J.A. Happ's injury revives a personal anguish for this baseball dad

J.A. Happ's injury revives a personal anguish for this baseball dad
J.A. Happ is wheeled off the field on a stretcher after getting hit in the head with a line drive. (James Borchuck / MCT)

Somebody is going to get killed out there.

I've said it a hundred times, thought it a thousand.


The only question was, what ballplayer would have to die on the mound before something was done to protect pitchers?

The issue, in the news again after Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ was felled by a line drive Tuesday night, is personal with me because it happened to my son Matt.


He was struck in the face by a line drive in a high school game and on the side of the head during a scrimmage in college.

The first incident was witnessed by an overflow crowd watching the championship game of a spring tournament, and it prompted an Orange County Register columnist to call for a ban on metal bats in high school competition.

Matt sustained a concussion and multiple facial fractures, but his surgeon said the ball had struck him in "the perfect spot" to avoid a more serious injury — just below the cheekbone, above his jaw and to the side of his nose.

The shot he took in college was worse. It nearly killed him.

He was struck in nearly the same spot as Happ, between the temple and ear — only on the opposite side because Matt throws right-handed and Happ is a lefty.

I'll never forget the neurosurgeon holding up an X-ray showing a fracture line running from the side of Matt's head in toward the middle of his skull, stopping right at the carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain.

Any farther, by the tiniest fraction and, well … the doctor just shook his head.

It happened in February 2010 and drew local headlines in the Bay Area and also from the Associated Press and Yahoo. But soon the season geared up and the attention waned.

Plans were already in the works for safety modifications on the metal bats used by high school and college players, but I came to think no real improvements would take place until something happened to an 11- or 12-year-old performing on youth baseball's grandest stage, the Little League World Series.

A boy I knew barely escaped a couple of years ago, when the straight bill of his cap cushioned a blow still strong enough to knock him off his feet. The impact left an indentation — it looked as if someone had taken a bite out of his hat — but had the ball glanced off one way or the other it would have crashed into his forehead or his nose.

It was a prime illustration of how a ball coming off one of those souped-up metal bats could be lethal to a kid pitcher, vulnerable as he finishes his follow-through only 40 feet or so from home plate.

Over the years, a couple of boys died after being struck in the head, but no changes came about. Those deaths did not happen in a stadium packed with 40,000 fans and in front of a national television audience of millions. Sometimes it takes a very public catastrophe to finally ignite change.

Happ was struck by a drive off the bat of Desmond Jennings during a game between the Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.

He tried to get his glove up to shield himself but was a split-second late, and the 6-foot-6 left-hander was nailed on the left side of his skull with such force that the impact could be heard several levels up in the stadium.

The ball came to rest in foul territory halfway up the right-field line as Happ lay face down in front of the mound, his glove and bare hand covering his head and a crowd of 10,273 watching in stunned silence.

Happ, 30, sustained a bruise to his head and a cut to his left ear, but he was released from the hospital Wednesday and said in a statement he was in "good spirits." That makes him one of the lucky ones — he not only survived, he also escaped serious injury.

Each year, balls driven up the middle of the field cause severe injuries to pitchers in baseball and softball. Many such incidents in youth-league practices and games go unreported. Happ is the latest among dozens of major league pitchers who have been struck in the head by comebackers. Last September, Brandon McCarthy, then with the Oakland Athletics, suffered a skull fracture that required surgery after taking a liner off the bat of Angels shortstop Erick Aybar.

A baseball executive said earlier this year that this incident had accelerated Major League Baseball's timetable to find a way to better protect pitchers. Safety products, however, are still in the development stages.

The challenge is to design a product that is lightweight and flexible and can be concealed under or as part of a hat — major leaguers wouldn't want to wear a bulky helmet — but is still large and sturdy enough to protect critical areas and absorb the impact of a ball traveling well in excess of 100 mph.

EvoShield, a Georgia company that manufactures protective equipment such as wrist and elbow guards, helped my son, who wanted to continue pitching for the University of San Francisco.

Though it wasn't in the headgear market, the company provided two pieces of its "gel to shell" technology, which the mother of a teammate sewed together to create a rudimentary protective device that Matt wore under his hat. Flaps that curved south over his temples looked like a shock of sideburns covering half his cheeks.

Would the apparatus fully protect him in the event of another head shot? Not a chance. But it provided just enough mental comfort to allow him to manage his fear — there was plenty of that — and compete again.

Less than two months after his injury, and less than a week after he was cleared to play catch or jog, Matt threw four scoreless innings in a West Coast Conference game against Gonzaga.

In his first inning, he retired the side in order, striking out the first two batters on six pitches as I tried not to hyperventilate in the stands. When the inning was over, teammates — several of them crying — came bolting out of the dugout to embrace him.

The next season, EvoShield provided Matt with an improved model that allowed him to finish his college career. But, despite triumphs that included a conference championship and NCAA regional start, baseball was never quite the same for him, or for me.

As a youth coach to my two sons, I don't know how many times I urged my hitters to "drive the ball up the middle."

I still help out friends as a coach, but I no longer utter that phrase. Sometimes I feel guilty even coaching the game, especially working with the pitchers.

Before Matt's second injury he had been a top performer, earning several conference pitching awards and competing in the prestigious summer Cape Cod League. There were some hopes a professional team might draft him.

But his career ended with his final college game, and with that came an odd feeling for a father:


No longer would I worry about him out on the mound.

It's not safe out there.