He still watches the video. He isn't sure how many times he has seen it—it's not as if he watches it every day before breakfast—but if there is nothing to do, sure, Bryce Florie pops the cassette into his VCR and watches himself get hit in the face with a baseball. The 30-year-old Boston Red Sox relief pitcher says, "I want to see what everyone else saw."
His brother, Brannon, 22, watched the video once and will not watch again. Bryce Florie cannot stop. He fast-forwards past some of the action. Then he slows down the tape. He hits the PAUSE button. He stares, then rewinds. Sitting in his condo near Charleston, S.C., he is entranced by his own ghastly image. He knows what happened to the character on the screen. He knows the hurt, the pain, the immediate ribbon of fear and doubt that ran through the character's head when a line drive crashed into his right eye. He tries to relate all this to what everyone else saw.
"I remember when I sat up," says Florie. "I was pointed toward the Yankees dugout along the third base line. All their players were at the top of the steps, looking at me. I sort of surveyed everything. I panned around behind the plate. I could see all the fans, standing on their toes, looking down, like they were ready to jump off a cliff, hang gliding or something. There was no sound. I looked toward our dugout. I could see the concern on my teammates' faces. That was what scared me the most, the way everyone was looking at me."
What could make a crowd of 33,861 people at Fenway Park that quiet? He watches the righthander throw from the stretch position, runners on first and second, two outs in the top of the ninth. He watches a New York Yankees righthanded batter named Ryan Thompson swing, hit the ball on a straight line back in the direction whence it came. He watches the pitcher react a heartbeat too slowly, glove starting to move, the ball hitting him squarely in the eye. There is an accompanying sound.
"You hear that thing hit my face," Florie says. "Whenever I see that..." He clears his throat. "I'm getting choked up right now," he says.
This is more than two months later.
He did not think he would pitch on the night of Sept. 8, the opener of a three-game series against the Yankees. He had pitched the previous day, throwing 20 pitches to close out an 11-6 win over the Minnesota Twins. At lunch he told Bran-non, who had come up from Orlando for the series with a friend, that he didn't feel great. But it didn't matter because he didn't think he would pitch tonight.
Finishing his sixth full major league season, Florie was far from being a star. He was a sinker-slider scuffler, a tough 5'11", 192-pound right arm, mainly a middle-man out of the bullpen, with a career record of 20-23 and an ERA of 4.34. In his second season with Boston, he was in the first year of a two-year, $2.9 million contract. "I'd be making a lot more money if you'd taught me to throw harder, like Pedro Martinez," he'd told his father, Robert, a week earlier.
Robert, a solid baseball and softball player as a young man in Charleston, had taught his three sons to play the game. They all had talent—Bryce's fraternal twin, Bryan, as an outfielder and pitcher, and Brannon as a pitcher and infielder—but Bryce was the one with the determination. A 1988 fifth-round draft choice of the San Diego Padres, he'd signed out of high school in Hanahan, S.C. (a suburb of Charleston), climbed for six years through the minors and then pitched for the Padres, the Milwaukee Brewers and the Detroit Tigers before landing with the Red Sox.
Just making the big leagues was a triumph for a player who, without his contact lenses, was legally blind. (His vision, 20/400 uncorrected, was correctable to 20/20.) His eyes were set in an improper position because he was born two months prematurely. He still was bothered a little by bright lights in the background, making night games more difficult to play than day games, but he had learned to adjust. It was no big thing. Mark McGwire is nearsighted and suffers from astigmatism, and he hit 70 home runs in a season.