One of the scariest things that a fan can witness on a baseball field is a hitter standing in the batter’s box being struck in the head by a pitched ball traveling more than 90 mph.
That’s what happened to Miami Marlins star Giancarlo Stanton a few days ago. He was hit in the head by a ball thrown by Milwaukee Brewers hurler Mike Fiers and the impact was so violent that facial bones broke, dental work was needed, and stitches from cuts decorated his face.
Stanton had to be taken from the Miller Park field by ambulance, never a reassuring site. The only thing frighteningly comparable to such damage caused by a pitched ball is what happens to a pitcher when a batter smokes a line drive at him.
Stanton’s is one of the most dramatic hit-by-pitch incidents seen in the majors in some time, but through the course of history the law of averages has many times resulted in hard-thrown balls decking batters and injuring them.
Hall of Famers
The late Don Zimmer, better remembered as a coach and manager, but decades ago a hotshot infielder, nearly had his career ended early because he was concussed by a hard-pitched ball. Minnie Minoso was hospitalized with a concussion in the 1950s. Hall of Fame catcher Mickey Cochrane saw his playing career end after he was hit in the head by a pitch in 1937. Tony Conigliaro, one of the most promising hitters in Boston Red Sox history, was just emerging as a star when he was felled by a pitch that nearly killed him and essentially ruined his career.
Major League baseball dates to 1876 with the founding of the National League and it is beyond miraculous that over those 138 years only one player has been killed as the result of a pitched ball hitting him in the head. The incident occurred in 1920 when submarine-style thrower Carl Mays of the New York Yankees beaned Cleveland Indians infielder Ray Chapman. Chapman died from his injuries later that night.
It is understood that one of the strategies of pitchers is to keep batters from encroaching too much on the plate. They have the right to protect the inside corner. Some pitchers through the ages have been known for throwing “brushback” pitches and warning shots. Amongst the most famous are Early Wynn of the Indians and Chicago White Sox, Bob Gibson of the St. Louis Cardinals and Don Drysdale of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Batters knew they had to stay loose in the box and that those guys – all of them Hall of Famers, by the way -- would carve out their territory.
Compared to the 1960s, when that trio overlapped, Major League umpires are not nearly as tolerant of so-called headhunting pitchers throwing high and tight. Just one such throw will earn a pitcher a warning and a second such pitch will likely result in ejection from the game. In this sense the sport has become more “civilized.”
There were no serious suggestions that Fiers threw at Stanton on purpose and indeed Fiers was both contrite and apologetic immediately.
The severity of Stanton’s injuries is still being evaluated, though the contact, coming so close to the end of the season means that the chances of him playing again in 2014 are slight. Initially, he was ruled out for sure, but then talk began circulating that Stanton may yet appear in a Marlins game before the end of the season.
Both the player and the team will want to learn as soon as possible if Stanton can return to the batter’s box without being skittish. But really, it would probably be best for him to stay on vacation for the rest of the season and heal.