Ziegler beats injuries, odds
TORONTO -- Not many people can claim that they heard their son's skull fracture from 2,000 miles away. But when a ball left Fred Lewis' bat and struck the right temple of Brad Ziegler in Modesto, Calif., Greg and Lisa Ziegler were sitting in their office at home in Odessa, Mo., listening to the radio broadcast on the Internet.
"We heard the announcer say, 'Brad Ziegler is down, and he's not moving," Lisa Ziegler said. "And we were yelling 'Get up! Get up!' It was one of those nightmares."
Within 5 minutes, the team trainer had called the Zieglers and reported that Brad was able to walk off the field. What Brad and his family did not know, however, was that over the next 12 hours, Brad's brain would leak fluid and blood into his skull, creating a silver-dollar-size mass. When he went back to the hospital the next day and had a CAT scan, technicians came barreling toward him after seeing the results, telling him that he had to be admitted to the ICU immediately and that he might have to undergo brain surgery.
"A few of the nurses later told me that a couple of times, 'We didn't know if you were going to make it through the night,'" Brad said.
It was nearly five years ago that Ziegler flirted with death. In the years since, the 29-year-old reliever has fractured his skull again, played in independent ball, changed his delivery, set a major league record with 39 scoreless innings to begin a career and, now, pitched for his country in front of a global audience at this year's World Baseball Classic.
Ziegler and Team USA will play Wednesday night, for seeding purposes, against Venezuela in their final game here before heading to Miami for the second round of play, which begins Saturday.
If there is a true American story to be found on this team, it is that of Ziegler, the son of a preacher raised with Midwest manners, the rare big leaguer who takes photographs with fans and asks them to send him a copy. Ziegler's humility is refreshing, and on par with his background.
After spending four years at Southwest Missouri State (where he was teammates with Phillies slugger Ryan Howard), Ziegler was drafted in the 20th round by the Phillies in 2003. It seemed as though his tenure with the team was doomed from the beginning. He pitched in just three games in the New York-Penn League before shoulder tendinitis shut him down. The next spring, he was released, told that at 23 (going on 24 that year) he was too old for short-season ball and not good enough for low-A ball.
So he went to the independent Northern League, where he struck out 26 in 24 innings, and the A's -- who had originally drafted him in the 31st round in 2002 -- signed him and sent him to Class A Modesto. Ziegler pitched well in '04, but in a playoff game in September, Lewis came up to bat and, on just the second pitch of the game, ended Ziegler's season.
Ziegler spent six days in ICU, was on anti-seizure medication for months and was forbidden to fly. For the first few weeks, Ziegler was instructed not to be left alone. So he moved in with a local family. Lindsey Lankford worked for the Modesto A's and befriended Ziegler through a church friend. The Lankfords had known Ziegler for a week when he fractured his skull. Ziegler called Lindsey's mother, Helen, when they were carting him to ICU and Helen stayed with him for two days until Ziegler's family could catch a flight.
"I felt so bad for this kid," Helen Lankford said. "He was so far away from home without anybody."
Helen immediately offered to let Ziegler stay with family. He slept on the couch, and because everyone in the family worked or went to school, Ziegler attended classes at Cal State-Stanislaus with Lindsey each day for the first week because he could not be left alone in case of seizures or other complications.
"I just walked around campus with her all day," Ziegler said. "I couldn't be at the house by myself. I don't know what she told her teachers, but none of them had a problem with it."
Ziegler eventually returned home to Odessa, but he had to refrain from physical activity until January. The recovery was slow, but the A's had patience and, despite almost losing his life just months before, Ziegler went out in 2005 and was second in the California League with 144 strikeouts. He said he never feared going back to the mound.
He was progressing slowly through the system when, at the end of 2006, the A's approached him about changing his delivery to sidearm. At first, Ziegler was stubborn. Then he was realistic: As a right-hander with a fastball in the high 80s and a decent slider and changeup, there was nothing extraordinary about him. Ziegler's agent, Rob Martin, told him it was a sign that the organization thought highly enough of him to make an investment. Ziegler made the transition and, at 27, had a good year in Triple-A in 2007.
Ziegler was dominating Triple-A in early 2008, having given up only one earned run in 24 1/3 innings, when he was called up at the end of May. Despite his success, Ziegler never felt as though he fit in, and he thought it was strange that his teammates weren't initiating him with any rookie hazing. From May 30 to Aug. 14, Ziegler pitched in the big leagues with a 0.00 ERA.
"Not only do I give up a run," Ziegler thought to himself when it ended, "but now we're losing."
The crowd gave him a standing ovation; the A's came back to win the game; and Cooperstown asked for his cleats. When it was over, Ziegler was finally able to interact with his teammates.
"I had guys coming up to me and saying, 'Dude, we were scared to death to talk to you the last few months,'" Ziegler said. "They were afraid they were going to jinx it. After that, I realized they were going to treat me like I'm normal."
Mel Stottlemyre was the pitching coach for division opponent Seattle last year, and he got to see Ziegler up close. He was impressed with what he saw.
"He's really a quality pitcher, where he throws, he's still able to get left-handers out," said Stottlemyre, who is Team USA's bullpen coach. "One thing he does is when he's in trouble, he just doesn't give in and keeps coming right at you. We had him a few times on the ropes where we thought we were going to score off of him and he shut the door.
"He's a guy who can throw often and he's a guy who's been very valuable to Oakland and he's going to be very valuable to us, too."
Greg Ziegler said watching what his son accomplished last season was exciting. But he kept it in perspective.
"Even now when I watch him play baseball," Greg said, "more than anything else, I'm thankful that my son is alive."
Ziegler's 1.06 ERA last season led all big league relievers. It was a remarkable feat on its own, but was even more impressive because just a few months before spring training last year, Ziegler fractured his skull again.
He was playing catch when a friend standing beside him made a move to catch the ball. When the friend pulled back, Ziegler -- who still has the ball's stitching imprinted on his head from the first fracture -- was smacked squarely in the forehead by the ball, which fractured the frontal part of his skull and left a permanent dent. He was diagnosed with his second concussion in less than four years. But unlike the last time, Ziegler was back working out two days later.
"Most people don't even have one skull fracture in their life," Ziegler said. "What are the odds of that happening twice?"
Not very good, but neither were the odds of Ziegler making it this far.
Amy K. Nelson is a staff writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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