Last June, Phil Hughes took a liner off the knee.
Because we have this kind of information now, MLB.com mentioned that the liner had left J.T. Realmuto’s bat at 106 miles per hour. That’s a little more than 155 feet per second, and Hughes’ follow-through put him maybe 56 or 57 feet from where Realmuto made contact. In other words, Hughes had approximately one-third of a second to protect himself. The average blink of an eye takes 100 to 400 milliseconds. In this case, the cliche is correct: Hughes literally had the blink of an eye to react.
At the moment of contact, Hughes was balanced on his left foot, following through, with his glove tucked behind himself as part of his natural rotation. All he could manage, in that one-third of a second, was try to get his right leg in front of his left, a Sophie’s Choice of a defensive mechanism made with an athlete’s instinct to get something - anything - with a little more padding in front of the ball. As fast as his reaction was, it wasn’t enough; the liner caught him on the inside of his left kneecap, knocking him to the ground in agony.
Testing revealed that the line drive had broken Hughes’ femur, ruling him out for two months. Less than three weeks later, though, Hughes was discovered to have thoracic outlet syndrome, requiring surgery and ending his season; it’s the rare upper-body condition, rather than the Realmuto liner, that will be remembered for cutting short Hughes’ 2016 season.
Phillip Hughes - yes, sometimes called Phil - had the same Australian verve that had been the making of so many other cricketers that had scaled the Down Under heights before him. He’d grown up in the country, learning to slash everything to his off side (in baseball terms: the opposite field) because he batted left-handed and, well, the house was on that side of the field. The kids that break the windows in the house don’t get to bat very much, and Hughes very much wanted to bat.
By the time he’d broken into the New South Wales first team, he could hop away from any bowling to give himself room to fend it off, tennis backhand-style, away to the off side. It never won him prizes for technique, nor style, but it saw him break into Test cricket by the time he was 20 years old. That year, he became the youngest man to score two centuries in the same match, successfully thwarting South Africa’s fast bowlers on the way to 115 and 160 in Durban. One Australian magazine put him on the cover under the headline “Little Don,” referring to Don Bradman, the greatest batsman of all time.
The longer he played on, though, opposition teams began to work him out. The preferred strategy, for the opposition, was to simply bowl directly at him - to make him pull the ball, in other words. In cricket, this is a legitimate technique. Bowl directly at the batsmen’s legs, and you cramp his style; you make him either turn the ball behind himself, or risk getting hit on the leg pads and potentially be called out by the umpire. For someone like Hughes, consistently backing up to give himself the room to whack the ball away from himself, this was bad enough.
Some bowlers, though, prefer to cut out the constant search for the batsman’s legs, and instead bowl a “bouncer” - a euphemistic term for the ball that whizzes directly at the chest, or head. The technique is still the same, as a batsman; there’s no place to put the ball but behind yourself. From the bowler’s point of view, the bouncer has the side benefit of being completely terrifying. Imagine baseball, if throwing at the batter’s head was considered not only acceptable but a legitimate strategy - that, rather than charging the mound throwing haymakers, the accepted response was to dust yourself off, even if you’ve just taken a ball off your collarbone at 90 mph.
Hughes was in and out of Australia’s Test team for the next few years. For every big innings, he had another two or three ugly matches, and in November 2014 he was just fighting to get another chance. His last Test had come in July 2013, against England. Now playing for South Australia, he was rounding into form against his former team, New South Wales.
He’d scored 63 runs in almost three and a half hours of batting, on his way to another century - potentially the one that’d get him the call-up to the Australia squad again. NSW had peppered him, as teams always did, with bouncers. Sean Abbott was bowling, following the plan. His fourth ball of the over jumped up, a little more than Hughes was expecting, and caught the young batsman in the side of the neck.
Hughes wobbled, for one second, then collapsed to the ground.
I think a lot about the 2014 World Cup final, Germany versus Argentina, not for Mario Gotze’s extra-time winner, but for a moment in the first half. German midfielder Christoph Kramer was involved in a collision with an Argentina defender that momentarily knocked Kramer senseless. Despite the obvious head injury, Kramer played for 14 more minutes before being substituted; later, referee Nicola Rizzoli said that Kramer had come up to him and asked repeatedly, “Ref, is this the final?”
In that moment of the collision, my wife - who is not a sports fan, but was being forced to watch the game by her ridiculous husband - had reacted almost excitedly, along the lines of WHOA LOOK AT THAT. Being Brain Injury Woke like so many “good” sports fans, I chastised her for her apparent celebration. Her response has had me thinking for the last three years.
“Don’t get mad at me,” she said. “You’re the one that watches this stuff, not me.”
Here is what I am responsible for. I watch football non-stop in the fall, CTE be damned. I’ve never turned the channel during a hockey fight, even though bare-knuckle brawling is abhorrent on its own. I watch rugby despite the occasional skull fractures; I follow soccer closely despite the mounting evidence that heading the ball is leading to long-term brain injury for the participants. This is to say nothing of the countless non-brain injuries caused by these sports and all the others; in terms of human damage, I am only slightly above the ancient scoreboard-watchers who checked to see whether the Romans or the Lions were ahead.
Here is how I make myself feel better: I do not watch mixed martial arts. I refer to concussions as “brain injuries.” I make fun of people who say that Joe Mauer needs to “toughen up.” This is all I can say to reassure myself: If I stop watching, it won’t make a bit of difference. I am a free rider. This isn’t my fault, right? It’s all of our fault, right? I’m only a very small part of this, right? People would make their choice to play these games whether or not I wear a jersey and plan my day around the games, right?
Please say yes.
If you go down the list of popular sports, baseball is among the most blameless. Compared to football or hockey or rugby or any other contact-mandatory sport, baseball practically promotes old age. Career-ending injuries in baseball usually involve arm ligaments. Broken bones are rare. There is enough finesse and fine motor control involved in the game that the dark side of other sports- horse tranquilizers at halftime to kill the pain, and that sort of thing - are blessedly absent.
And yet, Corey Koskie. Look at Joe Mauer’s stats pre-concussion and post-concussion, and try to tell me that a concussion won’t be the thing that keeps Minnesota’s greatest hitter out of the Hall of Fame. Pretending that baseball doesn’t have its own dark side - of drugs, and steroids, and all of the things that we don’t talk about because the grass is green and the beer is cold and baseball is fun to play - is to ignore reality.
To say nothing of Phil Hughes, or Brandon McCarthy, or of every single player at every level of baseball that stands in a batter’s box or on a pitcher’s mound, as the fastballs get faster and the line drives come back harder.
We remember Ray Chapman, the answer to the macabre trivia question “Who is the only man to die as the result of an injury received during an MLB game?” Batting at twilight, against submariner Carl Mays, Chapman simply didn’t see the dirty, scuffed-up ball that hit him; Babe Ruth, playing right field, said the crack of ball against skull was audible even that far away. The popular shortstop collapsed, blood streaming from his ear, and had to be carried off the field; he died later that night. His wife gave birth to their first daughter six months later.
Following Phillip Hughes’s death, there were some in cricket that called for the “bouncer” to be banned entirely. There have been rules in place since the 1930s, limiting the number of fielders that can stand behind the batsman - thus reducing the benefit of bowling at the batsman’s body. After the West Indies and Australian teams of the 1970s and 1980s used repeated bouncers to scare the daylights out of opposing batsmen, the International Cricket Council limited them to two per over, or two out of every six deliveries. This limited the potential carnage, but it didn’t end it. Some of the best batsmen in history - Brian Lara, Justin Langer, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Ricky Ponting, and on and on - have been bloodied, or knocked unconscious and hospitalized, by bouncers that they simply could not avoid. Skill has nothing to do with it; to bat is to accept the risk of the next ball being the one that kills you.
The bouncer hasn’t been banned, of course. Australia’s plan of attack against India, in the Test series that just concluded, included bowling bouncer after bouncer at the Indian batsmen, trying to put them off their games.
It’s Opening Day for the Twins, and I’m excited about the season, of course I am. Not about the Twins’ chances, necessarily, but about the return of baseball - nightly games, and listening on the radio while I drive somewhere, and reading the game score in the paper, and catching a couple of innings on TV before going to bed.
My attention helps sell advertising; that advertising funds baseball; players put themselves at physical risk as a result. This is as true in baseball as it is in any other sport.
Phil Hughes is back in the Twins’ starting rotation.
I would like to ignore all of this.