J.A. Happ

J.A. Happ is wheeled off the field on a stretcher after getting hit in the head with a line drive. (James Borchuck / MCT / May 8, 2013)

Somebody is going to get killed out there.

I've said it a hundred times, thought it a thousand.

The only question was, what ballplayer would have to die on the mound before something was done to protect pitchers?

The issue, in the news again after Toronto Blue Jays pitcher J.A. Happ was felled by a line drive Tuesday night, is personal with me because it happened to my son Matt.


He was struck in the face by a line drive in a high school game and on the side of the head during a scrimmage in college.

The first incident was witnessed by an overflow crowd watching the championship game of a spring tournament, and it prompted an Orange County Register columnist to call for a ban on metal bats in high school competition.

Matt sustained a concussion and multiple facial fractures, but his surgeon said the ball had struck him in "the perfect spot" to avoid a more serious injury — just below the cheekbone, above his jaw and to the side of his nose.

The shot he took in college was worse. It nearly killed him.

He was struck in nearly the same spot as Happ, between the temple and ear — only on the opposite side because Matt throws right-handed and Happ is a lefty.

I'll never forget the neurosurgeon holding up an X-ray showing a fracture line running from the side of Matt's head in toward the middle of his skull, stopping right at the carotid artery, which supplies blood to the brain.

Any farther, by the tiniest fraction and, well … the doctor just shook his head.

It happened in February 2010 and drew local headlines in the Bay Area and also from the Associated Press and Yahoo. But soon the season geared up and the attention waned.

Plans were already in the works for safety modifications on the metal bats used by high school and college players, but I came to think no real improvements would take place until something happened to an 11- or 12-year-old performing on youth baseball's grandest stage, the Little League World Series.

A boy I knew barely escaped a couple of years ago, when the straight bill of his cap cushioned a blow still strong enough to knock him off his feet. The impact left an indentation — it looked as if someone had taken a bite out of his hat — but had the ball glanced off one way or the other it would have crashed into his forehead or his nose.

It was a prime illustration of how a ball coming off one of those souped-up metal bats could be lethal to a kid pitcher, vulnerable as he finishes his follow-through only 40 feet or so from home plate.

Over the years, a couple of boys died after being struck in the head, but no changes came about. Those deaths did not happen in a stadium packed with 40,000 fans and in front of a national television audience of millions. Sometimes it takes a very public catastrophe to finally ignite change.

Happ was struck by a drive off the bat of Desmond Jennings during a game between the Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla.

He tried to get his glove up to shield himself but was a split-second late, and the 6-foot-6 left-hander was nailed on the left side of his skull with such force that the impact could be heard several levels up in the stadium.

The ball came to rest in foul territory halfway up the right-field line as Happ lay face down in front of the mound, his glove and bare hand covering his head and a crowd of 10,273 watching in stunned silence.