The first conscious thought that J.A. Happ can remember after it happened was: Hmm, is that blood pouring out of my ear? Or is it something worse?
For Matt Shoemaker, like Happ now pitching for the Twins, the damage didn't register right away, or at least couldn't outshout his competitive instincts; his first reaction, even while on his hands and knees, was to locate the baseball that had just fractured his skull and ricocheted about 50 feet away, because his most pressing priority in that irrational moment was to throw the hitter out.
Ian Hamilton, a St. Paul Saints pitcher who spent spring training with the Twins, has an excruciatingly specific memory of his own apocalyptic split-second.
"I felt my front teeth hit the back of my throat. They popped right out," Hamilton says. "That's a feeling you don't forget."
You wouldn't think so, no. Yet the most remarkable shared experience of the pitchers, aside from their very real brush with permanent disability or even death, is how quickly and completely they were able to put a terrifying incident — being smashed in the head by a hard projectile traveling faster than 100 mph — behind them.
"I can't recall ever thinking about it on the mound again — and I mean after it happened," Happ said. "It's an inherent risk we're all aware of but never talk about, and you just hope or expect your reactions are good enough, or that it hits you in the legs or something. I've taken live drives off my forearm and my hips and my legs, just about everywhere. Yeah, the head is more scary, but it's not like it crosses my mind every day."
Those thoughts do recur, though, when another pitcher joins their unfortunate ranks. Like Tyler Zombro, the Rays' Class AAA pitcher, who spent six days in a hospital after being struck by a line drive on June 2. "I don't like looking at [replays of Zombro's injury]. I don't like seeing it," Happ said. "I just look for some indication that he's going to be OK."
Each year, a half-dozen pitchers get beaned in the head by line drives in the majors, but long-lasting damage is relatively rare. But rare or not, the risks on the field are real. Mike Coolbaugh, first-base coach for the Class AA Tulsa Drillers, died from such an incident when he was hit just below the left ear by a foul ball on July 22, 2007, three months before the birth of his third child.
The impact severed an artery and triggered a brain hemorrhage that killed him almost instantly. In response, MLB and minor league baseball quickly required all base coaches to wear helmets while on the field.
No such requirement covers pitchers, though Shoemaker wore an insert in his cap for a couple of months after returning to action, only to discard it when he realized that having to constantly adjust it during games was distracting him from pitching. Few pitchers use any protection on their heads, despite the danger.
"It's critical to be focused on what you're doing on the mound," Shoemaker said. "I guess most of us would rather accept the risk of getting hit than risk pitching poorly because you're thinking about something else."
Happ, Shoemaker and Hamilton each signed with Minnesota during the most recent offseason — as did righthander Luke Farrell, who had his jaw fractured by a line drive in spring training for the Rangers in 2019 — a bizarre coincidence that Twins President of Baseball Operations Derek Falvey said "never occurred to me until the moment you said it. … I can assure you, we haven't uncovered any analysis that says guys who have been hit by a line drive have some hidden value."
That's good, he added semi-seriously, because if such a benefit existed, there would doubtless be players trying to replicate those harrowing moments.
Instead, the Twins pitchers willingly relive the most traumatic moment of their lives, one followed by months of missed playing time, with a new appreciation for the very real, but rarely acknowledged, jeopardy that comes standing 60 feet 6 inches from a professional athlete trying to hit a baseball in their direction.
"It's incredibly dangerous. It makes me uncomfortable, even now, to just talk about it," Happ said. "These days, you see the speed balls are coming off the bats — I mean, somebody like [Yankee slugger Giancarlo] Stanton hits the ball at 122 mph. All we can do is pray for good reflexes, I guess."
Shoemaker: 'I saw how far the ball bounced'
Shoemaker thought those prayers were answered. He remembers seeing Kyle Seager's 105-mph line drive coming, and recalls putting his glove up to catch it.
"I thought I had it. Everything in the moment felt like it was slo-mo. I put my glove up, and I only missed by maybe an inch or two," he said of that Sept. 4, 2016 game in Seattle, while he was pitching for the Angels. "But that was enough."
The screaming liner struck Shoemaker above his right ear, knocking him to his knees, and bounced toward the Mariners' dugout along the first-base line. Instincts quickly kicked in — not survival instincts, but baseball instincts.
"I started looking for the ball, like I'm going to make the play. But out of the corner of my eye, I saw how far the ball bounced, and that was the scary part," he said. "That's when I knew it didn't skim me, it wasn't a glancing blow. So I'm like, oh great, [Seager will] beat that out. In the moment, that bothered me more than the impact."
He never lost consciousness, answered every question from the Angels' trainers and manager Mike Scioscia, and felt no pain. Shoemaker assumed he would remain in the game, and asked to throw a couple of pitches to make sure he was OK.
"They just laughed at me. They kept saying, stay down, give it a few minutes," Shoemaker said. "Finally, they said, OK, we're going to stand up and walk off the field. I told them, I feel fine. And as soon as I stood up — complete dizziness. Everything spinning. And they said, look down, look down, that's the concussion kicking in."
When they reached the visitors' clubhouse, paramedics met them and put him on a stretcher for an ambulance ride to a nearby hospital. Teammate Albert Pujols came over, took his phone, and called Shoemaker's wife Danielle, who was bedridden, seven months pregnant with their second child. "Albert was awesome. He called her to let her know I was OK, but was going to a hospital," Shoemaker said. "She had been watching, so that call meant a lot."
When he got to the emergency room, doctors took CT scans of his head every 30 minutes, just to be certain he was in no danger. They showed him the spiderweb-type fracture that the impact had caused in the bones from his ear to above his eye, but found no reason to be alarmed. After two hours, they told him he would probably go home the next day.
Things changed quite suddenly an hour later. After another routine scan, "doctors rushed in and said, 'We're taking you to surgery right now. Right. Now,' " Shoemaker said. "They said, 'You've got an epidural hematoma, quite a bit of bleeding in the brain.' I'll be honest, in the moment I was a little scared, but I just started feeling I was in God's hands. I just felt like, OK, whatever happens is supposed to happen."
He grabbed his phone and called his wife to alert her. "I had about 10 seconds. Basically said, this is what's happening," Shoemaker said. "She was great, didn't have one worry in her voice. But later, she told me she was scared that her child would never meet her dad. I mean, that's a tough thing to think about."
The surgery was a success, though Shoemaker experienced four weeks of light sensitivity, noise sensitivity, normal concussion symptoms. The Angels told him not to work toward coming back that season, to just recover and prepare for the following spring.
And now, the only reminder of that awful day is the scar above his ear, where surgeons stopped the bleeding. "I've got a nice half-circle on the side of my head. When I get a good haircut, you can see it real good," Shoemaker said. "It's been five years. If I didn't have the scar, I wouldn't think about it much anymore."
Happ: 'OK, this isn't good'
Happ can't get over the irony of his own beaning. After being socked in the skull, just above his left ear, by a Desmond Jennings liner at Tropicana Field, Happ sat out three months of the Blue Jays' 2013 season due to the serious and lingering injury it inflicted upon his … knee.
"It sounds funny, but the worst part about getting hit in the head was that my left leg got stuck in the mound and got twisted around as I went down," Happ, now 38, said of that May 7, 2013 game. "Dealing with that, adjusting to wearing a brace, all of that was a lot bigger worry than getting hit in the head again."
Unlike Shoemaker, Happ doesn't remember the ball that hit him. He's seen the play on video and he notices that he ducked as it approached, turned away apparently out of instinct. But the impact? "It's a blank," he said.
He's not sure he lost consciousness, but "I don't remember even throwing the ball, either. I just remember laying on the mound, and thinking I had been tackled or something." As he gathered his bearings, "a loud ringing and pressure started going off in my ear. I felt my ear, then looked at my hand, and there was blood. And I just went, 'OK, this isn't good.' "
Suddenly he was surrounded by people, all of them yelling at him to stay down, don't move, he said, but the chaos was oddly reassuring. "It never occurred to me that I wasn't going to be fine," Happ said. "The commotion, it didn't make sense to me at first."
He was lifted onto a stretcher, his neck placed in a mobility restrictor, precautions he regarded as overkill. He told the trainer his knee hurt, that he feared he had torn his ACL, but nobody would listen. Not with blood coming out of his ear.
Now he realizes why. "It hit me on top of my ear, but it was about two inches from my temple or eye. It was so close to being way worse than it was," Happ said. "I must have sounded crazy. My head is bleeding, and I'm saying, 'But my knee …' "
The Blue Jays left for Boston a day later, but Happ, who was feeling pressure in his ear but little pain, was deemed unable to fly. Fortunately, Toronto's spring training headquarters is about a half-hour away from Tropicana Field, so he was sent there to rest and recover. The rehab from two sprained knee ligaments wound up being a bigger challenge than the concussion, but he returned to action exactly three months later.
"I know I was incredibly lucky. It didn't seem like it at the time, but it's true," Happ said. "If not for the knee, I would have been back in about two weeks instead of three months."
Hamilton: 'I felt my front teeth pop out'
Hamilton doesn't consider himself lucky, not after taking a line drive in the teeth, not after having to undergo five surgeries. But the thing is, he's not actually certain it was the worst thing to happen to him in 2019.
"I got in a bad car crash at spring training that year, too. Destroyed the car, messed me up a little bit. I was still trying to come back from that" when that baseball found him on June 4 during a Class AAA game in Charlotte, N.C., the 26-year-old righthander said. "That whole year was awful."
It got worse in an instant — and Hamilton, a reliever then in the White Sox system, wasn't even on the mound. During a game against Gwinnett, Hamilton was sitting in the dugout, watching the game.
"I was eating some sunflower seeds, and I looked down to pour some out," he said. "I took my eye off the game for three seconds, maybe."
It was enough. Gwinnett first baseman Sal Giardina fouled off a pitch and sent a missile screaming into the Knights' dugout. Charlotte catcher Seby Zavala screamed, "Oh, look out!," Hamilton recalls, and he looked up just as the ball arrived.
In his mouth.
"I saw it for about a tenth of a second, when it was about a foot away. I looked up and — Bam!" Hamilton said. "It squared me up, right in the mouth. I felt my front teeth pop out. Another one stayed in and ripped open the roof of my mouth. Blood was gushing. Everyone was panicking."
Everyone but Hamilton. "I was laughing about it three minutes later. I never lost consciousness," he said. "It really didn't hurt, not right away."
But the damage to his jaw was substantial. Surgeons that night cut out the fragments of teeth that remained in his jaw. Bone grafts later were taken from his hip to use to repair the bone, so he couldn't run. He had a bridge installed to allow him to chew, and he had posts inserted to allow new teeth to be implanted. "Woke up in the middle of that one," Hamilton said. "I don't want to go through that again."
Hamilton insisted he could return to action that summer, but the White Sox shut him down in late June. Then the pandemic wiped out minor league baseball in 2020 and made him a free agent. He signed with the Twins, and had his new permanent teeth installed just before reporting to spring training.
Like his major league brethren, Hamilton said he doesn't fear another incident when he's on the mound. If anything, he uses it as motivation.
"Getting back on the field feels like real accomplishment. I've overcome something big, something real-world," he said. "I use it as like a chip on my shoulder. I can overcome anything. It will just make my success that much sweeter."