Oakland Athletics pitcher Brandon McCarthy writhes in pain on the ground after being hit in the head on a line drive by Los Angeles Angels shortstop Erick Aybar on Sept. 5. Credit: Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE

Brandon McCarthy Working Way Back


The scariest thing about the 2012 baseball season was watching Oakland A’s pitcher Brandon McCarthy get hit in the head with a line drive and then learning that the contact was life-threatening and the injury needed immediate surgery to save him.

Now, rather amazingly, McCarthy has already been cleared to begin baseball drills as he works toward 2013 spring training.

In a sport of fun and games there are not supposed to be casualty lists, but McCarthy’s brain swelling and close call reminded us all of how fragile, risky, and random life can be. There must be hundreds such near-misses per season when the ball rockets off a bat directly at the pitcher, or even another position player, and displaying quick reflexes hurls his glove in front of his face and either catches it or deflects it.

McCarthy was one of the unlucky handful who suffered serious injury, an epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion, and a fractured skull when hit in the head by a shot off the bat of the Los Angeles Angels’ Erick Aybar in the fourth inning of a game in early September. The ball zoomed straight off the wood at McCarthy’s head. The pitcher was knocked down on the mound. McCarthy sat up fairly quickly, providing the illusion that he was not hurt as badly as he was.

When McCarthy left the field he was transported to a hospital and it was only after his admittance that we heard the frightning diagnosis. However, soon after, as the A’s stampeded to the American League West Division title and into the playoffs, we regularly received encouraging reports about McCarthy’s condition. As an active tweeter, McCarthy provided some of those updates himself, many of them in light-hearted, humorous fashion.

Head injuries are notoriously unpredictable and at first statements were made that everyone just hoped McCarthy would return to his usual self, would be able to walk, talk, and think. That stage passed quickly. McCarthy, 29, who was 8-6 with a 3.24 earned run average at the time of his injury, from the start seemed not to focus on those basics so much as seeking an answer to the question of when he would be able to pitch again.

This is an obvious place to steer one’s thoughts when your profession is professional sports. Being cleared to resume baseball activity this soon seems somewhat surprising. Of course what is exactly meant by that is vague. The good news is that McCarthy must be physically stronger. The open-ended aspect of his rehab and return is how McCarthy reacts when another batted ball comes flying at him. He can’t afford flinch time.

Also there is the issue of what happens to McCarthy if he is hit again, not an impossibility, even if the odds are against it. At one point in his recovery McCarthy had visions problems. Now he has passed all such acuity tests. There has been only one death on a Major League baseball field and that was Ray Champman of the Cleveland Indians, dying after being hit in the head with a pitcher ball in 1920. Other players have incurred concussions and not come back as strong as they were. Their vision may have been impaired, or that special something inside them that gave them their world-class instinct may have been altered.

What level of baseball drill is McCarthy ready for? Hopefully, he will take things very slowly and make sure he is all of the way back before playing in a real game. It is one thing for McCarthy to be nervous when he takes the mound in a game situation. It is quite another thing for his long-term health if he were to get hit again. You hope his reflexes are sparp and his mind is clear.

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