Pitcher improving after being hit by batted ball


June 4, 2021

DURHAM, N.C. — Durham Bulls pitcher Tyler Zombro showed “positive” signs in his recovery on Friday at Duke University Hospital, one day after being hit in the head by a line drive.

The baseball community held its collective breath late Thursday as the 26-year-old player remained under doctors’ care, having been carted off the field by a stretcher at Durham Bulls Athletic Park.

Tributes and prayers flooded Twitter from minor-league teams across the country: the Albuquerque Isotopes, the Buffalo Bisons, the Memphis Redbirds.

Former big-league pitcher Luis Tiant, who played mostly for the Boston Red Sox and Cleveland Indians, tweeted: “A horrible thing to watch, wishing for a full healthy recovery.”

“The updates from overnight have been positive, and he remains in stable condition,” the Bulls said in a statement Friday. “We are overwhelmed by the support for Tyler and the wishes for his full and speedy recovery from fans and the baseball community alike. We will provide additional updates as he progresses.”

The Bulls announced Friday’s game against the Norfolk Tides is canceled and ticket holders will get information soon about an exchange.

Calls for improved safety

Captured on video and witnessed by fans, Zombro’s injury also sparked calls for upgraded safety measures from Major League Baseball. While protective helmets are mandatory for professional batters, only a few pitchers wear what protective head gear is available on the mound, according to ESPN.

It’s a tough issue with many parallels in pro sports, said Mark Cryan, a professor of sports management at Elon University who served as general manager for an Indians affiliate in Burlington.

Hockey players resisted face shields for decades, he said, and baseball’s base coaches wouldn’t wear them until Tulsa Drillers first-base coach Mike Coolbaugh died during a game, hit in the neck by a line drive.

In general, Cryan said, change comes when it is mandated at youth levels.

“There have been some fits and starts in areas like padded or lined hats for pitchers, or even a version of a helmet/hat that was subject to some experimentation in the past,” Cryan said in an email Friday. “But, baseball is also a very traditional game, steeped in machismo. Nobody wants to be the guy with the weird looking hat, and everyone figures it won’t happen to them.”

Twitter discussion following Thursday’s Bulls game hinted at pitchers taking a long time to overcome mental as well as physical aspects of being hit by pitches.

“If what you say is true, then I feel like the baseball powers-that-be might begin to seriously consider head protection for the pitchers,” tweeted fan Amy Anistik-Bartus. “Watching this in person last night at The DBAP live and in real time was horrific. And now what Tyler is going through is heartbreaking.”

Often called “comebackers,” balls hit directly at pitchers pose a special risk to players standing only 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate.

Major and minor league teams have extended netting to protect fans who have been injured, and in at least one case filed suit. Some players now favor “C-flap” helmets designed to protect the jaw.

But fewer safeguards shield those facing directly into a batted ball.

Hall of Fame pitcher Mike Mussina missed a month of play with the Baltimore Orioles in 1998 after getting hit with a line drive.

“It was mentally getting over the fear that every ball I threw, every ball that someone made contact with, was not coming back at me,” he said, according to ESPN.

‘Phenomenal guy’

Zombro joined the Tampa Bay Rays’ organization in 2017 as an undrafted free agent out of George Mason University. The Durham Bulls are the Triple-A affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays. Triple-A is one step below the major leagues.

Zombro was playing for the Montgomery Biscuits — a feeder team to the major league Rays — in 2019 when he was assigned to play for the Durham Bulls. In the spring of 2020 and earlier this year, he attended spring training with the Tampa Bay Rays.

Montgomery Biscuits general manager Michael Murphy had not heard about Zombro’s injuries when The News & Observer reached him by phone Thursday night.

Zombro is a “phenomenal guy,” Murphy said, “and always the first to volunteer for anything happening in the community, from baseball camps to clinics and events held for young fans. In 2019, Murphy said he nominated Zombro for the Tampa Bay Rays’ Community Award for player character off the field.

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