Mentally speaking, Soriano's true test still awaits

Originally Published: September 2, 2006
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Vladimir Guerrero's line drive had barely deflected off Rafael Soriano's head and toward the dugout when the television replays began airing over and over -- just as they did with Delmon Young's bat toss, Gary Matthews Jr.'s fence-climbing catch and Jim Leyland's interlude from arguing with an umpire to pay homage to Kate Smith.

Theater is theater, even if it leaves you with a tightness in the pit of your stomach.

Rafael Soriano
Ted S. Warren/AP PhotoRafael Soriano suffered a mild concussion after getting struck in the head by a line drive off the bat of Vladimir Guerrero.
The sense of shock was palpable at Safeco Field on Tuesday night. As Soriano writhed in pain and grabbed his head with his hands, Seattle trainer Rick Griffin rushed to the mound and 29,059 fans watched with vacant expressions.

"Holy smokes,'' Mariners broadcaster Rick Rizzs said over the air. "Was that scary?'' One newspaper account later said that Guerrero's drive was traveling at 108 mph.

Soriano, a reliever for the Mariners, apparently avoided a worst-case scenario. After a night in the intensive care unit, he was released from the hospital on Wednesday. Doctors used the words "lucky'' and "miraculous'' to explain how he emerged with nothing more serious than a concussion and a large "goose egg'' behind his ear.

It remains to be seen whether Soriano will climb back on a mound for Seattle this season or in spring training. Whatever transpires, it will be appreciably better than the alternative.

While most observers watched Soriano's scary interlude with a sense of morbid fascination, it hit closer to home for some fellow pitchers. For those familiar with the sensation of completing a follow-through and barely having time to flinch as the baseball comes hurtling back at them, empathy comes easily.

Earlier this season -- before Soriano's brush with disaster -- three big-league pitchers who have had the misfortune to be on the business end of a line drive off the head shared their thoughts with ESPN.com. If Soriano needs a support group to share his pain, these guys would fit the bill.

"It's a traumatic thing,'' said Yankees pitcher Mike Mussina. "It's more psychological than physical in a lot of cases. Some people have been really injured and it affected their careers. For those of us who were lucky and are still able to pitch, you have to be able to get it out of your head. That's the real test.''

A competitive code exists in sports: The athlete struggling with insecurity learns to keep it to himself out of self-preservation. The pitcher who has been drilled by a comebacker is no different than a wide receiver who has been knocked cold by a free safety or an NHL winger who has been driven head-first into the boards in pursuit of a loose puck.

Athletes stifle the doubts because that's a prerequisite to compete. But the ability to admit human frailties is easier in hindsight.

"It's a traumatic thing. It's more psychological than physical in a lot of cases. Some people have been really injured and it affected their careers. For those of us who were lucky and are still able to pitch, you have to be able to get it out of your head. That's the real test."
-- Mike Mussina, on getting hit in the head

For Mussina, it's been eight years since he was pitching for the Baltimore Orioles and Cleveland catcher Sandy Alomar Jr. hit a shot back through the box. The ball caught Mussina flush, broke his nose and left him with a 30-stitch cut above his right eye.

The incident occurred in May 1998, and Mussina spent three weeks on the disabled list before returning to the rotation. He estimates that it took him about eight starts before he felt comfortable again on the mound.

The fickle nature of fate still resonates with Mussina. If the ball were hit an inch to either side, it would have struck him in the eye and he might have wound up like former Boston pitcher Bryce Florie, whose right eye socket was crushed by a Ryan Thompson line drive in 2000.

"My older son hadn't even been born yet,'' said Mussina, whose son Brycen is about to turn 8. "My two boys would have never seen me pitch just because of one baseball that was hit back at me.''

Mets closer Billy Wagner can relate. In July 1998 -- two months after Mussina's encounter with Alomar -- Wagner was hit behind the left ear by a Kelly Stinnett liner and spent three weeks on the disabled list. Wagner suffered from vertigo and nausea and had difficulty maintaining his balance. But the Astros had just acquired Randy Johnson in a trade with Seattle, and he was anxious to return and help the team compete for a playoff berth.

Wagner had been victimized on a fastball, and he recalls throwing the same pitch in the same spot over and over during a rehab stint in the minor leagues just to prove that he wasn't afraid.

"That was one of the turning points in my career, because I really focused more on what I needed to do,'' Wagner said. "Up to that point I was more of a thrower than a pitcher. That kind of helped me stay more refined with my mechanics and my approach.''

One of the most frightening moments from the 2005 season occurred in Tampa Bay, when Devil Rays outfielder Carl Crawford hit a screamer that struck Boston pitcher Matt Clement just below the right ear. The ball was hit with such force, it ricocheted all the way to Manny Ramirez in left field.

Clement, to this day, recalls the aftermath with vivid clarity. As he lay on the field, teammate Kevin Millar bent down and told him not to move. He could feel catcher Jason Varitek's presence and hear the eerie silence that had enveloped the stands. But there wasn't a trace of blood, and he never panicked.

As Clement was wheeled off the field, he thought of his wife, Heather, and two young boys at home. He spoke to Heather on the ambulance ride, and learned that as she was watching the incident unfold on television, their 2½ year old son, Mattix, had tears in his eyes and urged her, "Mommy, make daddy get up.''

Rather than allow the uncertainty to creep into his psyche, Clement lobbied Boston manager Terry Francona to let him make his next start. The appearance was pushed back a few days, and he was unimpressive in an 11-9 loss to Kansas City.

"I don't know if I instantly made a pact with myself where I said, 'I'm not going to let this bother me,' '' Clement said. "But I knew if I sat around and let it turn into weeks or months or whatever, it was going to affect me. So I said, 'I've got to get my butt out there as quick as possible.' ''

After a respectable August, Clement faded in September and in the postseason. This year he got off to a so-so start before a series of maladies wrecked his season. He took a Bernie Williams line drive off the ankle in May and was diagnosed with shoulder tendinitis in June. He hasn't appeared in a game in 2½ months.

Did Crawford's liner have a lasting impact? Clement refuses to believe that it affected him in an enduring way. The only tangible evidence came last August when he suffered a mysterious loss of stamina. Clement, accustomed to running 20 foul line-to-foul line sprints in 20 minutes, suddenly found that he was exhausted after five. He talked to several hitters who had been beaned by pitchers, and they relayed similar experiences.

"You're not going to give in to the fact that [getting hit in the head] bothers you. If you want to keep doing this job, you have to find a way to get through it."
-- Mussina

But he purged the ghosts of last summer by talking with Crawford, then returning to Tampa Bay for a start in April.

"If I'm in a traumatic car accident, every time I drive past that spot on the freeway, it's going to be hard not to think about it,'' Clement said. "I compare it to that.''

NASCAR drivers recover from pileups and get back behind the wheel, and baseball pitchers step back on the mound. That's just the way it works.

"You're not going to give in to the fact that it bothers you,'' Mussina said. "If you want to keep doing this job, you have to find a way to get through it.''

The lump on Rafael Soriano's head will disappear soon enough, but he'll have to pitch again before he knows if his chance encounter with Guerrero had a lingering effect. Sooner or later, he'll know.

Jerry Crasnick covers baseball for ESPN Insider. His book "License To Deal" was published by Rodale. Click here to order a copy. Jerry can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer

ALSO SEE