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.