SIOUX CITY -- If you play sports, any sport, the risk of injury is ever-present.
There are the minor bumps and bruises, which can be almost an everyday occurrence. And, I needn’t tell most of you just how far an extreme the gamut runs in all of this.
Danger lurks around the corner in almost anything we do, of course, which is why we should never take our sunny days and happy times for granted. If only we could maintain those precious perspectives, right?
For 14 years of my life, I was the father of a baseball pitcher whose career spanned from Little League through college. This is an experience known to millions of people, some for a shorter period of time and others, like perhaps Nolan Ryan’s dad (and mom), far longer.
In many ways, the parents of all athletes go through temporary insanity when their kids are playing competitive games. When your kid’s a pitcher, you very likely fret over how that kid will perform. You may very well lose your grip when you think teammates or umpires or coaches are making mistakes to hinder that performance.
Hopefully, you know well enough to keep any such thoughts to yourself. Even the umpires have nervous moms and dads.
All of the above is minor compared to the far greater worry that pitchers and their loved ones try not to think about. That scary thought is what can happen when a batter hits the ball directly at that pitcher, less than 60 feet away after releasing the ball.
It happened again last Monday in Cleveland, Mississippi, where host Delta State was playing in the championship game of a seven-team NCAA Division II regional tournament.
On the mound for the Statesmen was senior righthander Corey Beard, whose father, Mike, was the head basketball coach at Briar Cliff for seven seasons (1997-2004).
Corey, just a 3-year-old when his family moved to Sioux City, is now a 6-4, 200-pound 23-year-old who has turned into an outstanding pitcher. But this phase of his life likely came to an end in the fifth inning of that title game with West Alabama, when a line drive up the middle struck him directly in the face.
According to the Bolivar Commercial (Cleveland is the county seat of Mississippi’s Bolivar County), an ambulance was brought onto the field as Corey Beard lay motionless on the ground as the crowd turned silent. Minutes later, fortunately, he was hoisted onto a gurney. Then, better yet, he bravely signaled the crowd with a raised index finger symbolizing “Number 1.’’
Needless to say, it was an emotional episode for a family that includes Corey’s brother, Tony Ginger, a former East High and Briar Cliff athlete who has put down roots in Sioux City.
Delta State Coach Mike Kinnison told the local newspaper his pitcher is “going to have to have some reconstructive surgery to the right side of his face and nose.’’ Corey’s vision, thankfully, was not affected.
In the meantime, Delta State went on to win the game and earned a trip to the eight-team Division II championships, which got under way on Saturday. After being hosted the last eight years by the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C., the tournament has moved this year to 4,500-seat AirHogs Stadium in Grand Prairie, Texas, the home in suburban Dallas to the American Association’s Texas AirHogs.
No. 2-ranked Delta State took a 42-11 record into the championships, now playing without Beard, who was 6-0 this spring as a reliever and spot starter. A former Missouri prep all-stater in Jefferson City, he struck out 71 batters in 78.2 innings and walked only 19.
It was Beard’s second and final season with Delta State, a perennial Division II power, after two years at Longview Community in Kansas City.
Aluminum bats make life all the more dangerous for pitchers below the professional level. That’s yet another reason to favor that crack of the wooden bat we get to hear when the Explorers are playing their 50 American Association home games each year.
Hard to believe most people have never played the game with wooden bats, which were all we knew in my youth, admittedly quite long ago.
Even pre-metal, nonetheless, there were cautionary tales. The classic episode came on May 7, 1957, when a liner off the bat of New York Yankees’ second baseman Gil McDougald caught Cleveland Indians pitcher Herb Score squarely in the face.
Score, who had emerged as one of baseball’s top lefthanders, was in his third major league season when he sustained several fractured facial bones and damage to one eye. He had gone 16-10 with a 2.85 earned run average as a 21-year-old AL Rookie of the Year in 1955, then was 20-9 with a 2.53 ERA in 1956, which was certainly no “sophomore slump.’’
Although he insisted the frightening experience didn’t leave any lasting trauma, he changed his delivery because of the mishap and was never quite the same over six additional seasons with the Indians and the White Sox.
Score did go on to work 34 seasons as a decorated broadcaster for the Indians. Researching this long-ago headline, I was sorry to learn he had died at age 75 in 2008 and, for that matter, that McDougald, at age 82, passed away in 2010.
Time marches on and I only hope baseball, for all its faults, keeps marching right along with it.