Matt Fortese came 75 miles from Hagerstown to meet Taylor Queen at Camden Yards. She drove more than three hours from Virginia. Their second date was going well, Queen said, until an hour of taunting from two fans boiled over into an altercation that left Fortese fighting for his life.
Fortese, a lifelong Yankees fan who wore his team's cap to Wednesday's game, suffered severe head trauma and a skull fracture. He was listed in serious condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center Saturday. Police said they had arrested two men in the incident.
At the hospital, Fortese's family and Queen recounted the ordeal — and a chance encounter with a childhood friend who they said helped save the 25-year-old man's life.
By the fifth or sixth inning of the matchup with the Washington Nationals, the couple had endured about an hour of heckling, mostly about Fortese's hat, from two men sitting a section above them, said Queen, 21. Then one of the men threw a beer that hit the couple, according to police, and when Fortese approached the men and began arguing with them, one punched him in the head.
The blow sent Fortese over a railing and onto the concrete about five feet below.
Two men — Gregory Fleischman, 22, of Jarrettsville, and Michael Bell, 21, of Annapolis — were charged in the attack.
Police said Fleischman punched Fortese.
Fortese's brother, Jimmy, said the family is devastated.
"It's very serious," Jimmy Fortese, 30, said. "They're not saying he's out of the woods yet. They tell us we have to wait and see."
What happened after the assault was providential, Fortese's parents said Friday.
Nathan Steelman, an off-duty state trooper and a childhood friend of Fortese's from Hagerstown, was standing nearby in the left field seats. Steelman and Fortese hadn't seen each other in years but had run into one another at the game and had spoken for about five minutes to catch up.
"You just heard it," Steelman, 26, said Friday of the commotion. "I rushed over, and I realized it was Matt. He wasn't breathing. He was unconscious. Blood was coming from his nose."
He said Fortese had gone as long as 45 seconds without breathing. Steelman, relying on basic emergency medical training he received as a soldier deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, stuck his finger in Fortese's mouth and removed a wad of chewing tobacco that had blocked his airway. Fortese drew a breath.
Steelman looked for the steady rise and fall of Fortese's chest, held his neck in place and moved his arms to his sides. He said he told Fleischman and Bell that he was a trooper and to stay put while Baltimore police responded. Steelman is not mentioned in the police report on the incident.
Fleischman was charged with first- and second-degree assault and disorderly conduct, while Bell faces second-degree assault and disorderly conduct charges. Both were released on $50,000 bond on Friday. Neither had a lawyer listed in court records. The men and their family members could not be reached for comment.
"There are so many seats in the stadium, and we're just two kids from Hagerstown. We went to the same game and were in the same section," Steelman said.
Steelman and Fortese played PONY League baseball together in Hagerstown and went on to play for rival high schools. Steelman was a pitcher for Smithsburg High School and Fortese was a shortstop for Boonsboro High School.
Steelman graduated from the University of Maryland in 2009. Fortese graduated from the University of South Carolina in 2010. He was supposed to start a new job in sales on Monday.
The two hadn't seen each other in two or three years.
Fortese's parents, Margaret Hanna of Hagerstown and Jim Fortese of Dunmore, Pa., said without Steelman's intervention, their son's condition could be much graver.
"Nate saved our son's life; he's our angel," Hanna said, "I feel so blessed to be in his presence. He saved my baby boy."
Fortese has been in and out of consciousness, his father said. He will likely need long-term physical therapy, although the extent of his injuries isn't clear.
"He does recognize people," Jim Fortese said. "He knows our names at times. But then he'll start talking in tangents. He will just go off and start talking about different things. He'll say, 'Where are you taking me. Are we going fishing?' "
Other incidents of violence at pro baseball games around the country have drawn national attention, including a fight between Dodgers and Giants fans at a game earlier this month in San Francisco. And in 2011, a San Francisco man suffered traumatic brain injury after being beaten outside Dodger Stadium.
An Orioles spokeswoman said the team was aware of the incident but had no comment.
Hanna said her son doesn't seem to remember what happened.
Queen said Fortese climbed up to the section where Fleischman and Bell were sitting. Police said Bell had been throwing beer on fans; Queen said her back and hair were soaked.
"I can't remember what I even said when it all happened," Queen said. "I just remember seeing him bleeding on the ground, and screaming and crying, 'Is he OK. Is he OK?' "
Queen and Fortese met on May 18 at a Luke Bryan concert in Virginia.
From the hospital Friday, Hanna said she was grateful but still trying to understand how an evening at a ballgame could go so wrong.
"It's absolutely ridiculous to think that my son is just going to Americans' favorite pastime, a ballgame, and this is what happened," Hanna said. "You think your family is safe out in a public area.
"It's just appalling. It's totally unacceptable. A lot of things need to be answered. My son's life was certainly at risk, and he still has a long recovery."
Baltimore Sun reporter Jessica Anderson contributed to this article.