We all know the story by now. About 15 months ago, Memphis Redbirds pitcher Daniel Ponce de Leon was hit in the head by a line drive off the bat of Iowa Cubs batter Victor Caratini. The video is pretty horrifying to watch (at least for me) and so I have no intention of linking to it here. If you want to watch it, it’s pretty easy to find elsewhere and, honestly, it’s not really graphic…just pretty scary. Jenifer Langosch’s recap from last December does a pretty good job of telling the story. He seemed ok, and then he most definitely did not. A couple days later he was in the hospital and the doctors were performing emergency surgery to relieve the pressure on Daniel’s brain. His baseball career was most definitely in jeopardy. More importantly, so was his health. He didn’t pitch again the rest of the season.
As we all know, batted balls regularly come off the bat of major league hitters at over 100 miles per hour and, with pitchers less than 60 feet away after releasing the pitch, there’s often little pitchers can do if they happen to be in the path of one of these 5 ounce projectiles moving at nearly 150 feet per second. Former Cardinal Mike Coolbaugh was working as a first-base coach for the Tulsa Drillers in 2007 when he was struck and killed by a foul ball during a game. As a result, every base coach in the majors and minors now has to wear a helmet when coaching in order to prevent the same thing from happening again.
Baseball, in particular, and society, in general, has become a lot more knowledgeable and careful about the impact that sports can have on players’ heads and brains. We all know about the mounting evidence that playing football has on players through CTE. Baseball has tried to reduce the impact of home plate collisions at least in part due to the work done lobbying the commissioner’s office by ex-Card manager Mike Matheny, whose own career ended as a result of too many concussions. Cardinal pitcher Matt Bowman and former Cardinals Kevin Siegrist and Trevor Rosenthal wear an insert in their baseball caps to help prevent against injury should they, too, be struck by batted balls.
Major league pitchers Brandon McCarthy and Robbie Ray, who was struck by a line drive off the bat from Card Luke Voit just about a year ago, are among the current major and minor league pitchers who have been hit in the head by line drives and returned to successful careers on the mound. The reality, of course, is that the likelihood of this happening to any single pitcher is extremely remote but the fact that Ponce de Leon had to undergo surgery just a couple of days after the impact in order to relieve the pressure of swelling on the brain tells you all you need to know about how potentially serious this can be.
On April 5 of this season, Daniel was back on a mound for real and threw an inning against the Round Rock Express. Four days later, he started his first game in 11 months and he’s taken the ball basically every 5 days since and pitched brilliantly for the Redbirds. That he’s pitched at all is a story unto itself but it’s all the more poignant because of how he well he’s pitched. Our resident prospect expert, Kyle Reis, can provide you better insight on how well he’s pitched and our own Joe Schwartz has something up at The Athletic on Ponce’s repertoire.
Tonight, of course, Ponce de Leon will be making his first start in the major leagues. It’s a tremendous victory for him, for the entire Cardinals organization, for his family, and, frankly, for medicine that he can not only return to the game that he loves and have the success he’s already had but to progress to the point where he will finally be able to wear the birds on the bat. It’s a dream come true for millions of little boys (and probably little girls, too) and it certainly is a dream come true for Daniel. That would have been the case without the injury but there’s no doubt that it had to run through Daniel’s head many times after being struck by that batted ball that he would never achieve what he’s been working so hard to achieve for 20+ years. His dream would never come true. Hell, he had to have many questions about things much more important than baseball.
It shows us all, on the one hand, how tenuous every moment is. Every wonderful thing we experience in this short time we spend on Earth can all end abruptly and without warning and yet, when we’re faced with that possibility, it can all turn around and be just another thing we experienced, another moment in time. Not only has Daniel returned to the mound, but he is undeniably better than he was prior to the injury. Make no mistake, his promotion to the big league rotation is no participation medal. He’s earned this.
Daniel Ponce de Leon is more than 20 years younger than I am and he’s an inspiration to me. His hard work, dedication, and commitment to being the best pitcher he can be has gotten him to this point. His determination to push himself after his injury and to stare what must have been profound fear directly in the face and tell it to “F*^k off!” should be an inspiration to all of us. He’s fortunate, to be sure, but this is no fluke and tonight is a celebration of all the hard work he went through to get to this point.
There have been a million things for Cardinals’ fans to complain about this year and I’ve definitely been one of the complainers but tonight, maybe for just this one night, there’ll be no complaining from me. Tonight isn’t the night to focus on Fowler’s hitting or Tommy Pham being picked off first base. I don’t even really care if Matt Carpenter gets thrown out at home when trying to score from 3rd on a single. I’m not going to complain about Greg Holland or Brett Cecil or that Mike Shildt used the wrong reliever at the wrong time. You won’t hear a thing from me about Ozuna’s lack of power or inability to make even the most basic throws from left field. When DeJong boots a ball at short, I’m not going to care. Not tonight. None of that really matters in the grand scheme of things.
Tonight is about Daniel Ponce de Leon. I want to see him pitch as well as he possibly can but, to be honest, tonight, I don’t even really care how many batters he gets out. Don’t get me wrong….the more, the better, but it’s not about a “quality start” or “getting him a win” or anything else. The victory is in Daniel achieving his dream, in wearing the birds on the bat, and taking the mound and getting however many big league hitters out that he’s able to get out. Each out is a victory and, win or lose, complete game or early exit, Ponce is going to have a lot of victories tonight. Afterward, we can worry about what his role will be going forward or what tonight’s game means for the Cards’ playoff chase or how they’ll approach the trade deadline, or any of the other million storylines that can emerge afterward. Tonight is all about Daniel.
Go get ‘em, Daniel. All of Cardinal nation is behind you.