Former major league star Billy Wagner has been where Cincinnati Reds closer Aroldis Chapman is now, literally and figuratively.
In 1998, he was the closest thing to Chapman that Major League Baseball had. Though shorter in stature, Wagner was left-handed and a lights-out closer who could blow the ball past most hitters at 100 mph or better. And in July of that season, he was struck in the side of the head with a line drive by Kelly Stinnett.
Chapman was felled by a line drive off the bat of Salvador Perez on Wednesday night. He suffered facial fractures and will need 6-8 weeks to recover following surgery Thursday. He's lucky. And so was Wagner.
Thinking back on his own incident, there was nothing he could do about it, Wagner told SiriusXM's MLB Network Radio. There's nothing any pitcher can do:
"You don’t practice this, you can’t practice this. Any power pitcher, especially a closer, you’re not expecting contact most of the time. When you throw that hard and a guy is trying to tune you up a little bit and he catches it just right? I mean that’s that one chance in a million it comes back at you. You just don’t expect it.
"If it’s never happened to you, it really doesn’t become a big thing (mentally), but once it does happen to you, it’ll be stuck in the back of your head.
"The biggest thing (about getting over it) is going out there and competing and having that ‘no fear’ attitude."
Wagner's injuries weren't as severe as those of Chapman. But the scene was just as upsetting and eerie at Chase Field, as the Associated Press reported the day after, when Wagner was released from a hospital:
The ball careened nearly to the Diamondbacks' dugout. Wagner collapsed on his back, his legs flopping wildly.
"It's a pitcher's worst nightmare," said his close friend, Houston pitcher Mike Magnante. "You just hope it never happens."
Many in the crowd of 42,229 stood. Spectators covered their mouths in shock. Players from both teams crowded around the fallen pitcher.
Wagner suffered a cut near his left ear, but suffered no brain injury or skull fracture, according to a news release from the hospital.
Wagner seems to be of a mind that protective headgear might be a partial solution one day, but not until it becomes comfortable enough to be practical. What's available now wouldn't have helped Chapman and might not have helped Wagner. Until then?
"It's part of the job. It could happen to anyone — you just hope you're not the guy," Wagner said.
Here's audio of Wagner's interview:
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