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April 20, 2009
Though deaths caused by thrown or batted balls are rare, frequent close calls, including another last week, keep the issue of ballpark safety in play
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April 20, 2009

Hit In The Head

Though deaths caused by thrown or batted balls are rare, frequent close calls, including another last week, keep the issue of ballpark safety in play

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Hamilton was known for his spitball, and Conigliaro later maintained that the ball had moved unlike any legal pitch. But Hamilton, who had never hit anyone in the head before, has always said that he wasn't throwing at Conigliaro or using his spitter; he blames the shadows and his own incompetence. "The pitch got away from me, in the middle of the afternoon," he says. He tried visiting Conigliaro in the hospital that night but was told only family members could do so. The two men never spoke.

After the incident Conigliaro had some sweet moments—Comeback Player of the Year in 1969, 36 homers in '70—but his eyesight deteriorated. He was traded to the Angels in 1971 and soon retired, came back briefly in '75 and then retired for good. But the black cloud over him never quite lifted. In 1982 he was in Boston interviewing for a Red Sox broadcasting job when he suffered a heart attack, then a coma-inducing stroke. He spent the next eight years in a vegetative state until dying in 1990, at age 45.

BO MCLAUGHLIN can speak matter-of-factly, even laugh a bit, about the night in 1981 when a batted ball ruined his face. He has a tape of the game, and every once in a while at parties he pops it in to liven things up. "You could hear the bones break [through] the microphone hanging from the press box," he says. But in the months immediately following the accident, McLaughlin had little desire to watch baseball, much less play it. The first day he set out for a ball field to work out, he jumped into the front seat of his car, put the keys in the ignition and sat a few minutes before walking back into his house. He tried again the next day, making it out of the driveway and around the block before returning home. On the third day he made it to the field and was able to play catch despite the doubt racking his mind. Do I want to do this? Do I want to put my life out there?

It was a wonder he was even walking. On May 26 of that year, McLaughlin, a relief pitcher for the A's, had started the eighth inning of a losing effort against the White Sox. He got the first two batters out, then threw a 91-mph sinker to Harold Baines, Chicago's second-year rightfielder. Baines couldn't have hit it better. The ball blasted off his bat at 104 mph, dipping and rising like a knuckleball. McLaughlin, all 6'5" of him, rose out of his follow-through to catch it. "Sinker down and away?" Baines says. "That's where I'm supposed to hit the ball: back up the middle. Unfortunately his face was in the way."

The ball shattered McLaughlin's left cheekbone, broke his eye socket in five places and fractured his jaw and nose, spinning him around so that he got a full view of the centerfielder before falling on his back. He vomited five dugout towels' worth of blood and went into shock. "That," says Jackie Moore, the Oakland third base coach at the time, "was as bad as I've ever seen."

Doctors at Oakland's Merritt Hospital weren't sure McLaughlin would survive the night. It took two surgeries to wire his cheekbone and left eye socket. For Baines, meanwhile, speaking with McLaughlin by phone in the ensuing days did little to ease his mind. Baines had been hitting over .300 that month, but he immediately fell into a slump—6 for 42, .143—that ended only when the major league players went on strike 16 days after the accident.

McLaughlin was 27 at the time. A six-year veteran who'd spent most of his career in the bullpen for the Astros and then the A's, winning 10 games and losing 20, he was nobody's idea of special. He came back to pitch for Oakland that September, but the muscles and nerves in his cheek hadn't healed and he couldn't get in shape; when he ran it felt as if a hockey puck were sliding around beneath the skin. He appeared in four games, in which he seemed to be fine until he got two outs; then he fell apart. On Sept. 20 in Chicago he started the eighth inning, got two quick outs, then surrendered three walks and a single, threw a wild pitch and finally saw Baines come to the plate to face him for the first time since the accident. A's catcher Mike Heath gave McLaughlin the sign for a sinker, away, and grinned. McLaughlin backed off and started laughing. "I threw a fastball," he says. "I wasn't interested in getting hit again." Baines popped out to end the inning.

Baines put the accident behind him. He played 20 more years and was one of the best players of his era. He never came close to hitting anyone again. "It's unfortunate," Baines, now a White Sox coach, says of the accident, "but it's part of the game."

McLaughlin played the 1982 season with Oakland. He worked 48 1/3 innings and had a 4.84 ERA. He bounced around the Triple A Pacific Coast League for three more seasons, mostly treating it, he says, "like a beer league." He never had another major league win. He married, had three children, started a real estate business and a baseball camp. In '92 Cubs manager Jim Lefebvre asked him to throw batting practice, and after seven years away it felt O.K. to be on a mound again. McLaughlin coached in the Cubs' minor league system, moved on to Montreal's, then worked as Baltimore's minor league pitching coordinator for three years, from 1999 through 2001. When Baines played for the Orioles in '98 and '99, he and McLaughlin talked a bit, no hard feelings. They played golf. In 2003 McLaughlin joined the Rockies as a pitching coach for the Double A Tulsa Drillers.

There aren't many days that McLaughlin isn't reminded of the accident. When he's home in Phoenix and the temperature hits 113° or so, the metal in his face gets so hot that the whites of his eyes turn red. He's considered a fine coach, committed and communicative, yet he hardly exudes a contagious passion. "I'm not a fan of baseball," he says softly. "Never was."

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