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Sight for Sore Eyes After his face was crushed by a batted ball in last season's most gruesome play, Boston's Bryce Florie is returning to normal--and not ruling out a comeback

Nov. 27, 2000
Nov. 27, 2000

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Nov. 27, 2000

Catching Up With...

Sight for Sore Eyes After his face was crushed by a batted ball in last season's most gruesome play, Boston's Bryce Florie is returning to normal--and not ruling out a comeback

He still watches the video. He isn't sure how many times he has
seen it--it's not as if he watches it every day before
breakfast--but if there is nothing to do, sure, Bryce Florie pops
the cassette into his VCR and watches himself get hit in the face
with a baseball. The 30-year-old Boston Red Sox relief pitcher
says, "I want to see what everyone else saw."

This is an article from the Nov. 27, 2000 issue Original Layout

His brother, Brannon, 22, watched the video once and will not
watch again. Bryce Florie cannot stop. He fast-forwards past some
of the action. Then he slows down the tape. He hits the PAUSE
button. He stares, then rewinds. Sitting in his condo near
Charleston, S.C., he is entranced by his own ghastly image. He
knows what happened to the character on the screen. He knows the
hurt, the pain, the immediate ribbon of fear and doubt that ran
through the character's head when a line drive crashed into his
right eye. He tries to relate all this to what everyone else saw.

"I remember when I sat up," says Florie. "I was pointed toward
the Yankees dugout along the third base line. All their players
were at the top of the steps, looking at me. I sort of surveyed
everything. I panned around behind the plate. I could see all
the fans, standing on their toes, looking down, like they were
ready to jump off a cliff, hang gliding or something. There was
no sound. I looked toward our dugout. I could see the concern on
my teammates' faces. That was what scared me the most, the way
everyone was looking at me."

What could make a crowd of 33,861 people at Fenway Park that
quiet? He watches the righthander throw from the stretch
position, runners on first and second, two outs in the top of the
ninth. He watches a New York Yankees righthanded batter named
Ryan Thompson swing, hit the ball on a straight line back in the
direction whence it came. He watches the pitcher react a
heartbeat too slowly, glove starting to move, the ball hitting
him squarely in the eye. There is an accompanying sound.

"You hear that thing hit my face," Florie says. "Whenever I see
that..." He clears his throat. "I'm getting choked up right now,"
he says.

This is more than two months later.

He did not think he would pitch on the night of Sept. 8, the
opener of a three-game series against the Yankees. He had pitched
the previous day, throwing 20 pitches to close out an 11-6 win
over the Minnesota Twins. At lunch he told Brannon, who had come
up from Orlando for the series with a friend, that he didn't feel
great. But it didn't matter because he didn't think he would
pitch tonight.

Finishing his sixth full major league season, Florie was far from
being a star. He was a sinker-slider scuffler, a tough 5'11",
192-pound right arm, mainly a middle-man out of the bullpen, with
a career record of 20-23 and an ERA of 4.34. In his second season
with Boston, he was in the first year of a two-year, $2.9 million
contract. "I'd be making a lot more money if you'd taught me to
throw harder, like Pedro Martinez," he'd told his father, Robert,
a week earlier.

Robert, a solid baseball and softball player as a young man in
Charleston, had taught his three sons to play the game. They all
had talent--Bryce's fraternal twin, Bryan, as an outfielder and
pitcher, and Brannon as a pitcher and infielder--but Bryce was the
one with the determination. A 1988 fifth-round draft choice of
the San Diego Padres, he'd signed out of high school in Hanahan,
S.C. (a suburb of Charleston), climbed for six years through the
minors and then pitched for the Padres, the Milwaukee Brewers and
the Detroit Tigers before landing with the Red Sox.

Just making the big leagues was a triumph for a player who,
without his contact lenses, was legally blind. (His vision,
20/400 uncorrected, was correctable to 20/20.) His eyes were set
in an improper position because he was born two months
prematurely. He still was bothered a little by bright lights in
the background, making night games more difficult to play than
day games, but he had learned to adjust. It was no big thing.
Mark McGwire is nearsighted and suffers from astigmatism, and he
hit 70 home runs in a season.

Fear on the mound was never a factor. Throw a baseball for a
living and you will get hit by the baseball. Florie had been hit
so many times in so many places he could not remember them all.
In only his second big league game he'd been hit in the elbow by
a young infielder named Mike Lansing. Lansing was now a Boston
teammate.

Florie, however, marveled at the speed of this game he played, at
the balls that flew past even before there was time for a
reaction, hot wind whipping past his ear. The casual fan can't
understand how fast the baseball travels because the grace of the
infielders--a Nomar Garciaparra, a Derek Jeter--distorts the
velocity, swallows the smash up in a long leather glove and
converts it into a routine, 6-3 ground ball. But Florie
understands. "If the fan stood by the diamond and watched those
plays," he says, "the fan would have a different appreciation of
how good these guys are."

The fans turned out this weekend to see the Red Sox take on the
Yankees, who were leading the American League East. Boston was
six games back, falling out of the pennant race, and needed a
sweep to climb back in it. In addition to Brannon, Bryce's old
Charleston friend Dave Morris and Morris's wife, Beth, came to
witness the action. At the last minute Florie's father, Robert,
also joined the group.

Divorced from Florie's mother, Cathy Tulluck, Robert had decided
on impulse that he wanted to see the series. Discouraged by the
high airline fares for spur-of-the-moment travelers, he began
driving from Charleston. Eighteen hours later he hit Boston. He
had left Bryan to run the family businesses, Florie's Screen
Printing and Applied Images Embroidering. "I felt I had to be at
the games," Robert says. "I don't know why."

He sat in the team's family section behind home plate. His
youngest son was in another part of the section with friends.
Morris and his wife were in yet another part. All of them were
relaxed. The pride of Charleston was not expected to pitch.

Florie took the mound in the top of the ninth in a tough
situation. New York, backed by Roger Clemens's five-hit pitching,
had a 2-0 lead and was looking for insurance runs. Red Sox lefty
Rheal Cormier had left runners on first and third with one out.
Florie was brought in to face centerfielder Clay Bellinger.

Morris, a 40-year-old merchant seaman, had played softball with
Robert, and then with the Florie twins. He remembered Bryce as
the softball team's batboy. Morris recorded the action that night
at Fenway in his head, with his own bias and memories.
"Bellinger, good pitch, bounced it back to the mound. Bryce threw
out the runner at home....

"Jose Vizcaino. Some good pitches. Didn't get the calls. Walk...

"Jeter. Bases loaded. Infield shifted to the left side. Good
pitch. Jeter hits it right to shortstop, where Garciaparra would
have been playing, except for the shift. Two runs...

"Thompson hits the first pitch....I thought I was in a dream....
I couldn't believe what I saw."

The line drive, traveling more than 100 mph, hit Florie's eye and
caught a piece of his nose. Bones in his orbital socket were
shattered. Florie lost consciousness only as he was falling. He
came to when his head hit the ground. The ball caromed to third
baseman Lou Merloni, who threw to first to get Thompson for the
third out.

Time seemed to freeze. The sound of the impact ("It sounded like
someone stepping on glass," Thompson said) could be heard up in
the press box. The picture--Florie dropping to the ground as if
hit by a hammer--was as graphic as any baseball picture could be.
The possibilities were devastating to contemplate.

Florie wasn't sure what had happened. He felt pain in his right
cheek. Could a baseball knock out an eye? He wondered. His nose
felt stuffed up, so he blew out. The release of pressure sent
blood streaming everywhere.

"Is my eye still there?" he asked Red Sox trainer Jim Rowe, one
of the first people to reach the mound. Rowe did not answer. He
could not answer. There was so much swelling he couldn't see
Florie's eye.

Thompson rushed to the mound to apologize. It is axiomatic in
baseball that you never apologize for anything, that everybody
knows the perils, that apologies are not necessary. The axiom did
not apply here. Garciaparra rushed to the mound. Catcher Jason
Varitek. Home plate umpire Tim Welke. Boston manager Jimy
Williams. Coaches Jim Rice and Joe Kerrigan.

Florie, in the middle of all this, rolled onto his back, hands
covering his face, blood on his arms and his shirt. He still
wondered about his eye. The inner voices of his profession told
him to get off the ground, to be a man, to be a ballplayer. The
outer voices, the people around him, told him to lie still. He
eventually sat up. His plan was to walk off the field, but he
could not. His legs felt useless. He sat and looked and wondered
until a golf cart arrived and he was placed on it.

He heard applause as he was driven off the field and to an
ambulance under the stands, but it was strange applause, hesitant
and respectful. He could feel everyone's fear. It increased his
own fear. "I know it's bad," he said to himself. "But can it be
this bad?"

Robert, who had headed for the clubhouse while his son was on the
ground, was given directions to the ambulance by a Red Sox
employee. Brannon had moved down from the family section as soon
as Bryce entered the game, finding a seat in the first row near
the dugout. He now wished he hadn't done that. Morris stood with
his wife and watched the cart leave the field. A TV was nearby,
and they watched the replay. Morris thought he saw an encouraging
sign. "When Bryce sat up, there was a look on his face, a look of
frustration," Morris says. "It was the same look he has when we
play golf and he hits a bad shot, like, What happened here? It
made me feel better."

Robert jumped into the front seat of the ambulance as his son was
placed aboard. When he had first reached his son, Robert almost
couldn't look at him, the swelling and the pain nearly too much
to bear. He did like Bryce's attitude, though. "This wouldn't
have happened if you'd taught me how to throw harder, like Pedro
Martinez," Bryce said.

"Maybe so," the father replied. "But I did teach you how to
duck."

Subhransu Ray was the eye trauma specialist on call for the
Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. He was home in Brookline,
watching the Red Sox game on television. "In the next 10 minutes,
this beeper is going to make a sound," he told his wife.

He was at the hospital within half an hour. Mass Eye and Ear
handles about 7,000 sports-related injuries every year. In
basketball and football, fingers are poked into eyes on an
alarmingly routine basis. Golf balls and racquetballs constantly
hit eyes. A month earlier Ray had operated on a rec league player
who had been hit by a thrown softball. The player had lost vision
in the eye, which was subsequently removed.

The first variable in determining the severity of eye injuries is
the amount of damage absorbed by the surrounding small and
medium-sized bones. Ray compares the bones around the eye to the
"crumple zone" in a modern car. If the bones took the brunt of
the impact, the "globe," the eye, was protected. If not, if the
globe was struck, the victim could lose his sight. The bones had
not taken the impact for the softball player.

Ray's first matter of business was to relieve the intense
pressure around Florie's right eye caused by all the bleeding.
The pressure could deaden the optic nerve and cause blindness.
The operation is called "orbital decompression." Ray made an
incision with his scalpel at the lateral canthus, the point where
the upper and lower eyelids meet, to let out the blood.

Florie endured all this in the mind-numbed daze of a trauma
victim. He was poked and prodded around his eye, had needles
stuck around his eyeball. He was struck by an irony: Two weeks
earlier he had been at this same hospital, inquiring about the
possibilities of laser surgery to correct his vision.

"Can you see anything?" he was asked.

"No," he said.

"Can you see light?"

"Yes. I can see light."

This seemed to be a good sign.

Everyone told him not to look at himself--not now--but at some
point he found he was near a mirror. He couldn't resist. The
advice had been right. The right side of his face was swollen to
twice its normal size. He thought he looked like the Elephant
Man. For the first time, he saw what had shocked everyone. He
began to cry. Before that pitch to Thompson, he thought, he had
looked as normal as anyone else.

Robert stayed with him for all the procedures, up all night after
being up all the previous night driving from South Carolina.
Brannon was with him much of the time. Morris and his wife were
in the waiting room at the hospital, answering all the calls on
the cell phones, giving out information. Bryan had watched the
game on television. Bryce's mother also had watched. She, Bryan
and Bryan's wife, Laura, would be coming to Boston.

There wasn't much talk about whether Florie would pitch again.
The immediate concern was whether he would see with his right eye
again. The consensus was that he was a lucky man. "Look at it
this way," one doctor said. "Your biggest victory was when you
got up off that ground."

Nearly two weeks later, after a lot of the swelling had
subsided, a second operation was performed, this time to repair
the broken bones. The ball had fractured his nose, his cheekbone
and the orbital bones to the side of and below the eye. A
titanium plate was screwed to his cheekbone to provide support.
No more work would be done on the eye. Florie's body was in
charge of the eye now. "You never know how much vision will
return," he was told. "There is blood behind the retina, and
sometimes it leaves and vision is restored. Some-times it stays.
Sometimes part of it stays."

He went back to the apartment in Cambridge that he had rented for
the season. For the first few days after he returned his eyes,
dilated by drops, made him sensitive to light. He teared easily.
He tripped over things. He spent hours reading mail, hundreds of
letters from people horrified by the pictures they had seen on
television. The letter writers told of their own struggles and
said that they were praying for him. A lot of kids wrote letters.
Teachers had entire classes write letters. One kid sent a picture
of his own black eye. Another sent a letter that made Florie
laugh.

"Everyone in our class is rooting for you to come back," the
letter said. "Except the Yankee fans."

Will he pitch again? He still doesn't know. Will he try to pitch?
He thinks so. His goal is to be ready for spring training.

Ray says that if Florie's vision improves in the damaged eye to
20/50, corrected, he could play. He conceivably could play with
only one good eye. There would be limitations, but he could play.
Number 1: He would have to stay in the American League, where he
would not have to bat. Hitting is a two-eyed skill. Number 2: He
would have extra work to do. Depth perception would be different.
Some of the smallest baseball tasks would have to be re-learned.

"Put your hand over one eye," Ray says. "While you can see,
things are different. Just brushing your teeth, shaving, would be
different. You can adjust, but it would take a while."

"My vision, corrected, is now 20/70," Florie said earlier this
month, after his most recent eye exam. "If it gets down to 20/50,
I have a good chance at pitching."

He looks fine. There still is a small swelling on the right side
that made a woman tell him the other day, "You have nice high
cheekbones." ("Well, on one side I do," he replied.) There is a
small scar near his nose, barely noticeable. The major residue of
the trauma is the blood behind the retina, but the doctors seem
encouraged because much of it has disappeared. If those remaining
spots vanish, his vision could return to where it was before
Sept. 8. Then again, the spots might stay.

"I can drive, though not as well at night as I did before," he
says. "It's a little scary. I can play golf, but not as well. I
can work out. Pitching is one thing I have not done. I don't
want to try too soon and be disappointed."

How would he feel, back on the mound? Would the 60 feet, six
inches to the plate seem closer than before? Would he be scared?
He doesn't think he would be, but he does not know. "My brother,
Bryan, thinks I should quit," Florie says. "He says, 'What do you
have to prove? You made the major leagues. That's what you wanted
to do.' I look at it a different way. I'm an athlete. Baseball is
what I'm supposed to do."

If he can't play, he's not sure what he will do. College is a
possibility. Selling real estate is a possibility. The stock
market. Fishing and golf are strong possibilities. He has a year
left on his contract, which is guaranteed. He is also covered by
a personal Lloyd's of London insurance policy. Money would not be
an immediate problem.

The one thing he does know is that he is lucky. He can lead a
normal life. He is alive. Hear that sickening sound? See that
character on the ground? See the blood? He is that character on
the ground. Baseball would be a bonus. "You'd probably be fine if
you played," someone suggests. "There's that old thing about
lightning never striking twice in the same place."

"Yeah, well lightning also isn't supposed to strike once," the
character from the video replies, in real time, real life. "At
least I'd never seen it. Until now."

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY GREG FOSTER Climbing the hill A pensive Florie stood on the mound last week at College of Charleston, but so far he's only playing catch.COLOR PHOTO: WINSLOW TOWNSON Trauma center After being hit, Florie blacked out, awoke when his head hit the ground, then wondered if he had lost his eye.COLOR PHOTO: CHUCK SOLOMON [See caption above]COLOR ILLUSTRATION: ILLUSTRATION BY ENID HATTONCOLOR PHOTO: DAVID DUROCHIK A fighting chance A sinker, a slider and a scuffling style won Florie a spot in the Sox pen.COLOR PHOTO: GREG FOSTER Florie hallelujah Robert and Bryan (right) have reveled in Bryce's recovery.

Lucky Breaks

The ball that struck Bryce Florie fractured his nose, cheekbone
and orbital bones to the side and below the globe of the eyeball.
Those bones, which acted as "crumple zones," absorbed enough of
the blow to diminish the impact on the eyeball itself, which is
why Florie is still able to see out of his right eye.

The inner voices of his profession told Florie to get off the
ground, to be a man, to be a ballplayer.
"This wouldn't have happened if you'd taught me to throw harder,
like Pedro Martinez," Bryce told his dad.