Shots to the head a scary risk for players

Shots to the head a scary risk

During the past two seasons, Padres manager Bud Black was in the dugout at PETCO Park, close enough to hear the sickening thud of a 100-mph liner crush the face of pitcher Chris Young and a 95-mph fastball smack the helmet of hitter Edgar Gonzalez.

Though both incidents to Padres players could have been catastrophic, Black said there was a difference.

"When a pitcher takes a ball off the skull at the same velocity he's thrown it, you immediately think the worst, you just do," Black said recently. "There's no doubt that a fastball taken off the helmet is not good, either. But the helmet does absorb some of the blow."

Similar incidents occurred once again Aug. 15 when Dodgers pitcher Hiroki Kuroda was hit on the right side of the head by a line drive off the bat of Arizona rookie Rusty Ryal at Chase Field. Earlier that same day at Citi Field, Mets All-Star third baseman David Wright was beaned by hard-throwing Giants right-hander Matt Cain.

Both suffered concussions and went on the 15-day disabled list. Both can come off the list as early as Sept. 1. Wright has been lobbying for a quick return and Mets manager Jerry Manuel said he expects him back on that date. Wright has been cleared by doctors to resume light physical activity.

"He seems to be doing extremely well," Manuel said this past weekend.

Kuroda is still suffering mild symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. He was also cleared to work out, but won't be back on Sept. 1.

"We're looking a couple weeks down the road," Dodgers manager Joe Torre said this week. "That's a reasonable guess."

Dodgers trainer Stan Conte waited for symptoms of the injury to subside before allowing Kuroda to participate in throwing sessions and drills.

"Kuroda was not getting better at the rate that made me and the doctors feel good about the situation," Conte told The New York Times. "It was clear that the symptoms would last longer and it was best not to put pressure on him to say that he feels better. That prevents the player from saying he's OK and from us wanting to believe him."

Including those incidents and the ones Black witnessed, involving his own players, the perils of baseball at 60 feet, 6 inches are real, and long have been an unfortunate part of the sport.

Young was struck with a liner off the bat of Cardinals power hitter Albert Pujols on May 21, 2008, suffering a broken nose and a chipped piece of skull in his forehead. He missed more than two months.

"What immediately went through my mind were all the possibilities," said Black, recalling the incident. "From the worst case scenario -- and we know what that is -- to a broken nose, which is what happened. So many things can happen in an instant with that kind of impact."

Gonzalez was hit in the head this past July 19 by Rockies pitcher Jason Hammel. The brother of All-Star first baseman Adrian Gonzalez also suffered a concussion and was placed on the 15-day disabled list, where he remains.

"I was in the video room and I saw it happen on TV and I just felt like I lost all my strength," said Adrian Gonzalez, who left the game and accompanied his brother to the hospital. "I tried to get up and go outside. I felt like I might fall to the ground if I got up, so I stayed in the chair."

Padres general manager Kevin Towers, a former pitcher, is well aware of the trauma. Two springs ago, he was sitting in the stands three rows behind the plate at a Brewers-Padres game in the Phoenix neighborhood of Maryvale when a foul ball went through a hole in the screen and nailed him in the face. Towers was scrolling through messages on his BlackBerry at the time and didn't look up in time to see the ball coming.

"It hit me on the lip beneath my nose and knocked me out of the chair," Towers said. "It probably knocked me unconscious for a couple of seconds. There was blood everywhere. I thought somebody had shot me. It was scary. I had a CAT scan and you wonder down the road whether there will be any repercussions anytime you get a blow like that to the head."

This, of course, is serious business. Doctors who track concussions have come to the conclusion that once a player suffers his first, he is more susceptible to sustaining another. The third and fourth can occur even more rapidly with much less impact to the head, heightening the symptoms of post-concussion syndrome. Thus begins the inevitable cycle that ends only when the player retires. Symptoms of post-concussion syndrome include dizziness and nausea, plus loss of sleep, memory and focus. Multiple concussions can ultimately lead to brain damage.

Recurring concussions ended the careers of football legends Steve Young and Troy Aikman, hockey stars Eric Lindros and Pat LaFontaine, and most recently, Giants catcher Mike Matheny, who took so many foul tips off his mask that no one knew he was suffering concussion after concussion until it was too late.

Baseball trailed the NFL and NHL in establishing a neurological baseline for players so trainers and physicians can judge the damage from a head injury. But now Conte, who was the Giants' trainer in 2006 when Matheny suffered his career-ending head injury, has learned from the experience. With the Dodgers, he records baselines.

"Because I lived Mike Matheny, and had a guy that never went back, it makes you more cautious and think twice about it," Conte said.

To be sure, a line drive off the head doesn't always have such dramatic results. Among his myriad injuries from which he has made remarkable comebacks, Cardinals stellar right-hander Chris Carpenter took a line drive off the right side of his face on Sept. 16, 2000, when he played for the Blue Jays. Although Carpenter suffered a fractured bone near his right eye and had to take 23 stitches inside the mouth to close a wound, he returned to action 12 days later.

"As soon as it happens, you deal with it," said Carpenter, who was in Chicago when he was ripped with a liner off the bat of Jose Valentin. "It wasn't too bad. I made a couple of starts at the end of the season because I wanted to get back out there and not be scared. If I get hit in the face again, there's nothing I can do. I can't control that.

"With everything I've been through in my career, I love going out there. I don't take anything for granted. I treat every start like it's the last time I'm ever going to pitch."

Black, a Major League pitcher for five teams during 15 seasons from 1981-95, said he was fortunate never to take a liner to the head.

"I got chest, sternum, thigh, shin, but no face shots," he said.

Tony La Russa, Carpenter's manager with the Cards, has been managing in the big leagues for 32 years.

"Never had a pitcher take one off the face or head," La Russa said. "Lucky, I guess."

Ray Chapman, a shortstop for the Indians, wasn't so lucky. He's the last player in modern baseball history to die in a game after taking a pitch to the head from Carl Mays of the Yankees. It happened on Aug. 17, 1920, 30 years before wearing helmets at the plate was adopted as a mandatory rule.

On May 7, 1957, Cleveland pitcher Herb Score was struck in the face by a line drive off the bat of Yankees third baseman Gil McDougald. Score suffered multiple fractures, missed the rest of that season and though he returned in 1958, was never the same. Score, a 20-game winner in 1956, won 17 more games after the incident and retired in 1962.

Black, for one, believes that Score's story is not the norm. Young, currently out for the season after shoulder surgery, shook off the trauma of his head injury. Like Carpenter, most players recover and go on to have productive careers, Black said.

"In general, the strength of the professional athlete is such that just to get to this level, there's a high degree of mental strength," he said. "Inherently players know the physical risk of this game, whether it's being hit by a thrown pitch or a batted ball. When it does happen, that mental strength is so great, guys come back with no problem. Even though they may be tentative at some point, they overcome it."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.