As most of you know, I negotiate and manage contracts for a large defense contractor in San Diego. My office -- OK, fine...cubicle -- is one of two that sits apart from the dozen or so others in my department. The professional productivity born from the quiet solitude of this perfectly-acceptable separate-but-equal arrangement is but one benefit for me. The other is MLB.TV.
When my Oakland A's are playing a day game during the work week; I'll fire up the "MLB at-bat" app on my Droid, turn down the volume and slide the phone to the farthest corner of my desk -- behind both my computer and business-ubiquitous Dilbert desk calendar. I can glance over at the game between e-mails or during interminable teleconferences. And, no one else can see the teeny screen unless he or she is sitting in my chair.
Two weeks ago, the A's were playing the Angels in the finale of a three-game series. First pitch was scheduled for 12:35PM, but I could not watch on this Wednesday afternoon. A large international proposal effort monopolized my time and attention. Late in the day, I learned through Twitter that A's starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy had left the game after a line drive off the bat of the Angels' Erick Aybar ricocheted off his skull.
I re-tweeted the link immediately above -- without watching the video -- and followed that up with a tweet of my own. The next morning, it was announced that McCarthy had surgery to treat an epidural hemorrhage, brain contusion and skull fracture. I cannot fathom the feelings of McCarthy's family and friends in the immediate aftermath. But, as the father of an eight-year-old ballplayer, I felt nauseous.
My son Jalen moved up to the "farm" division of his Little League this past spring. This would be the first opportunity for the kids to face live pitching. And, judging from the repeated 6:30 AM thump! thump! thump! wake-up calls of spongy Smushballs being hurled against our living room wall, J really wanted to pitch.
On the whole, J pitched pretty well. He ditched his fastball grip early on and threw exclusively change-ups, but still ended up as one of the three most dependable pitchers on our team.
Early in the spring -- in what was essentially an open tryout for spots in our regular pitching rotation -- I gave several kids the opportunity to pitch during scrimmages. After one of these informal outings, the mother of one of my players approached me behind the dugout. "I was so scared watching him pitch", she said of her son. "I had to hold another mother's hand and close my eyes whenever he threw the ball."
I'm more than a little embarrassed to admit that my initial reaction was a slight smirk that barely masked what was probably a condescending response. I might as well have quipped, "Pfft...women." Funny thing is that I heard variations of this mother's concern from other parents all season long. At one point, even my wife conceded the unease she feels whenever Jalen pitches.
It's possible that I was blocking it out. After all, before the season began, I saw these "heart-shield" protectors on one of the racks at Dick's Sporting Goods. I'd read tragic stories of Little League pitchers who'd taken direct-hit line drives off the chest and later died. I got as far as the checkout line before opting to put the heart-protector back on the shelf -- rationalizing it away by reminding myself how rare it is for a pitcher to be hit by a comebacker (with a little misplaced anger at the manufacturers for exploiting a parent's worst nightmare).
I never gave it a second thought until earlier this month.
And, my above-linked tweet about not showing the video to my wife and son? I was serious. When J came home from school, he didn't mention the A's until around dinner time. He thought they were playing a night game, so I only told him that we lost earlier in the day, 7-1. He asked a few follow-up questions ("Who got the loss?", "How'd we score our run?") but, thankfully, eight-year-olds don't require much nuanced context when their favorite team loses. Besides, J refuses to watch the highlights when the A's lose. If I'm watching, he'll leave the room.
Thursday and Friday came and went as the A's flew to Seattle to start a series with the Mariners. They won the opener, 6-1. I hopped in the shower on Saturday morning, leaving J to his cartoons. The thought crossed my mind about 45 seconds before my son all but broke down the bathroom door:
"Did you hear that Brandon McCarthy got hit in the head with a line drive?! They said it was life-threatening!"
Thanks, continuous loop of the previous evening's Major League Baseball highlights on the MLB Network! Just before the recap of the A's victory, an update on McCarthy's condition aired. The sobering "life-threatening" element meant that I'd have to put on my parenting pants, after all.
The next day, Jalen was scheduled to pitch in the first game of the fall baseball season. I used my shower time to rehearse assorted responses to J's likeliest questions in my head. So, I was prepared when he asked, "Do you think I'll get hit in the head with a line drive?" Surprisingly, I was unprepared when he asked, "Is Brandon McCarthy going to die?" I mean, how did I not see that one coming?
Jalen and I watched the video clip together -- the first time I'd seen it, too -- and I fumbled my way through what I knew and what I didn't know. The conversation might've took 10 minutes, tops. I know how this is going to sound, but I took it as a good sign when J wanted to watch the video again ("No, J. Once is enough", I responded.) and then he immediately segued into the impact of losing McCarthy on the A's playoff chances ("He's our ace! How can we replace him?!", he calmly reasoned.)
Two Sundays ago, under unseasonably humid weather and intermittent drizzle, J pitched the third inning of our fall baseball season opener. He's still getting the feel of his four-seam fastball grip -- hitting one opposing batter right in the butt -- but didn't give up a run and recorded the final out of the inning by tagging out a runner trying to score from third base on a wild pitch. Jalen didn't get hit in the head with a line drive. Brandon McCarthy didn't die. And, I kept my eyes open the whole time.