There are three distinct sounds that break the dead air when a line drive meets a horrifying fate: the crack of the bat, then the ball's contact with flesh and blood, and then the gasps.
One, followed by the other, followed by the other. It's all intertwined and never seems to fade among those unlucky enough to witness the worst sight that could happen on a baseball field, and also those directly linked by it.
"My husband," Lucille McDougald said the other day, "had many nightmares about it. He couldn't get it out of his mind, not only the sight of it, but also how it sounded. He always said it was just terrible."
In the history of the major leagues, there are perhaps dozens of incidents of a player, mostly pitchers, getting hit by line drives; Aroldis Chapman is only the latest. Those chilling moments happen in a flash, and the scene of the Reds pitcher collapsing after taking a liner to the face last week certainly made your head turn and stomach squirm. Lucille McDougald was sitting in her New Jersey home when he heard about it, and she immediately thought back to May 7, 1957, when Yankees infielder Gil McDougald came home from a road trip, frozen in shock.
"By then, I already knew what happened, of course," she said. "He didn't have to tell me anything about how he felt. I saw it from his expression."
It wasn't the first case of a pitcher catching a line drive, only the most vivid and most famous, even before instant replay. And the most damaging. McDougald smacked a fastball cleanly right back at Herb Score, a third-year Indians lefty projected for greatness; he was the AL strikeout leader in each of his first two seasons. Score didn't even have time to flinch, let along duck. The ball caught him flush on the side of his face. Score fell just slightly off the mound. He slowly brought his knees toward his chest, covered his face with his glove and lay motionless.
The old Municipal Stadium in Cleveland turned silent and McDougald told his wife that he didn't even bother touching first base, that's how distraught he quickly became after a sprint from the batter's box turned into a distracted jog.
"It pained him greatly," she said.
Score never lost consciousness, but his eye was swollen shut and he was bleeding profusely from both the eye and the mouth, along with a broken nose. Baseball was not only appalled by the accident, but also that a promising career was suddenly in serious jeopardy. In the Indians' organization, Score was considered to be the next Bob Feller, the lefty version anyway. His won-loss record was 36-19 in his first two years. Prior to the 1957 season, the Red Sox had offered the Indians $1 million for Score, but were turned down, and that was when $1 million was a lot of money.
McDougald was almost as important to the Yankees during this mighty era of pinstripe dominance. Yet, the moment he saw Score drop after being hit, McDougald was ripped apart emotionally, felt a tremendous sense of guilt, and on the way home his mind was already made up.
"I'm done playing baseball," he told Lucille. "I can't play anymore."
Almost 60 years later, it's astonishing how protection for pitchers never developed. In that time, for example, hockey goalies went from playing au natural from the neck up (Gump Worsley, anyone?) to being caged today. The rest of the skaters have been wearing helmets for decades, and the trend now is towards even more additional face shielding. Even fans are now shielded in hockey rinks, and the sport with its flying rubber puck wonders why it didn't think of this before. Meanwhile, pitchers are still living in the stone ages, with nothing coming between them and a hard liner except a wool cap and a prayer.
The pitcher is second only to a catcher among players most vulnerable to being struck by a ball. Once the pitcher finishes his throwing motion, his head rests at roughly waist-high and his body is thrust forward toward the front of the mound, putting him within 55 or so feet from the batter's box. That's barely enough time for reflexes to twitch in the event of a hard-hit ball. Any pitcher with slow hand-eye coordination is poorly prepared in the event bad luck and a streaking Rawlings travel his way.
Perhaps the only reasonable solution is requiring them to wear helmets, a proposal met with silence several times in the past, but gets revisited whenever tragedy strikes. Some of those pooh-poohing the idea of being strapped inside a helmet are pitchers themselves, fearing the inconvenience of wearing something bulky, especially on 95-degree days. Major League Baseball has approved a new brand of protective caps, but even those pitchers who have been hit say they aren't ready to wear them yet.
Besides, what's the probability of a batter hitting the ball precisely with a certain spot on the fat of the bat, and the ball traveling on a frozen rope, and a pitcher's head angled exactly in the direction of the ball's path, and the pitcher's reaction time clocking the same as a DUI suspect? How many times does this happen in baseball, maybe once every hundred of thousands of pitches? One recent estimate had two pitchers being struck on some point of their body, on average, in each of the last eight seasons.
Does that warrant radical change?
It would take a victim, maybe Chapman, serving as a trailblazer and demanding a helmet while challenging the commissioner or anyone else to block his right to wear one. That sounds reasonable, no? Perhaps, but not once since Score was wounded has a pitcher decided to break from baseball tradition and strap on a hard cap.
Gary Green, the medical director for MLB, said the office has been approached several times from companies about protective headgear. He said some devices were lightweight but not protective, and others were protective but not lightweight.
Rays pitcher David Price said: "I've heard a lot of pitchers just don't want it."
And so, over the years, the number of injuries and hushed stadiums have added up, ever so slowly yet dangerously. The most glaring examples:
Bryce Florie. In 2000, he was a relief pitcher for the Red Sox who managed to find steady work, and at age 30 still had mileage left. After Sept. 8, though, his major-league career was essentially over after being struck in the face by a liner off the bat of the Yankees' Ryan Thompson. He suffered multiple facial fractures, including a fractured socket of the right eye and some loss of vision. And he figured he was lucky.
"I went to the hospital thinking I might die," he said years later. "The doctor told me not to look in the mirror. Of course I eventually did and I looked like the Elephant Man."
He had two surgeries, one to relieve pressure around his eye and then to repair the bones. Everyone feared his sight would never be the same. After studying footage of the incident, scientists estimated that Florie had 312 milliseconds to react, and that the ball hit him with 5,500 pounds of force. His glove at the time was waist high, not close enough to his head to protect him.
The next June, he came in relief for two successful innings, but four days later was hit by another liner, this time on his hand. That freaked out the Sox, who had reservations about his reflexes and vision to begin with, and they sent him to a psychologist. The next month, they released him, citing poor outings in five of his six appearances that summer. He bounced around in the minors and then was out of baseball at 37.
Juan Nicasio. This was frightening because two injuries took place when the Rockies pitcher was struck in the head by Ian Desmond of the Nats in August of 2011: Not only did Nicasio suffer a fractured skull near his right temple from the ball, but he fell awkwardly on his chin on the mound and fractured a vertebra in his neck that required a metal plate implant.
The Rockies medical staff and Denver EMTs likely saved Nicasio's life by reaching him so quickly and then rushing him to the hospital. In what was a minor miracle, Nicasio was throwing practice balls in six months and was on the Opening Day roster in 2012.
Nicasio was a somewhat dependable third or fourth starter with a 4.14 ERA in 13 starts before the liner. He's 11-12 with a 5.33 ERA in 42 starts since, troubled partly by a knee injury that limited him to 11 starts in 2012. He's only 27 and the Rockies still hold hope that he'll work his way up the rotation, but for now, his greatest achievement on the field was merely getting back on the field after the liner.
Like many, he saw the Chapman injury and was saddened.
"I only watched it once," he said. "Terrible. Scary. I know what he's going through."
Brandon McCarthy. He took a liner to the head in September of 2012, suffered an epidural hemorrhage and needed surgery to repair a fractured skull. His season for the A's was done and so was his time in Oakland; that winter he signed with the Diamondbacks.
McCarthy's history with injuries followed him to Arizona, though most were shoulder-related. He did have a head-related scare last summer. While eating at a restaurant with his wife, he slumped over in his chair. She and employees quickly came to his aid before an ambulance arrived. He was placed on anti-seizure medication and was told he could suffer a relapse as a result of his head injury.
He had an 18-inning scoreless streak for the D-Backs last season, but was just 5-11 with a 4.53 ERA in the first year of a two-year contract.
Alex Cobb. He missed two months last season after being dropped by a liner to the right ear in June. And while Cobb's injuries weren't as severe as others, he's the one pitcher to speak out about protective gear.
Cobb said weeks ago during spring training that he'd "welcome" any new technology that reduces the odds of a pitcher getting dinged, but didn't expect anything to be introduced this year. And even so, Cobb wanted to experiment with any protective measure during spring training before he'd try it in an actual game. Which pretty much leaves this season out of the question.
He "only" suffered a concussion and a cut to the ear after taking a liner from the bat of the Royals' Eric Hosmer. And because the injury was slight by comparison to others, and he's only 26, the Rays right hander isn't expected to feel any lasting effects.
In a morbid coincidence, Cobb's teammate Matt Moore was drilled in the head on Sunday during a game against the Red Sox. The ball appeared to hit Moore head-on while Moore managed to deflect it slightly with his glove. Moore was knocked over by the pitch but quickly rose to his feet and threw out Xander Bogaerts. He left the exhibition game after four innings and the Rays reported he suffered from a cut lip that received stitches. There was no concussion, although the replay looked frightening similar to the others.
J.A. Happ. Happ was hit in May of 2012 and then pitched again that August. After being hit just behind his ear, he lay on the ground for 11 minutes and was admitted to the hospital in stable condition.
But Happ didn't require surgery for his fractured skull and said he felt "fortunate" to return so quickly to the Blue Jays' rotation.
"Just before the ball hit me," he said, "it looks like I moved just a little bit. I don't remember doing that, but it looks like it was just enough to catch me in a better spot, because it could've been head-on. I don't remember seeing it, just feeling a loud ringing in my ear. It took me a few seconds to know what was going on after that."
Happ hasn't dealt with any lingering affects of the line drive, but is struggling this spring with a bad back and performance issues.
Happ and the others had it a bit easier than Score. After being hit, he was never really the same pitcher, and the Indians wondered if it was related to the McDougald liner, although an arm injury suffered in 1958 is likely to blame as much as anything else. He struggled for five more more seasons, finally retired with a 55-46 record and spent the next four decades calling Indians games on TV and radio. He was badly injured in a car accident in 1998 and suffered a stroke in 2002 before he died in 2008.
The other "victim" suffered only psychologically. McDougald, the player who swung the bat, was prepared to follow through on his promise to retire, right in the prime of his career, when someone put an end to that.
"The person who resolved Gil's concerns about sticking with baseball was Herb's mother," said Lucille McDougald. "She immediately called Gil when she heard he was ready to quit baseball, which he was all set to do. She made one thing clear to him. She said, `You young men go into this sport willingly and knowing there are hazards and risks, and this was just one of the risks. You must not quit.'
"She reminded him that he had a family and children to raise and insisted that he re-think all that retirement talk."
McDougald would win five World Series rings and retire a five-time All-Star after a 10-year career. Yet, anytime a misfortune happened in baseball and a player was hurt, Lucille McDougald said her husband would shake his head and say: "Not again. Not another guy."
Just before Score suffered his stroke, he attended a signing in New Jersey for former Rookies of the Year (Score won the AL award in 1955) and saw a familiar face: Gil McDougald, who won the '51 award. Tod McDougald drove his father (who died in 2010) to the signing and remembers Score being thrilled at the chance of a chilling reunion.
"Herb was happy to see my father, and that was unbelievably great for me to see, just great," said Tod McDougald. "Herb just lit up, and what I also remember is how Herb was so nice to me. They just talked for a few minutes like they were old friends, even though my father said he hadn't seen or heard from Herb in many years."
One subject never came up in conversation: the incident that linked them forever.
"They moved on," said Tod McDougald. "I think that was something they'd rather forget, even though I'm sure they never did. How could you? How could anyone who was there?"