Friday, July 29, 2005

Matt Clement - How Fragile Is A Life And An Athletic Career

I have heard the sound before - the thud of a baseball traveling over 100 miles an hour impacting the man on the mound who had released the ball only microseconds earlier. I heard it again on Tuesday night at Tropicana Field as Red Sox pitcher, Matt Clement, miraculously escaped serious injury after being hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Devil Rays’ outfield, Carl Crawford.

I had made a quick trip to Tampa to visit my sister. We grew up on Boston's North Shore cheering for the Red Sox, so we try to catch games together whenever we have the chance. We were lucky enough to have been given premium seats by a friend who works for the Devil Rays. So, we were sitting about as close as possible to the field when the frightening accident occurred. From our vantage point just behind the Tampa Bay dugout, we heard the loud report of the ball as it caromed off of Clement’s skull and bounced deep into the outfield. The pitcher grabbed his head and then dropped to the ground as medical personnel poured onto the field from both dugouts and from the stands. The crowd waited in stunned silence as the drama played out before us. Our thoughts were no longer on the score or on the standings but on the health and career of a gifted athlete whose future hung in the balance as he lay motionless on the mound.

We know today that he escaped serious injury, but those were frightening moments in the bottom of the third inning. I had heard the sound before when Bryce Florie was hit in the face. Here is the way that incident was described in a 2002 story written on Opening Day be a Cincinnati Red’s writer, Tim Sullivan:

On Sept.8, 2000, pitching in relief for the Boston Red Sox, Florie threw a pitch to the Yankees' Ryan Thompson that came back at him like a cowhide cannon shot. Before Florie could raise his glove in self-defense, the ball shattered bones surrounding his right eye.

Florie returned to the big leagues last June and threw 8 2/3 ineffective innings for the Red Sox before being released. Hamilton drove to Louisville last fall to watch his friend pitch for the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, and remembers Florie flinching whenever a ball was struck in his vicinity. Pitching can be perilous work and Bryce Florie now serves as a symbol of the fragile nature of a ballplayer's career. He is currently employed as a farm hand in the A's organization.

I am old enough to remember the tragic saga of Tony Conigliaro and the near-fatal and career-ending beaning he suffered while playing for the Red Sox in 1967. He was on track for a Hall of Fame career and then – poof – it was all gone.

I have a friend who often repeats the phrase: “Tomorrow is not promised to us.” This week’s latest reminder of the fragility of an athletic career and the evanescent nature of life should serve as a cautionary tale to prompt us to treasure each day and to wring from it all that we can. I thank God for the gift of each new day and pray for the strength and wisdom to invest it wisely.

I wish that someone close to Manny Ramirez would encourage him to read these words and heed them. But, that is a topic for another day . . .

God bless.


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