When I first heard Durham Bulls pitcher Tyler Zombro had been hit in the head by a line drive, I didn’t truly understand the severity of his injury. I thought, “Oh my God, that’s terrible. He probably has a severe concussion and will be in the hospital for a few days.”
My sister, a baseball fan who picked up on the story before me, immediately refuted that notion. “You don’t understand,” she said. “This was awful.” She warned me not to watch the video of the incident, but after hearing her account, I decided I had to see what happened for myself. What followed was the most horrifying 20 seconds of footage I’ve ever seen.
Zombro, a 26-year-old relief pitcher for the minor league baseball team, throws a pitch. The batter, Brett Cumberland of the Norfolk Tides, gets a solid hit. But then, instead of the ball soaring over the field or rocketing low across the green, it comes straight back at Zombro, striking him in the head.
Zombro immediately drops to the ground, falling headfirst. A few seconds later, surrounded by his teammates, he starts convulsing.
For weeks, that was where the story ended. Reports on Zombro’s condition were few and far between. On the evening of the June 3 game, which was suspended, the Tampa Bay Rays (the Bulls’ major league affiliate) announced Zombro was in stable condition at Duke University Hospital.
Later that month, Zombro took to Twitter to thank his doctors, posting a picture of a lengthy incision in his head closed by surgical staples. He shared some information with reporters, saying he had undergone surgery and was recovering with the help of outpatient and occupational therapy. In July, he again thanked his caregivers, saying his cognitive function had improved and he was continuing physical therapy.
Zombro’s teammates, family, and friends were silent on the topic of his injury until this week when they were quoted at length in an ESPN feature detailing Zombro’s physical trauma and recovery. In a sensitive but straightforward piece, writer Tonya Simpson and columnist Jeff Passan reveal the specifics of Zombro’s injury — a skull fracture that fragmented his temporal bone and needed 16 titanium plates, 36 screws, and more than two hours of emergency neurosurgery to reconstruct.
Simpson and Passan don’t stop there, however. Their story goes beyond what is surely one of the worst experiences of Zombro’s life to explore who he is, not just as a player, but also as a husband, analyst, and pitching coach.
Zombro isn’t just a pitcher, writes Simpson, “He’s an analytical whiz, fluent in the language of statistics and complicated mathematics—all skills Zombro has used in training other pitchers to help them reach the pinnacles of their games.”
In two months, Zombro will receive a CT scan that will determine whether he can return to the pitching mound. Even if Zombro never returns to pitching, however, he’ll still be a part of baseball, training hundreds of athletes.
“Zombro’s story isn’t likely to be one of a comeback to preeminent baseball dominance, at least not in the way we are used to,” Thompson writes. “His journey, rather, is one of figuring out how someone who once needed baseball so badly—who broke down on his college ball field after going undrafted—becomes someone who baseball needs instead.”
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