105 mph to the Head

Matt Shoemaker, Pitcher / Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim - The Players' Tribune

When the baseball smacked into the side of my head, it was traveling 105 miles per hour. Yet somehow I didn’t hear a sound.

I never lost consciousness, so I remember everything about that moment.

I can even remember the breath I took before I threw the pitch — just that long, exaggerated inhale through the nose as I focused on hitting my spot, my lungs filling up with air.

Then, after a brief pause, I did what I had done thousands and thousands of times before — I wound up, lifted my left leg to my chest and threw the baseball toward the plate.

It was the second inning. One out. We were in Seattle, last September, playing the Mariners. I was looking to go with a heater inside, but after I released the ball it tailed back over the plate.

And Kyle Seager just flat-out barreled it.

I must have seen the baseball coming at me, because I reacted to it. I got my head turned and my arm up. I actually almost caught it.

But after that, everything just went silent.

I didn’t hear anything at all.


But the crazy thing is that I actually felt O.K. when it happened.

I knew I’d been hit, so I just kind of went down to my hands and knees.

I wasn’t hurting, though. I was dizzy. And light-headed. But there was no pain.

Nothing hurt. I’d just been knocked off my feet by a laser-beam line drive, but the main feeling that I experienced as a result was one that caught me completely off guard.


Pure calm.

It just overtook my entire body.

It was unlike anything I’d ever felt.

I first noticed the blood when the training staff got out to the mound.

As soon as they reached me, they began asking a bunch of questions:

“What day is it?”

“What’s your name?”

“Where are you right now?”

“Why are you here?”

Those were a breeze. I answered them all with no difficulty — “Sunday. Matt. Seattle. I’m pitching against the Mariners.” Honestly, I was more concerned with a different question.

Can I stay in the game?

For real … I tried to convince our trainers to let me keep pitching. They were talking about helping me up and how I was going to get over to the dugout, and I stopped them. “Hold on a second,” I said. “Let me try to see if I can still pitch. Gimme a few warmup tosses to see how I feel. I’m just a little dizzy is all.”

They just laughed at me.

I didn’t fully understand that response until I stood up and almost fell over because I was so woozy. Both of our trainers needed to support me under my arms in order for me to walk without going down.

Once I reached the dugout, one of the first people I saw was Albert Pujols.

The first thing he said was, “Let me call your wife.” Then he grabbed a phone from Tim Mead, our p.r. guy, and started dialing Danielle. It was such a thoughtful thing for Albert to do. My wife and I were so appreciative that he connected the two of us right away.

When she got the call from Albert, my wife was watching the game on TV back in Anaheim. So she had seen what just happened to me. She knew I was doing O.K. since she had watched me walk off the field, and she was probably expecting to hear from somebody about my condition. But I’m sure she was pretty confused when that call came in. I mean, Tim Mead’s number pops up, and then all of a sudden Albert says, “Hello.”

After telling her that I seemed to be doing O.K. and not to worry, he handed the phone to me.

I remember that conversation being pretty normal, actually.

Within a few minutes, I was on a gurney and some paramedics were rolling me into the back of an ambulance.

She had seen me walk off the field, so she knew I wasn’t knocked out. But still, now that I think about it, she was extremely calm about the whole thing too. At the time, Danielle was seven months pregnant with our daughter, Emmy, and on full bed rest by doctor’s orders. There was some concern that she might go into labor early. So she had a lot going on. And yet … just super, super calm.

There was no panic. And that helped me feel like everything was going to be fine. The trainers said I still needed to head to a hospital for observation, but that was no big deal.

Within a few minutes, I was on a gurney and some paramedics were rolling me into the back of an ambulance headed for Harborview Medical Center. It was only about a mile away from the stadium.

They didn’t even turn on the sirens. Or the lights.

It was all good.

Almost as soon as I arrived at the hospital, the doctors huddled up, pulled out a laptop and were like, Hey, we’re gonna watch the video … do you want to check out what happened?

I was definitely light-headed and dizzy at the time, but my eyesight was fine. So I was all in.

They pulled up the video and hit play.

I thought for a second that it might be weird to see it. Or that it might freak me out. But, honestly, it wasn’t a big deal.

The first two scans looked great. Then the third scan came back….

We watched it a couple of times, and grimaced in unison, and then the doctors told me the plan. They were going to do a CT scan every hour for several hours, and then assess the images to make sure nothing about my condition had worsened. There were sure to be skull fractures, and some internal bleeding, but as long as things didn’t take a turn for the worse I’d be able to recover from my injuries over time. I’d be out of the hospital in the morning.

The first two scans looked great. There was a little bit of bleeding, but nothing too major or concerning. Rick Smith, one of our trainers, was with me at the time, and I remember talking to him about whether I might be able to pitch when my turn in the rotation came up in five days. He knew that no matter how good the scans looked, I wasn’t going to be back out on the hill for a while just based on the league’s concussion protocol, but he kind of humored me and deflected those questions.

“These two scans look great!” I said. “I’m all good.”

Then the third scan came back and everything changed.

“There’s more blood. We’re going into surgery … right now.”

That’s all the doctor said. Nine words. No messing around.

He wasn’t trying to scare me. He was just looking to move quickly.

At that point, I just kind of did what I was told. I didn’t ask any questions because there was nothing I could ask. I’m not a neurosurgeon, you know? I wouldn’t have known what to ask. Plus, there wasn’t much time for small talk.

Within 30 seconds, I was being prepped for emergency brain surgery — nurses were unplugging me from machines, other nurses were scribbling things on medical charts, everyone was moving in double time.

My wife grabbed our son, Brady, who was a little over a year and a half at the time, so he could see me and say hello.

That’s when everything got really real.

The first thing I thought about was my family.

I grabbed my phone and FaceTimed Danielle, just to let her know.

“Hey, they told me I’m going into surgery right now. Literally right now. There’s more bleeding in my brain.”

Again, total calm.

Maybe she was keeping her cool for me, I don’t know. But she held it together.

There was no panic. She didn’t cry.

What she did do was grab our son, Brady, who was a little over a year and a half at the time, so he could see me and say hello.

We talked for a minute, maybe two, and then I had to go. As I was speaking to Danielle, the nurses were wheeling me over to the operating room. I had wanted to call my parents to give them an update, but the woman pushing the gurney said that there was no time for another call, so I asked Danielle to do that for me.

I told her that I loved her, hit the red button on my screen, and she was gone. Then I handed my phone and my wedding ring to someone for safe keeping, and they wheeled me into the operating room for emergency brain surgery.

They weren’t sure if they’d ever see me alive again

Matt Shoemaker

I’m super close with my parents, so not being able to call them and let them know what was going on was extremely difficult.

When the ball slammed into my head in Seattle, they were more than 2,000 miles away, in Traverse City, Michigan, watching the game on TV while visiting my aunt and uncle. They had made the four-hour drive north from where they live, and where I grew up, just outside of Detroit.

My dad has always been a tough, hardworking guy — he’s a teddy bear on the inside, and solid as a rock. After he found out I was headed in for brain surgery, he got up, got into his truck and drove away. He didn’t tell anyone where he was going. “Just out for a drive,” he said, and then he was gone.

No one at my aunt’s place was certain where he was going.

They also weren’t sure if they’d ever see me alive again.

When I woke up from surgery, I felt like a jackhammer was stuck inside my brain. I was still groggy from the medicine and anesthesia, which didn’t seem to be doing anything to minimize the throbbing.

There was also a drain hanging from the side of my head, which definitely threw me off there for a second. It looked like a little rubber hose.

They tell me I was being operated on for two hours. The type of injury I had is called an epidural hematoma.

When the ball hit my head, it resulted in a bunch of skull fractures, and pressure from the impact damaged an artery and caused bleeding. The fractures went from the spot where I got hit down to the middle of my jaw. The doctors said there were a ton of little fractures. You can see them on the X-rays. It looks like what happens when a rock hits your windshield — like a spiderweb of tiny cracks. But in this case the windshield was my skull.

The bleeding inside my brain was the bigger problem, though. That’s why everything escalated so quickly.

From what I’ve been told, the surgeons made a half-circle incision on the right side of my head, and then they pealed that back and cut a chunk of my skull out. They needed to do that so they could get under there to fix the artery that was damaged and causing the bleeding. Then they put that piece of skull back, placed a titanium plate over it, and sewed everything back up.

When I first woke up, I touched the scar, and it felt kind of weird. But I had no idea what I was actually touching. So I had to take some selfies.

Matt Shoemaker

Adam Nevala, our head trainer, was sitting at my bedside when I came to. He stayed there with me for three full days. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. That guy had a wife and a new baby at home — not to mention our team was starting a series out in Oakland the day after this happened — yet he was there every morning at my side, all the way through most of every night.

And believe me, I wasn’t much fun to be around at that point. I just had this massive headache the entire time. I was super sensitive to light and sound. We couldn’t even watch our games, or the highlights, because the TV just made my head hurt even worse. Nev used his phone to get updates and keep me in the loop as to how the team was doing — I remember we beat the A’s that next day. We’d basically just talk and hang out the whole time.

The other thing I did to pass the time was take selfies of my scar.

I did that not so much for the photos, but instead because I had this fascination with what my head looked like after having brain surgery. When I first woke up, I touched the scar, and it felt kind of weird. But I had no idea what I was actually touching. There was no context. So I had to take some pictures, you know?

It wasn’t easy, since even just opening my eyes made my head hurt worse. But I couldn’t just sit there all day, day after day, without checking it out. I realized pretty early on that if I closed one eye while taking the photos, it didn’t hurt as much. So that’s what I did.

At first I was kind of surprised to see that they hadn’t cut my hair for surgery. I just kind of assumed that they would’ve shaved my head, but they hadn’t. So early on, the pictures I took were mainly just of bloody hair.

There was just blood everywhere.

But the more photos I shot, and the closer I got to the wound, the more the whole thing looked kind of cool to me.

And, of course, after seeing what my head looked like, I wanted to touch the scar even more — to feel it and to trace the entire incision line with my fingers.

Something just kept making me want to touch that scar.

I left the hospital after three days, but those headaches lingered for about four weeks. Then, one day, out of the blue, they just went away.

From that point on, I felt like I was in the clear, and things pretty much went back to normal. I was able to be with the team for the last homestand of the season. I wasn’t as bothered by loud noises. I could watch TV and listen to music again.

And that’s also when I started to fully understand the ways that me taking a 105 mph line drive to the dome had impacted the people around me.

As my condition improved, my wife and I talked more and more about those first few hours after the accident. She didn’t say it to me at the time, of course, or even show any hint of worry, but Danielle later admitted that during the FaceTime call right before the surgery she grabbed Brady and put him on the screen because she was afraid that he may never see me again.

She said she couldn’t stop thinking about whether that conversation was going to be the last time the two of them ever spoke with me.

The person who may have struggled the most during that time of uncertainty might have been my father. The first time I saw him after the surgery, he gave me a solid three-minute hug.

For real … it lasted three minutes. He just didn’t let go, so we kept on hugging.

It turns out that when he drove away from my aunt’s house in Traverse City, he headed for a nearby parking lot. He pulled in, put the car in park, shut off the engine … and cried.

He couldn’t bear to show those emotions around everyone at the house. He didn’t want them to see him and then get even more worried about me. So he took off.

He never told me about it, but that’s what went down.

My mom let me know.

When I heard about that, a whole bunch of emotions came to the surface at the same time. It felt good knowing that my dad loved me so much, but I also felt sad for him, and bad for having caused him so much worry.

More than anything, though, I just felt grateful.

I also had the sudden urge to bring joy into the lives of those who had worried so much about whether I was going to make it.

So that’s what the next six months is all about for me.

The first time I played catch after my surgery was in early December.

I was back home in Michigan, and so I headed over to Wayne State. It was only throws from 60 feet that day, so it wasn’t anything monumental, but I hadn’t felt that excited to throw a baseball in a long time. And the really cool thing was that aside from excitement there weren’t any other feelings or emotions that I was experiencing. There was no nervousness, no weird flashbacks or tense moments as a baseball approached my head.

I never even thought about getting hit in the head during that first throwing session, and since that point very little has changed.

Spring training felt the same as it always has — just with an added layer of thankfulness and appreciation, as well as a carbon-fiber protective plate inside my Angels cap.

The first time I was out there throwing to live batters, everything was just completely normal. The first ball that was hit was a grounder to short — so not close, but close-ish to the mound. And it was fine. It was kind of like, O.K., finish your pitch, follow through … oh, hey, he hit the ball, oh it’s toward short, it’s out of your reach, so continue through and finish your motion. Just the normal routine. The only real difference was that after that first live BP session, everyone was showing me so much love. The coaching staff, the players in the field, the hitters I was facing, other guys waiting to hit, they were all shaking my hand and telling me how glad they were to have me back.

When I got in my first game, right at the beginning of March, again the main emotion for me was excitement. I was so excited, in fact, that I was overthrowing the baseball and missing my spots over and over again. There was just so much adrenaline and anticipation for that appearance, so I just kind of had to do what I could.

You know what it was like, actually? It was how a kid running out there for his first Little League game of the season plays the game. It was like, Gimme the ball! Let’s pitch. Let me throw the ball. Hurry. This is so awesome! I felt like I was 10 years old again — which was sort of cool in terms of an excitement level.

And, most important, I didn’t worry for a second about getting hit in the head with a baseball.

People look at me like I’m crazy when I tell them that I’m not fazed by what happened — that I don’t think about it constantly or have nightmares about it.

But it’s true.

Only two things ever make me think about that incident. The first is when someone asks me about it … which is fine. I don’t mind talking about it. Honestly. Heck, if I met someone that this had happened to, I’d ask him about it too.

So that’s the first one. The second is when I’m doing my hair and I look in the mirror.

I’m actually a pretty big fan of that scar.

Matt Shoemaker

When I do that, I see the scar. Sometimes I even touch it again, like I did back at the hospital.

And sometimes when I do that, I think back to what happened. But, you know what? More often than not, I think about how cool it is to have that scar.

It adds to the story of my life.

It kind of sucks that my hairdo is never going to be the same again. But, all things considered, I’m actually a pretty big fan of that scar.

The thing I’ll remember most about this whole “getting nailed in the head with a baseball” chapter of my life isn’t the actual injury, or the emergency surgery, or the ridiculous headaches that lasted for weeks and weeks. It’s the outpouring of love that flowed in my direction after I got hit.

I remember waking up from surgery and looking at my phone with one eye closed and seeing that I had literally hundreds of unread text messages. Hundreds.

Ordinarily, if I have five texts waiting … that’s a banner day for me. Like, maybe it’s my birthday.

So to see several hundred messages sitting there waiting for me, ready to cheer me up and show me support … that was really special. And they came from everywhere — family, friends, teammates, coaches, Kyle Seager, other players around the league, guys I grew up with, former teachers, and on and on.

I replied to every last one of those texts, too.

It was tough. I had to kind of work in shifts and then give myself a break because reading and typing hurt my head so much.

It took me two or three days. But I got ’em all eventually.

The thing I’ll remember most is the outpouring of love that flowed in my direction after I got hit.

Matt Shoemaker

Since then, I’ve had some conversations with a few guys who have experienced what I’ve gone through — Brandon McCarthy, Evan Marshall, a couple of others — and those talks have been extremely helpful. In addition, several players’ wives have reached out to Danielle and offered their support. It’s almost like our families are all members of this little club that no one would ever want to join.

There’s a little extra attached to each of our stories now, but at the end of the day we’re all the same people we were before. And for me, there’s nowhere that’s more evident than at home with Danielle, Brady and Emmy.

To the kiddos, I’m just dad.

Emmy was born after my surgery, so she doesn’t know any different version of me prior to getting hit by that ball. And Brady’s such a wild man that he hasn’t really even noticed the scar. He’s too busy running around the house and knocking things over.

He’s seen it a couple of times, and I’ve pointed it out to him. But, for real, that kid just wants to keep playing.

So the only difference for him after this whole thing is probably that he now gets hugged a little bit tighter by daddy.

And you know what, now that I think about it, I’m hugging a bunch of people a little bit tighter these days.