Happy (Belated) Halloween Indians fans.
This is a time of year for spooks and scares and nightmarish tales of dread. While the scares are (usually) all in good fun, it did get me thinking about the most frightening thing I’ve ever seen on a baseball field. And the incident that jumps immediately to mind wasn’t spooky fun, it was something right out of a horror movie.
On May 4, 1997 in a game against the Tigers (I remembered the year and the team, but had to look up the date) I was in the stands when Julio Franco blistered a ball so hard I thought he had literally killed a man. I don’t remember the sound (which players would describe as the same pop as a ball off the bat) but I do remember the pitcher dropping to the ground like a lead weight. I can still vividly see poor Willie Blair lying there, completely motionless on the ground. The stadium went dead silent, players looked away and we watched in transfixed horror as trainers raced out and huddled over him on the mound.
The other thing that really stuck in my head quite clearly was the solemn ovation the crowd gave when they loaded Blair onto the stretcher and we thought he was going to be OK. Well, I should revise that, when we thought MAYBE he COULD be OK.
It happened in the sixth inning and apparently the ball was clocked at 107 mph off Franco’s bat, breaking Blair’s jaw and giving him a concussion. Newspaper accounts said it was 5 minutes that he was motionless, but even as a teenager I remember it feeling like it was so much longer than that. I had also forgotten they actually brought an ambulance in through the left field wall. I can’t recall having ever seen an ambulance on a baseball field before or since, though I’m sure it’s happened.
I didn’t remember the score of the game either, the Indians lost 2-0 and Blair was pitching a 4-hitter when he was struck. But to anyone who was there that day, it didn’t matter. The result of the game didn’t matter. All I could remember was the man lying on the dirt and genuinely fearing for his life.
And I wasn’t the only one. Doug Brocail, who pitched for the Tigers that year, was quoted as saying “I thought Willie was dead,” this May after J.A. Happ took a similar line drive.
All things considered, this scary story has a pretty happy ending as Blair, who actually pitched for the Indians back in 1991, made it back to the mound after missing just a month and won 16 games that year. He’d pitch until 2001, bouncing between three teams in 1998 before coming back to the Tigers from 1999-2001.
I’m not sure I would have been keen to sign up with a team that made nine trips a year to the place where I almost lost my life, but Blair is obviously a different guy. Now the bullpen coach for the Padres, he talked to MLB.com about the incident last year after Happ was hit. You can read the whole interview , but a couple highlights in Blair’s own words:
“The count goes 3-1 and then he fouls off six, seven balls. So I thought, ‘Here’s another heater,’ … I throw a fastball away, maybe up just a tad. As soon as he hit it, I knew it was going to hit me.”
“The ball hit me and went back to the catcher [Pat Borders]. That’s how hard it hit me. I remember him getting there and the panic in his voice. I couldn’t say anything for a couple of seconds.”
And the most remarkable quote was about returning to the mound:
“People ask me all the time if I was apprehensive. I wasn’t. I had been hit by line drives before then and actually hit three more times after that. I realized that 99 percent of the time you’re able to deflect it, where it’s not that big of a deal. This one got me.”
Somehow, I don’t think there’s anything Halloween could throw out that’s going to scare Willie Blair.