March 1, 2007
STANFORD, Calif. (AP) - Erik Davis crumpled to the mound, blood gushing from his shattered face.
A pitcher's greatest fear had become reality: A hard line drive had hit him squarely in the face. It's an event so traumatic that even if a player recovers from the physical wounds, the mental toll sometimes is enough to derail a career.
The most famous case in baseball was that of Herb Score, who went from being AL Rookie of the Year and a 20-game winner to winning just 17 games after his cheek was shattered by a line drive from Gil McDougald in 1957. There was Dick Pole in the 1970s, and more recently, Bryce Florie, who pitched only 8 2-3 major league innings after his face was battered by a ball in 2000.
Davis, a junior at Stanford, learned all about Florie's plight after being operated on in the same Boston hospital as the former Red Sox pitcher. He was determined not to follow the same path.
"I wanted to be the total opposite," Davis said. "I want to be the success story. I don't want to be the guy everyone feels bad for because he got hurt."
Davis was hit while pitching in the Cape Cod League last June. In the immediate aftermath, the primary concern was whether he'd even be able to see again. The blow initially left him unable to see out of his right eye, and doctors needed to operate before determining whether they could rectify that.
Stanford teammate Brian Juhl, who happened to be on deck for the opposing team that day, was the first person at the mound to tend to Davis.
"As soon as I saw him it was kind of a shocker," Juhl said. "His eye was really swollen and puffy. His nose was bleeding really bad. It was scary."
Back home in Mountain View, Calif., Davis' father Tom was listening to the game on the Internet as his family celebrated Father's Day and another son's college graduation.
Then came the jolting news that Erik had been hit by a line drive, and the few minutes it took to get any kind of update seemed like hours to a father thousands of miles away from his injured son.
"It's a real numbing feeling," Tom Davis said. "All of a sudden, in your mind as a parent your 19-year old son becomes a little boy again. You flash back to when he was 10 or 12 and want to figure out how you can help him. There's no way to do that and you feel kind of helpless."
By the time Erik called home from the ambulance, his mother had already booked a redeye flight that would get her to her son's side before his two operations.
When Gloria Davis walked into his hospital room early the next morning, she was shocked by the sight: The right side of Erik's face was "hanging and smashed." But that's not what concerned the doctors.
"They said: 'Mrs. Davis, we're not so worried about all the broken bones in his face. We're worried about the structure of his eye. We can fix all of the bones,"' she recalled. "That just sounded horrible. They didn't know the health of his eye. Immediately I started thinking he could lose his eye. It all sounded very grave."
The first operation eased those fears, as doctors determined there was no structural damage to the eye and the reason Davis couldn't see was because of a buildup of blood. The second operation lasted more than five hours and put four titanium plates in the right side of Davis' face, replacing the broken orbital socket and cheek bone.
Soon after, Davis began pestering his doctors. It wasn't that he wondered whether he'd ever take the mound again; he simply told them he was going to pitch in the fall and they had better make sure he'd be OK.
Remarkably, two months to the day after the injury, Davis took the mound again in a semipro game in Reno, Nev. He pitched three innings and put to rest any doubts about whether he'd be able to come back.
"Once you have something taken away from you like it was for me, there's a strong urge to get back out there and do it again," Davis said. "I've taken for granted all my life being able to play baseball. I was close to never being able to do that again. I just want to make the most of my second chance to play and I've been doing that ever since."
Davis proved himself to his Stanford teammates during fall practice and was back on the mound at the start of this season.
Despite pitching sparingly early on, Davis is still expected to play a key role for the Cardinal after saving back-to-back games in the NCAA tournament last year. He also serves as an inspiration for his tenacity in coming back from such a frightening injury.
"His recovery has been unbelievable," coach Mark Marquess said. "Just getting back on the mound is hard. When that happens you don't want to let go of the ball. A couple of times in the fall, guys hit one back through the box and you go, 'Oh my god. What's going to happen?' But it didn't affect him at all."
Davis sees why others might worry about him going back out to pitch, but figures he has a better chance of being struck by lightning than by another batted ball.
"It's the last thing on my mind when I'm out there," he said. "If you dwell on it, it will permanently affect how you play baseball. That just can't happen."
It helps that Davis got some advice and encouragement from a couple of his heroes.
His father sent an e-mail to mlb.com, attaching an article about Erik and describing some of his baseball role models. Soon after, Davis heard from two of them: Hall of Famer Nolan Ryan and Chicago Cubs pitcher Mark Prior, who came back from his own mound injury when his elbow was fractured by a line drive in 2005.
"I e-mailed him back to lift his spirits and wish him well," Prior said. "I can't imagine. What I went through was bad enough. What he went through was horrific."
Prior also told Davis it was going to be scary to go back on the mound, but the key was to face that fear. His parents have gotten over their own apprehensions about watching Davis pitch again. They now view him as their role model.
"It was amazing," Gloria Davis said. "It was just as much delight on that side as there was devastation when it happened."
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report from Mesa, Ariz.