Most pitchers will tell you their worst fear when toeing the rubber is a screaming line drive up the middle, a line drive that is bound for center field, but is instead cut off by their head.
That has always been mine, anyway.
On June 21, 2009, after hundreds and hundreds of innings, I was struck on the left side of my head with my worst nightmare.
Both, while rendering a similarly horrifying situation, albeit with drastically different injuries, leave a pair of left-handers feeling pretty blessed by the ultimate outcome.
I was playing in a rec league summer game, not professional ball, when I was hit with what was probably only an 85 MPH liner, slightly harder than I can sling it these days. I say only 85 mph because Downs was facing a professional hitter who hit it where it came from at roughly 100 MPH.
I remember the circumstances vividly. I had just scored my team's go-ahead run the half inning before, scoring from first on a gapper. The temperature was in the mid-90s, a baking Georgia heat that I was not fully acclimated to yet in my first summer away from Michigan. My legs, crucial for pitching, were exhausted.
In the next half, I gave up a hit and walked a batter to start the inning. I was struggling to collect myself and I remember thinking, "just throw fucking strikes."
Sure enough, on the next pitch, I piped one, and the batter pounded it into my skull.
I can still imagine the ball coming at me. I contend it was uncatchable even if it seemed to be floating in slow motion at the time. My teammates later assured me "it was a missile" and it crash landed in shallow left field.
I dropped to a knee, but I was conscious throughout. When I took my hat off, I heard horrified grumblings at what I could only imagine was the fright that was the side of my head. I tried to stand, but a teammate pleaded for me to stay down. I thought maybe I was fine, but the spinning diamond and the baseball-sized welt that I would later see looked like a monster protruding from my brain suggested otherwise. Another teammate impatiently yelled for someone to get some ice while another probably wondered if he should take a bat to it.
Eventually, after I was handed a plastic grocery bag with already-mostly-melted ice, I was escorted by a teammate to his car so he could take me to the nearest hospital. I was extremely woozy, but well enough to crack a little joke to the opposing dugout as I stumbled by:
"I was starting the carousel for you guys and you take me out?"
There was some awkward laughter, because I think they realized 'this guy, with a haunting hematoma, could be seriously injured in the head, or worse -- dead in a matter of hours a la Natasha Richardson.'
The line drive Darin Downs took to the side of his head, just above his left ear, was going at Verlander-fastball velocity. It somehow caused him to vomit blood and he wasn't doing any talking to anyone on his way to a nearby hospital.
Downs says he remembers the exact details of the play before losing feeling in the side of his face and the ability to talk. He was later diagnosed with a fractured skull and dangerous swelling of his brain that put his life in critical danger.
He would be in the hospital for nine days before being transferred to Florida on a medical charter, en route to a lengthy recovery during which he suffered from post-concussion syndrome, including depression and fatigue, all while having to learn how to talk again like a child.
Pitching again seemed so far out of the question.
When I got to the hospital, the Doctor gave me my first reality check, explaining the different things that could be wrong, the worst being that i could be bleeding profusely inside my brain. I started to shake uncontrollably, envisioning my brain going to a bloody grave.
After various tests and what felt like hours, I was miraculously deemed "fine." I suffered no concussion and, thus, no post-concussion syndrome. I was given a prescription to some heavy pain meds, but I never needed a single pill. I have nightmares sometimes, but as far as I know, I was always, and I am currently, healthy in the head.
The most damaging injury was a lump just above my temple that would last a little over a week and prevent me from wearing a hat comfortably; it would ultimately subside, the blood draining down my face to give me an ill-timed black eye just days before my fiancée and I were to get our engagement pictures taken. I could definitely live with all that. My fiancée could, too, especially since photoshop would be able to save our photos.
I'll never forget the Doctor telling me how incredibly lucky I had been.
I was back on the mound two weeks later.
Downs road to recovery took months longer, and it's a much better story because of the unimaginable injuries he had to endure and recover from to not only get back to a normal lifestyle, but to also ultimately achieve his dream of pitching in the Major Leagues. In his own words:
"When I was leaving the hospital, one of the ER (nurses) told me I shouldn't have survived," Downs said. "They never said anything like that before because they didn't want to scare me. But they said the way I was recovering was not normal. I was recovering faster than I should have.
"I look back, and I think I was really lucky. It was a fluke accident, but I think I'm blessed to be here today."
Downs returned to face live hitters again by Spring Training 2010 and went on to pitch in 41 games between Double-A and Triple-A that year. Following the 2011 season, Downs signed with the Tigers over the winter, joining his fourth organization since being drafted by the Cubs in 2003.
Posting a 2.15 ERA over 25 games for the Mud Hens this season, Downs finally got his call to the bigs and made his MLB debut on Tuesday night against the Twins, almost three full years after a line drive nearly took his life.
Despite the different damage done by the respective line drives, it doesn't make the general thought and the experience of getting drilled in the head by a baseball any less terrifying. Unfortunately, I know there are similar stories that don't have as lucky of endings.