Wednesday, we all thought at the time, was the worst day. Wednesday, during a start against the Angels, Brandon McCarthy was hit in the head by a line-drive comebacker. Though McCarthy managed to turn his head away before impact, all that did was spare his face; a line drive still struck him in the skull, and McCarthy went down to the ground, hitting his head. It’s just a nightmarish sight every time that this happens, and McCarthy, of course, was removed from the game. But he walked off under his own power, and immediate reports were positive. It sounded like McCarthy had avoided serious injury.
Thursday was the actual worst day, for the public. Thursday, we all found out that, Wednesday night, McCarthy had undergone two hours of brain surgery. The terms were chilling: epidural hemorrhage, skull fracture, brain contusion. Really, “brain surgery” was sufficient. Doctors needed to go through McCarthy’s skull to relieve pressure on his brain, pressure that could’ve killed him if left untreated long enough. Wednesday brought the incident, but Thursday brought the grisly details.
McCarthy now is said to be resting comfortably, and his prognosis is very good. It’ll take McCarthy some time to heal, and in the meantime he’ll have to remain mostly inactive, but once he’s better he should be able to get back into pitching. McCarthy’s set to be a free agent after this season, and while that obviously isn’t the thing that’s on anyone’s mind, McCarthy has a future in the game. Possibly and probably a long one.
I wanted to take this opportunity to quickly touch on three things. Full disclosure: years ago, something very similar happened to me, and I actually got hurt considerably worse. I’m not here to talk about myself; I just now have a particular interest in incidents like this one. I have a personal understanding of what this is like, and every single time it happens, it breaks my heart. Off we go.
(1) Brandon McCarthy is extremely lucky. I know it’s weird to describe as lucky a guy who got hit in the head and subsequently needed brain surgery, because it seems like a lucky guy wouldn’t have gotten hit at all. The ball would’ve flown right by a lucky guy’s face. But given the comebacker, given the impact, McCarthy is lucky, because luck is all about outcome relative to expectations, and McCarthy’s outcome isn’t that bad compared to what could’ve happened.
One Saturday night, when I was at school, there was a fraternity party on the other side of campus. A freshman was in charge of manning the door, and he denied entry to one particular group of individuals. One member of the group pulled a gun, and what wound up happening was that the freshman got shot in the ear. That night, the freshman was extremely unlucky, because he got shot. That night, the freshman was extremely lucky, because he only got shot in the ear instead of somewhere more serious. In a short amount of time, he was fine, albeit left with a slightly different-looking ear.
Unless something unexpected goes wrong, McCarthy should emerge from this in great shape. An epidural hemorrhage means bleeding in the brain, which is awful, and it can be lethal if it isn’t taken care of. But the same goes for lots of things, McCarthy was very promptly attended to, and the surgery to relieve the pressure caused by an epidural hemorrhage is fairly straightforward, as brain surgery is concerned. McCarthy easily could’ve sustained an intraparenchymal hemorrhage, which would’ve been way worse. He easily could’ve sustained significant brain damage, and brain damage doesn’t get a whole lot better over time. A horrible thing happened to Brandon McCarthy, but so many worse things could’ve happened that would’ve altered or even ended his life.
Among a pool of the unfortunate, McCarthy is very fortunate. He will need time to recover, and there will probably be some psychological hurdles when he tries to get into baseball again, but there’s going to be more baseball. There’s going to be a normal life for Brandon McCarthy at the other end of this. Perhaps even a richer life, in ways that have nothing to do with money.
(2) People forget about Erick Aybar. For example, Aybar was the Angels player who hit the line drive that hit Brandon McCarthy, and this is the first time he’s been mentioned in this post. All of the attention has gone to McCarthy — he’s the victim, he’s the one who’s hurt — and Aybar has just been the guy who did it. If we’re going to worry about emotions and mental states, this is hardest for McCarthy and for the people who love him, but for Erick Aybar, this isn’t exactly a walk in the park.
This isn’t like a hit in the middle of a football field, where a concussed receiver lies on the ground while a triumphant safety poses above him. There was no aggressor here, there was nothing intentional. Aybar, surely, was trying to hit a line drive, so in that regard he was successful, but he wasn’t trying to hit it at the pitcher’s head. He just wanted to hit it somewhere that would allow him to reach base. Aybar didn’t reach base, and then he had to look toward the mound and see what he had caused by making solid contact.
To the extent that the public can care about professional athletes, many people are broken up about McCarthy, and, because of Twitter, they also feel very badly for his wife. Few, if any people have given much thought to what Aybar must be going through, and if you think about it, Erick Aybar has to live with the fact that he drilled a pitcher in the skull. Thankfully the pitcher looks like he’s going to be okay and of course Aybar will always know that it was an accident, but Aybar also knows this never would have happened if it weren’t for him taking the swing that he took. Erick Aybar was directly responsible for Brandon McCarthy requiring two hours of brain surgery.
Everybody is different and I’ve never spoken to Erick Aybar, so the most I can do is make an educated guess. But after something like this, the guilt can be overwhelming. It would be different if McCarthy had a worse prognosis and Aybar will get over this as McCarthy gets over this, but just as this’ll always be in McCarthy’s head, it’ll always be in Aybar’s head. He’s probably beat himself up a few times, and he’ll probably do it a few times more. He probably won’t feel 100 percent until he knows that McCarthy is back on a mound. Again, this is me guessing, and maybe Aybar is just the most unfeeling person in the world, but an incident like this leaves only victims, and Aybar is most definitely among them. It’s hard to cope when you damage somebody else’s existence.
(3) Every time a pitcher gets hit in the head, people talk about the need for protection, and there is a need for protection, just as there’s always been. On any given pitch, the probability is >0% that there will be a line-drive comebacker that leaves the pitcher permanently disabled or permanently dead, which means that, given enough time, we could see a pitcher end up disabled or dead. That’s what we’re headed toward, if we leave everything as it is.
The difficulty, of course, is figuring out how to protect a pitcher’s head without preventing him from being able to throw normally, and the potential solution in development I’ve read the most about is basically a liner worn inside the hat. I don’t know how well it works, or whether it could be improved upon. Pitchers are aware of the risks of pitching and most of them are reluctant to change, especially since comebackers are such infrequent events, but pitchers are also at risk and they ought to be protected, as catchers are protected, and as hitters are protected, and as base coaches are protected. Hitters stand 60’6 away from the pitchers and wear helmets to protect them from errant fastballs. Pitchers stand 60’6 away from the hitters and wear hats to protect them from line drives that come off the bat just as fast, or faster, than the pitch itself.
We can’t let implementation of protection be reactive — it has to be proactive, or else a pitcher’s life will be altered or ended. I mean, it would already be reactive, since pitchers at lower levels have been badly hurt, but the major leagues are what’s most visible and right now, in the major leagues, there is nothing. There is a hat. Tap your skull with your fist, then put on a hat, then tap your skull with your fist. Bad things have already happened; someday, something worse might happen, in the middle of a major-league infield.
If you were starting baseball from scratch, today, you would probably have more instant replay, and you would probably try to do something to protect the pitchers on the mound. It’s only what makes the most sense.