on Wednesday, Sept. 5.

McCarthy, the 29-year-old A's starter, throws a 91 mph cutter to Angels shortstop Erick Aybar, and Aybar does what he is supposed to do with it: he hits it, on a line, right up the middle. This produces the first sound, the clean crack of ball meeting bat. A third of a second later, perhaps, comes the second sound, the haunting one, duller and softer. This is the sound that results when Aybar's line drive connects with the back of McCarthy's skull, having arrived there so quickly that the pitcher does not have time to raise his hands to protect himself.

McCarthy was able to walk off the field, but in the days immediately after came a steady stream of concerning news: He suffered an epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion and a skull fracture, needed surgery to relieve pressure on his brain, and was considered to be in a life-threatening situation until just a few days ago.

McCarthy was released from the hospital on Tuesday, but the graphic nature of his injury made his the most notable to be incurred this season as the result of a so-called comebacker. It was not, however, the only one.

In May, Rays starter Jeff Niemann had his right leg broken by a line drive in Toronto. Niemann has since pitched a mere 3 1/3 innings. In June, the Yankees' Andy Pettitte had his left leg broken by a liner, and he has yet to return to the mound. Earlier this month, Angels ace Jered Weaver was hit in the right shoulder by a shot off the bat of Seattle's Dustin Ackley. Weaver, too, has not pitched since, but he was due to return to the mound Thursday.

All four pitchers play for teams fighting for the postseason and very much in need of the quality innings they could provide. Their concurrent absences has placed some focus on the most dangerous element of a pitcher's line of work: Unarmored, he must propel himself in the direction of a man whose job is to strike a hard object back at him,usually at a higher velocity than which it was thrown, often significantly so. (According to the website hittrackeronline.com, the Marlins' Giancarlo Stanton in May hit a home run that left his bat at a speed of more than 122 miles per hour.)

That such a situation can sometimes result in catastrophe is well-known to Billy Wagner, who was hit in July 1998. Playing for the Astros, Wagner threw one of his high-90s fastballs to Diamondbacks catcher Kelly Stinnett. A split second later, Wagner found himself on the ground, confused, with a terrible pain behind his left ear, where Stinnett's line drive had connected with his skull. "It was a fastball inside to Kelly," Wagner recalls, "and when he hit it, it was almost like it was in slow motion. My body was turned, and when I reached back, it was almost like I flat missed it. I didn't realize it was 102 mph coming back at me, either. I went down, and I was just dazed. I didn't know how to react."

For the next several weeks, Wagner suffered with vertigo, but when he returned to the mound in August, his central affliction was not physical but mental. "The one thing I kept thinking about when I was coming back after being hit was not allowing that to affect me," he says. "I was so stubborn. I remember, in rehab, intentionally trying to throw the same pitch, the one that was hit back at me" -- an inside fastball -- "over and over again. But at times when you're back on the mound and that pitch is called you get a little hesitant about it -- because you know what can happen. After a while, you get in the heat of the battle, and you stop worrying about that comebacker. But in the back of your mind, you always know what can happen."

Wagner was able to continue his career apace -- 368 of his 422 career saves came after his accident and he retired after the 2010 season in fifth place on the all-time saves list. But some pitchers cannot overcome the experience. Most famously, Herb Score, an Indians lefthander who was struck in the face by a line drive off the bat of the Yankees' Gil McDougald in 1957, never regained the form that had made him AL Rookie of the Year two years earlier. Others -- like the Red Sox' Bryce Florie, whose face was broken and bloodied by a line drive in 2000 -- have had a similar fate.

Before every pitch Wagner threw for the rest of his career, he reminded himself to land in proper fielding position. Now, as a coach at Virginia's Miller School of Albemarle and of two travel teams, he runs his pitchers through endless fielding drills in an attempt to prepare them for the most potentially dangerous part of their jobs. Sometimes, of course, a pitch is hit so squarely, and so hard, that the man who threw it is defenseless, no matter his positioning.

Some observers, in response to this season's flurry of injuries, have suggested that pitchers might one day wear helmets in the field, such as that worn by former Blue Jays and Mets first baseman John Olerud. That is not a development that is likely to be in the near-term offing. "Well, that sounds great, but football players still get concussions," says Wagner. "I guess, with practice, you can do anything, but I don't think a pitcher could ever have that normal feel with a helmet on his head."

Every year, it seems, a different safety issue emerges to the forefront of the baseball conversation, whether it is the shattering of maple bats, or the danger of collisions at home plate, or, now, the vulnerability of pitchers on the mound. The fact is that while steps can be taken to marginally decrease the perils that arise when men play a game that involves high velocities generated in a confined space, perils will always remain, unless the very nature of the game is changed.

The only thing to do, says Nationals ace Gio Gonzalez -- a friend and former A's teammate of McCarthy's -- is to keep such dangers out of one's mind. "My jaw was on the floor when I saw what happened to Brandon, and I want him to get back in the game as soon as possible," Gonzalez says. "But I think it's just the nature of the game, and I'm pretty sure the possibility of that happening was the last thing he was thinking of when he made that pitch. I'll be honest with you: I have the worst landing mechanics in the world, and my reactions are real late. But it's a touchy topic. Sometimes, it's like, don't talk about it too much, because it might happen to you."

McCarthy indicated to the world that he would be fine, physically anyway, through the most appropriate channel, for him: through Twitter, a medium of which he is likely baseball's master. "The good news in all of this, is that I set up my fantasy lineups beforehand. So there shall be no excuses at this point," he tweeted via his account, @BMcCarthy32, three days after he was struck.

McCarthy will not pitch again this season, but he should return in 2013. By then the baseball world will likely be consumed by some other issue. With each pitch he throws, though, McCarthy, like Wagner and so many others before him, will likely be thinking, in some part of his mind, about the danger in which he's placing himself for his own profit and passion, and for our entertainment.

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