By Shawn Krest
No one told me about the hiss.
A good fastball is sometimes called a hummer in baseball slang, but the actual sound is far less pleasant than that.
The sound is supposedly made by the seams, ripping through air as the ball spins toward the plate. The higher the spin rate, and, of course, the higher the velocity, the louder the hiss.
As the pitcher loosened up, I could hear the hiss from the third base dugout. It reminded me of a dangerous snake. When I moved behind the backstop, with only a catcher and chain link fence shielding me from the pitch, it had an even more sinister sound—not a steak on a grill, or restaurant fajitas, served on the cast iron skillet. No, this was the sound of the skillet, hot from the stove, being thrust into a sink full of water to soak.
A fastball is also sometimes called a heater. That slang made more sense.
The ball hissed. The catcher’s mitt popped. The man holding the gun tilted it so I could see the reading: 87 miles per hour.
“Grab a bat,” he said.
Growing up, one of my favorite players was the late Don Baylor. The dour-looking designated hitter for the Orioles, Angels, Yankees and Red Sox won an MVP award, hit more than 330 home runs and won an RBI crown.
He also led the league in being hit by a pitch eight times. In 19 seasons in the Major Leagues, he finished in the top three in hit-by-pitch 16 times. When he retired, he was the all-time career leader in getting plunked. (His record has since been broken)
Don Baylor was a bad man. He was infamous around baseball for refusing to rub the spot where he got hit, angrily waving the trainer back into the dugout when he started out to check on his well-being. He didn’t want to give the pitcher the satisfaction of knowing that it might have stung a little.
People Magazine did a story on him shortly after he set the record. I tore out the pages and kept them in a scrapbook that might still be in my parents’ house. “When the ball is inside, I don’t back away,” he told People. “I just stiffen up and take the blow.”
Of the 267 times he was hit, Baylor admitted to rubbing the point of impact just once, when legendary fastballer Nolan Ryan got him with a 95 mph hummer that surely hissed as it bore into Baylor’s arm.
Everything about getting hit by a pitch fascinated me. The tinge of fear I felt when I would step up to the plate in Little League. The bench-clearing melees that sometimes followed a batter getting hit. One of my earliest baseball memories was Ron Cey getting his helmet knocked off by a Goose Gossage fastball in the 1981 World Series.
And, of course, there was Don Baylor and the idea of not rubbing it.
When I began covering the sport and doing inside-the-game type stories, one angle was a natural draw for me.
I wanted to know what it felt like.
I started looking for someone with a powerful heater who was willing to plunk me.
Every minor league team in the area turned me down. I offered to sign a waiver relinquishing them of all responsibility. They didn’t care. It was a non-starter.
“It’s not going to happen,” one team representative finally emailed me, after my third or fourth “How about if…” response to his initial flat-out “No.”
Most college teams didn’t even respond to my initial queries about whether it would be feasible. I started planning ways that perhaps I could stand in with a bat, when a pitcher threw in the bullpen between starts. I’d seen players do that, to allow the pitcher to have an accurate simulation of game conditions. If I could get a team to let me do that, I’d just have to step in front of one when he least expected it.
I’d moved the story idea to the back burner while I plotted next moves when, a few days after Christmas, I got a call from Scott Pose.
A former MLB outfielder with the Marlins (in 1993, he became the first batter in Marlins history), Yankees and Royals, Pose is now an announcer for minor league, Big Ten and NCAA Tournament games. In a 14-year professional career, he’d been hit 35 times. He still has hard scar tissue on his shin from getting hit—by a line drive while running the bases, not a pitched ball.
“This is very random,” Pose said, “but if you still want to know what it’s like to get hit by a 90 mile an hour fastball, we might be able to make that happen in the next few days.”
A college pitcher he knew was home for the holidays and needed to get in his offseason throwing. That’s how I ended up at the diamond behind Cardinal Gibbons High School, listening to the hiss as I prepared to walk around the backstop and stand in front of the catcher, with nothing between me and the heater.
On the mound was Andrew Papp, a Raleigh native who was recruited by NC State, pitched for a year at Clemson, then transferred to Appalachian State, where he’s the team’s closer. Papp has struck out 23 batters in 15.1 innings this year.
And Andrew Papp ends it with a K for his third save! pic.twitter.com/cR1xRetElp
— App State Baseball (@AppBaseball) March 23, 2019
Papp and his father, Adam, set the ground rules. He had a series of pitches he was supposed to go through. They didn’t want me standing in for any of the hard breaking stuff—perhaps worried about his control on a cold, wet winter day. I could jump in once he started working on fastballs and changeups, and he would pop me.
While not as concerned about liability as the teams I’d spoken to, papa Adam did take me aside before I stepped in.
“He’s over 21,” he said. “So he’s on his own. He doesn’t have anything but an old truck and a dog.”
It was then that he told me they forgot to bring a batting helmet for me.
Pose had his own set of rules:
“In the big leagues, you know if you’re going to get hit,” he explained. “There’s bad blood, history. You know it’s going to happen.”
“But,” he added, with an evil grin, “you don’t know WHEN.”
I had to stand there, bat in hand, and hear the hiss as pitches sped by. At some point, Papp would decide it was time and take aim at me.
I stepped in. Instead of a classic batting stance, I had an exaggerated turn of my hips, offering up as much of my backside as I could to Papp, reasoning that it was one of my meatier areas and had the least potential for catastrophic damage.
Papp ignored me and pumped in a strike at 88 mph.
I straightened up and dropped my arms to my side. I let out a breath.
That pitch was moving.
The small crowd of onlookers—Pose, Pops, the catcher and a fielder—cackled laughter.
I could have ended it right there. I might have taken a few jabs in the press box when word got out, but jabs weren’t going to kill me. Andrew Papp might.
I dug in, raised the bat and assumed a normal batting stance.
Let’s do this.
A few more pitches came in. The initial shock had worn off. I started trying to look for the spin, as all MLB batters do. Could I see the famous red dot that the spinning stitches make on certain types of pitches.
That’s when Papp brushed me back. He threw a waist high fastball, inside. Far inside.
I knew from the outset that wasn’t the one that was going to hit me. The angle wasn’t quite right. But it was damn close.
I stepped all the way out of the box, then. I needed a moment.
From behind me, the catcher said, with no mocking in his tone, “I would be done after that one, if it was me.”
I stepped back in. A few pitches later, Papp buzzed the tower—a head-high heater, over the plate but on the inside half. I watched it go by and looked out at him expectantly, going all Don Baylor on him.
Looking back, I’m assuming those two pitches were tests, to make sure I didn’t panic or do something stupid, like turn my back or duck—something that could have put my head in the path of an oncoming pitch.
Eventually, it came. From the moment it left his hand, there was no doubt about it. I had time to think, That’s not going to hit me in the rear. That’s headed for my arm.
I had visions of my elbow shattering, months of rehab, my arm never working properly again. Papp knew what he was doing, though. The ball hit me on the back of my upper arm, a meaty area a good two inches above the elbow.
Everything happened at once, then.
The onlookers erupted with glee. Papp stepped down off the mound to make sure I wasn’t seriously hurt. At some point, I dropped the bat.
I noticed all this from video afterward. All I was aware of at the time was the pain.
In his People Magazine feature, Baylor said, “Fast balls and sliders feel like piercing bullets, like they’re going to come out the other side.”
It was an acid trip of pain. I saw rainbows and comets.
I dug into my back pocket with my other hand—the arm that had been hit wasn’t working at the moment. I pulled out a can of the freeze spray that baseball trainers use to numb the area after someone gets plunked.
I sprayed it, which seemed to quell some of the surface pain, but this went deep down, to the bone.
That reminded me of a scary thought. The bone. What if he broke my arm.
It seemed plausible. The arm still wasn’t working. I could wiggle my fingers. I just couldn’t get the arm above it to actually do anything.
Pose and the fielders reached me and examined the injury.
“Oh man!” they shouted approvingly.
“That’s gonna look great tomorrow,” Pose said. “You can see both sets of stitches.”
I craned my head around to see for myself. Sure enough, there was a bright red round impact mark. Running through it, in two curves facing away from each other, were rows of stitches.
I looked out at Papp. The concern had left him, and he was just kind of milling around just off the mound, waiting to finish his workout. I realized that this would be the time that I would charge the mound if we’d had bad blood between us. I looked down at my useless arm and wondered how batters managed that.
Papa Papp came around the backstop and showed me the readout on the gun: 88 mph. Andrew didn’t pull up at all when he decided it was time to hit me. He went full speed.
Pose stood in front of me and held out his hand. Wincing, I lifted mine and was able to shake with him.
He nodded. “That’s how team trainers check to make sure nothing’s broken,” he said. “You’re good.”
“I didn’t rub,” I told him. “I sprayed the numbing stuff, but I didn’t rub.”
“No, you didn’t rub,” he agreed. “The numbing stuff’s okay, as long as you don’t rub.”
The damage was catastrophic. It was days before I regained anything close to full use of the arm. For several weeks, it felt like the tricep might be torn and I was one wrong move from having it fully separate from the bone.
As soon as I could type without pain, I sent messages to the SIDs and Media Relations Directors I’d bothered with requests over the years. I told them I’d finally found someone to hit me.
“I just wanted to let you know that you were entirely right all along,” I wrote. “I had no business doing that. What a terrible decision.”
One of them wrote back with the message, “Told you, man.”
I iced it. I took Advil. And I watched the explosion of color bloom on my arm. Brilliant purples and blacks filled the length of my upper arm, eventually fading to yellows.
At the end of the first week, I noticed something strange. The bruise had moved.
The area where I was hit, which was still far too tender to touch, was relatively clear. My elbow, was a different story. The entire joint was purple, with the bruise extending several inches down the lower part of my arm. None of the discolored area hurt at all, but it looked brutally damaged.
After chatting with some medical professionals, it appears what happened is that the blood drained from the muscle and followed gravity, eventually pooling in the elbow.
My arm looked terrible enough on its own, but even worse was the realization that the muscle was still bleeding, as the bruise continued to spread by the day.
It took the entire month of January for the bruise to fade entirely. I’d estimate I’d have had to go on the 15-day disabled list, because it was at least that long before I could have contemplated swinging a bat. Maybe the 30-day.
On March 17, in the fourth inning of a home game against Georgia State, designated hitter Elian Merejo stepped in against Appalachian State reliever Andrew Papp. The first pitch of the at bat hit him, and Merejo took his base.
It’s the only time in 11 appearances and 68 batters faced this season that Andrew Papp has hit someone with a pitch. Merejo stayed in the game. The box score doesn’t say whether or not he rubbed it.
Earlier this season, App baseball tweeted a video clip of Papp striking out a batter. Scott Pose forwarded me the clip with the message, “You own this guy.”
B9 | 2 out | App State 6, FAU 3
Andrew Papp gets the 12th K by App State pitching. pic.twitter.com/evV23evl5l
— App State Baseball (@AppBaseball) March 6, 2019
As March dwindles down to the last few days, I still have a goose egg under the skin where the ball hit me. It’s not as large as it used to be, but it’s hard and grosses people out when I make them feel it. It also still hurts when I touch it directly.
I don’t know if it would hurt to rub it. I still haven’t done that.