By Dan Connolly, The Baltimore Sun
8:38 PM EDT, June 27, 2011
Lance Berkman swung, smashing the 90 mph fastball up the middle "about as hard as I could hit it."
As Berkman dashed from the batter's box in the first inning of that Houston Astros-Pittsburgh Pirates game April 24, 2010, the baseball hurtled back toward home plate and sailed over the head and glove of the Pirates' leaping catcher.
It didn't make any sense. And yet, eerily, it did.
"It just doesn't register at first. All of the sudden, I saw the ball coming back to me, and my first instinct was to run," said Berkman, now with the St. Louis Cardinals, who come to Baltimore this week. "I remember getting to first and thinking, 'Please tell me that didn't hit him in the head.' In my heart, I knew it had. All you can do at that point is pray."
Several feet from Berkman, right-hander Chris Jakubauskas was sprawled face-first on the mound, his legs kicking furiously and viciously at the dirt. Left then right, left then right, like a toddler having a tantrum.
Jakubauskas, in his first and only start with the Pirates, thought he had dodged the screaming liner and that the searing feeling above his right ear was from his dive to the ground. It took him a moment to comprehend the frightening truth — he was struck so violently in the head that the baseball ricocheted more than 60 feet away in the air.
"It was about 30 seconds of agonizing pain, and then the pain went away," said Jakubauskas, now an Oriole. "Then I was just really foggy and dizzy and nauseous."
At that moment, everyone at a hushed Minute Maid Park in Houston was seemingly sick to their stomachs while fearing the worst. Orioles bench coach John Russell, then the Pirates manager, remembers most clearly the unnerving sound — a nearly simultaneous double crack.
"There wasn't much difference between the ball hitting the bat and the ball hitting [Jakubauskas]. That was the biggest thing," Russell said. "And then, when he went straight down, you knew it was something real serious. At that point, baseball is irrelevant. The game is irrelevant. You just want to make sure he's OK."
When he arrived at first base, Berkman briefly crouched and put his head in his hands. He then called timeout and ran to the mound, where he remained while the medical staff attended to Jakubauskas. Eventually, as Jakubauskas was being led unsteadily to a cart, Berkman placed his left hand on the pitcher's right shoulder, patted it and said he was sorry.
Later, Berkman visited Jakubauskas in the hospital and the two big leaguers watched as the moment that would forever link them was broadcast on TV.
"It was kind of funny, they were showing replays of games and we ended up watching the replay together," Jakubauskas said. "So it was a little bit of an interesting twist of fate there."
Berkman and Jakubauskas haven't been together since. That will change this week, when the Cardinals make the first visit to Camden Yards in franchise history. Jakubauskas is scheduled to pitch Wednesday, and, therefore, likely will face Berkman again.
"I am not going to tell you it is not going to run through my head," Jakubauskas said. "I know it is Berkman, but he is just another hitter. I have to get after him like I have to get after the other eight guys that are in their lineup. … It's not a personal thing, it's more of a 'Hey, let's see if we can actually relive this in a different way and get him out.'"
Berkman, a five-time All-Star outfielder-first baseman who is having a resurgent season in St. Louis, said he knew nothing about Jakubauskas' improbable baseball journey before that fateful day.
"Since the incident, I have sort of monitored him from afar, and, when I saw that he was up with the Orioles, that was great. I am just really glad he is back in the big leagues," Berkman said. "It will be good to see him. And not see him in the hospital."
Berkman was highly impressed with Jakubauskas when they met. Not only was the pitcher not feeling sorry for himself, but he actually comforted Berkman, stressing that there was no reason to apologize or feel badly.
"It probably did me more good than him to go there," Berkman said of the hospital visit. "He was lucid, he was fine and he said: 'Hey, it's part of the game. Don't worry about it.' He seemed to really have a great attitude all the way around."
Dealing with adversity is nothing new for Jakubauskas. He was a left-handed power hitter who wasn't drafted out of high school and attended four colleges. He eventually became a right-handed pitcher and played parts of five seasons in independent leagues before the Seattle Mariners' organization signed him in 2007.
He made his big league debut in April 2009 as a 30-year-old, and, after 35 games and a 5.32 ERA that year with the Mariners, he was waived and picked up by Pittsburgh. His Pirates career lasted 12 pitches and ended with "one serious concussion," Jakubauskas said.
Initially in the hospital, he barely slept. Every two hours, nurses would wake him to check on his mental status. Eventually, those periods stretched to four hours and he began improving. But it would be a long time before he didn't feel "like you were drunk 24 hours a day."
"I was dizzy and foggy for a good month, then I started to feel a little bit better," said Jakubauskas, who was diagnosed with a concussion and head contusion, but nothing more severe. "Then I went through a light workout and was just getting stretched [out] and I got some bad vertigo, like it happened again, and so that was another three and a half, four weeks I was out."
He pitched briefly in the minors again that season, struggling to stay in baseball shape and regain his endurance. The Orioles signed him in January as a minor league free agent without an official invitation to spring training. But he made a strong impression in March, was promoted in April and is 2-0 with a 5.18 ERA in nine big league games, including four starts, this season.
"It's an incredible story," Orioles right-hander Brad Bergesen said. "For a lot of people, it gives them that sense of determination and perseverance, and he is the perfect example of all those. So to know what he went through to get here, it's amazing."
Bergesen can somewhat relate to what Jakubauskas experienced in 2010. His promising rookie season in 2009 ended in July when he was struck in the left shin by a liner off the bat of Kansas City Royals slugger Billy Butler.
The next year, when he faced Butler again, Bergesen said he immediately recalled that previous at-bat.
"Absolutely. It was not something I was fearing or there was any doubt in my mind, but the thought does definitely come back when he comes up to the plate," Bergesen said. "Instantly, you're like, 'This is the guy that had me out for two months.'"
Jakubauskas said he expects to talk to Berkman on Tuesday at Camden Yards to reconnect before Wednesday's start. In a sense, Jakubauskas' comeback will be complete after that game. He has pitched again in the big leagues, he has made a big league start and now he'll face Berkman.
"When you list it out like that, I guess you could say, yes, just get him in the box and get it over with," Jakubauskas said. "But once I started throwing in games, I was pretty much over it and you just go from there."
Berkman said he's hoping for a different outcome.
"I'd rather strike out four times against him than hit another ball like that," said Berkman, who has hit two other pitchers in the head with liners in his pro career. "I'll definitely be thinking about it. It's a weird situation, and hopefully we can both get through the game without any sort of incident at all."
Things, though, haven't gone that smoothly for Jakubauskas this year. He has been struck by batted balls three other times this season — in the foot, thigh and shin — after having it occur only one other time, in 2003, before Berkman's line drive.
"I'm going to have to put a magnet on, put a magnet in my back pocket just to get some reverse polarity going or something," Jakubauskas joked.
Joking about the incident has been his panacea throughout the past year. He has played the video clip so often for friends at home that it now angers his wife when he calls it up on the computer. He even kidded his wife this week that she's not allowed to watch TV because he knows it inevitably will be replayed on highlight shows while Berkman is in town.
Jakubauskas also quipped that he now he has a message for every baseball he throws toward the plate:
"Stay away from me, ball. I have done my time. I have paid my dues."
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