Oakland Athletics pitcher Brandon McCarthy walked off the field with a trainer after being hit in the head on a line drive by Los Angeles Angels shortstop Erick Aybar. McCarthy suffered a fractured skull and brain contusion and needed surgery Credit: Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE

Brandon McCarthy is a Lucky Guy

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Brandon McCarthy is fortunate to be alive. When a batted ball hits you in the head with the force of 100 mph-plus and the next word about your condition is that you are undergoing  brain surgery, survival is the foremost issue. This has been Major League Baseball’s biggest nightmare waiting to happen forever–the threat of a pitcher being killed by a line drive.

It is remarkable that there has never been a big-league fatality on the field from a batted ball since the formation of the National League in 1876. Given what happened to the Oakland A’s pitcher Wednesday afternoon in the fourth inning when Los Angeles Angels hitter Erick Aybar swung and smacked a wicked line drive back to the mound, it seems someone was saying their prayers on a regular basis.

The ball hit McCarthy’s head so hard that it bounced over to third baseman Josh Donaldson, who fielded the bounce cleanly and threw Aybar out at first base. By then, McCarthy, a 29-year-old right-hander with a record of 8-6 with a 3.24 earned run average, was lying on the ground. He struggled to sit up as trainers and teammates rushed to his aid. McCarthy even rose to his feet and walked off the field with help.

The phrase dodging a bullet is overused and employed in many circumstances that are far from literal. In this case McCarthy did not dodge a bullet, but initally it seemed possible he was not as badly hurt as it seemed. Then he was examined at a hospital and it was determined that he suffered a fractured skull, a brain contusion, and an epidural hemorrhage,and needed two hours worth of surgery on his brain. What was a frightening play to see became more frightening.

It is a very good thing that every precaution was taken. While sitting on the mound McCarthy felt around his head, apparently trying to figure out if he was bleeding. Donaldson said he saw no blood. Imagine if McCarthy had only been cursorily examined and the swelling discovered later went unchecked. It is believed that actress Natasha Richardson died from an epidural hemorrhage suffered when she hit her head in a skiing accident in 2009. Like McCarthy, initially Richardson was lucid and able to walk under her own power. She returned to her hotel, but three hours later was rushed to a hospital with a headache and subsequently passed away. McCarthy went straight to a hospital.

There has only been one death on a Major League field stemming from game action. In 1920, Cleveland Indians infielder Ray Chapman was struck in the head by a pitched ball from Carl Mays and died 12 hours later. Baseball fans, however, will remember the 2007 death of minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh, tragically struck in the head and killed by a line drive while working for the Tulsa Drillers.

In 1956, Herb Score, a young pitcher with the Indians who had Stephen Strasburg-like promise, and two years into an All-Star career–was felled by a line drive off the bat of New York Yankee Gil McDougald. The ball hit Score in the face, broke several bones and for a time affected his vision. It took more than a year for Score to return to the mound and he was never the same pitcher, although he subsequently had an exemplary three-decade career as a baseball broadcaster.

Over the decades many players, from the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Pete Reiser (carried off the field on a stretcher 11 times, though mostly from running into outfield walls), to Minnie Minoso and Tony Conigliaro, have incurred life-threatening concussions on the field, but returned to play despite the chilling moment that sent them to a hospital. In some cases players were never able to achieve their former stature in the game even though they returned to compete.

Although there has never been any suggestion that a batter purposely smashed a line drive at a pitcher intending to hurt him, it seems miraculous that such a dangerous play does not occur more often. Depending on the pitcher’s’ follow through he is often off-balance and not prepared to grab a rocket hurtling  back at him. We regularly see plays where a pitcher seems to just throw his glove up in front of his face and save himself from injury with a clutch stab. Bob Gibson, the St. Louis Cardinals’ Hall of Famer, landed awkwardly off-balance after unleashing a pitch. Once a line drive back at him broke his leg, though Gibson didn’t realize it and pitched on for a while.

Hall of Famer Early Wynn was as territorial as any pitcher who played the game. Wynn, a 300-game winner, would retaliate against a hitter with a close shave fastball if in a previous at-bat the hitter stroked the ball through the box–whether or not it hit Wynn. It was standing policy for Wynn.

Prompt and thorough medical treatment for McCarthy may have saved his life. The next step is recovery and making sure he is 100 percent healthy. Then he can worry about pitching again next spring.

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