The sound of the ball off the skull of Los Angeles Angels pitcher Matt Shoemaker was a vivid thud that could be heard throughout Safeco Field.
A second later, the ballpark went silent.
For five minutes, there was no music on the loud speaker system, no noise blaring from the video board. The only voices were imagined — the prayers Shoemaker’s teammates surely whispered as they gathered around the fallen pitcher and took a position of genuflection.
Out of nowhere Sunday, during the second inning of a game that meant little to the Angels and not much more to the Mariners, a sun-sparkled infield on a gorgeous afternoon became the scene of a vigil.
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A line drive hit by Kyle Seager had struck Shoemaker’s head with such force, the ball caromed into the Mariners’ dugout behind first base. It was a horrifying moment made even more frightening by the delayed reaction of Shoemaker, who wobbled before going to the ground.
“You see something like that, it’s scary,” Angels catcher Jett Bandy said after the game, when it was learned Shoemaker had suffered a small skull fracture and small hematoma, which is a collection of blood outside of a blood vessel, requiring him to remain in Seattle for observation by a neurologist. “The first thing you think of is his health. That’s the most important thing. He’s a human being, he’s a dad, he’s a husband.”
Angels manager Mike Sciosia, who has spent 40 years in professional baseball and seen virtually every kind of injury a player can suffer, did not not try to hide the fact he was scared silly.
“It’s awful. You kind of have to catch your breath for a second,” he said. “It just gives you that feeling where you have a pit in your stomach.”
In the history of Major League Baseball, the only fatal accident was the 1920 beaning of Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, who was the victim of a fastball he didn’t see. A series of circumstances contributed to the tragedy: The ball was dark — one ball was used for an entire game in those days — and the game was played in overcast conditions, on a field without lights.
Chapman wasn’t wearing a batting helmet, which wouldn’t be made a required piece of equipment until the late 1950s.
It’s hard to believe a ball stained by grass, mud and tobacco juice wasn’t replaced with a fresh ball in 1920, and harder still to believe that as recently as 1979, veterans who did not wish to wear batting helmets were given the grandfather-claused freedom not to wear them.
As hitters get bigger and stronger, the notion of head protection for pitchers has gotten some traction in recent years. Shoemaker, whose follow-through found him less than 60 feet from home plate, had no chance to react to a line drive that Statcast measured at 105 mph.
In the name of Chapman, how does it not make sense to put some sort of padding around the skulls of pitchers? The problem is that traditional helmets are awkward for them. A cap-helmet hybrid was introduced a few years ago that looked, well, comical, leading to the development of another hybrid some Pirates pitchers tried out in spring training.
“It looks funny,” reliever Mark Melancon told reporters. “Just because of the looks, it might not be something that I wear during the season. As shallow as that sounds ... I’m just not there yet. Give me a little time and maybe I’ll get there.”
Melancon is right about one thing: His reluctance to protect his skull because such protection “looks funny” is the very definition of shallow.
“Terrifying,” said Seager, who joined the Angels fielders as they waited for Shoemaker to stand up and be assisted to the clubhouse. “Probably the scariest thing I’ve ever seen on a baseball field.”
Matt Shoemaker will live to see another day.
The next pitcher hit in the skull by a 105-mph line drive might not.