Musings: Baseball: A Dangerous Game

By Dick Flavin

Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate

and New York Times Best Selling Author

BASEBALL: A DANGEROUS GAME

A week or so ago, in a game at Kansas City with two outs in the top of the second inning,

Eduardo Nunez of the Red Sox cracked a vicious low liner directly at the Royals’ pitcher,

Danny Duffy. The ball caromed off Duffy’s right shin bone in the direction of first base

where first baseman Ryan O’Hearn gathered it up and easily made the putout to end the

inning. Meanwhile, Duffy was on the ground, writhing in pain. After a few minutes he

got to his feet and limped gingerly to the dugout. I thought, “Well, that’s the end of his

day.” But he was back out there in the third, though not for long.

With his first pitch in the third inning, Flynn hit Jackie Bradley, Jr.; then Mookie Betts

promptly homered into the left field bullpen. Three hits and two more runs later and

Duffy, obviously not the same after being hit with that line drive, was indeed through for

the day.

The incident was a reminder of what dangerous territory pitchers occupy, just fifty-five

feet from home plate after following through on a delivery. The ball can come back at

them at speeds significantly higher than what they have just thrown – Nunez’s drive was

clocked at 110 miles per hour.

It brought to mind a game nineteen years ago that was the most memorable Red Sox-

Yankees game I ever attended – and I don’t even remember what the final score was or

who won. I’ll never forget, though, what happened late in that game. The Red Sox

brought a journeyman relief pitcher named Bryce Florie into the game. Florie quickly

retired the first man he faced before issuing a walk, and then he gave up a two-run single

to Derek Jeter. Next up was outfielder Ryan Thompson, himself a journeyman – the

Yanks were his fourth major league team. Florie threw a slider, and Thompson made

solid contact. I can still hear the crack of the bat, followed an instant later by a loud,

sickening SPLAT!!

The ball, a sizzling line drive, had hit Florie square in the face. He never had a chance.

Replays would show that he had instinctively tried to cover his face with his glove but

too late. Lou Merloni, playing third base, did what all ballplayers do by training and by

instinct; he picked up the ball along the third base line and threw to first for the out before

racing the Florie’s side. The pitcher, lying on the ground with his hands to his face, was

immediately surrounded by his teammates, manager Jimy Williams, and the trainer. I do

not remember if they were joined by a team doctor. Those of us in the stands, or at least

in the area just beyond first base where I was seated, could not see him at all, but we

knew it was bad. The ballpark, filled with spectators – it was a Yankees game, after all -

was eerily silent. After several long minutes Florie was helped, holding a towel to his

face, into a golf cart to be taken from the field.

As the cart passed directly in front of us on its way to canvas alley in short right field,

where, under the stands, it would meet a waiting ambulance, Florie lowered the towel

from his face and looked around. The sight was horrific; his face was covered with blood,

most of it around his injured right eye. He was, at the time, temporarily blinded in that

eye, but his main concern, as he said later, was whether or not he would live, let alone

see.

As the ambulance sped Florie to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, the game

resumed, but nobody’s heart was in it, not the players’ and not the spectators’. At the

hospital, two operations took place; one to save his eye, the other to treat more than a

dozen fractures around his eye, nose, and cheekbone. Both were successful although he

would have lasting trouble with his vision.

What did Bryce Florie do as soon as he was sufficiently recovered from his horrific

injury? He did what ballplayers do - he went straight into a rehabilitation program to get

back on the pitching mound again. Sure enough, on June 28, 2001, less than ten months

after he’d been hit with that line drive, he entered a game at Fenway Park to an emotional

standing ovation. He pitched effectively for two and a third innings and declared

afterwards that he “was back.”

If it were a movie, inspirational music would swell, the screen would fade to black and

Bryce Florie would live happily ever afer. But it’s not a movie, it’s real life. The very

next night he was brought into a game and gave up a grand slam home run. In his next

game – it couldn’t happen again, could it? - he was hit in the hand by a line drive and had

to be taken out. After four more ineffective appearances, the Red Sox, less than a month

into his comeback, released him. So ended his big league career. Baseball, like all

professional sports, is at heart, a cold, hard, what-have-you-done-for-us-lately, business.

Florie is a baseball (the sport, not the business) guy, though, and he struggled futilely in

the minors to make another comeback. He eventually gravitated into high school

coaching.

Meanwhile, what of Ryan Thompson, the man who hit the ball that had struck Florie in

the face? He, too, was traumatized; especially since, a decade earlier, as a young minor

leaguer, he had been hit in the face by a pitched ball. Then, on July 5, 2004, while on a

rehab assignment with the New Orleans Zephyrs, an affiliate of the Houston Astros,

Thompson, trying to leg out a double, went into a head first dive into second base, and his

chin inadvertently struck the defending shortstop’s knee. The force of the collision

snapped his head back and broke his neck. He was temporarily paralyzed. Doctor’s later

said he had come within a hair’s breadth of being permanently paralyzed from the neck

down, like the movie actor Cristopher Reeve. Thompson avoided that and eventually

fully recovered, but his baseball career was over.

Baseball can be a beautiful game, but, as both Bryce Florie and Ryan Thompson can

attest, it can be a very dangerous one, too. We shouldn’t forget that.