NEW YORK — The players arrived at Yankee Stadium wearing face masks and carrying hand sanitizer, fearing an unseen enemy that already has sickened millions of people around the world. But it was something else, something far more common, that led to one of the more terrifying moments in this ballpark in recent memory.
It was a baseball, one hit by a man who swings harder than anyone on the planet, that caused panic for the Yankees on the first full “spring” training workout. Masahiro Tanaka threw the pitch, and a fraction of a second later, the laser off Giancarlo Stanton’s bat had connected with the Japanese starter’s head in sickening fashion.
This is how fast the ball was traveling when it hit Tanaka: After impact, it floated in the air for a full five seconds before landing on the turf. Tanaka, by then, was already crumpled in a heap on the mound; Stanton lowered his head in a much different kind of agony inside the batter’s box as the ballpark went silent.
Less than an hour into the workout, the vibe went from uneasy to downright funereal in the Bronx. The pitcher walked gingerly back to the dugout with trainers at his side before he was taken to New York-Presbyterian Hospital for further evaluation.
Stanton, meanwhile, left the field himself for a long stretch. His exit velocity topped 120 mph early last season. It’s hard not to wonder if the already fragile slugger will need time to shake off the awful accident that started this season.
In short: This was an awful way for this rebooted season to begin, the only silver lining coming with the news later in the evening that Tanaka’s concussion-like symptoms had improved. He was released, thankfully, that night.
“It’s horrible,” said Jordan Montgomery, the next pitcher to step onto the mound. He hadn’t planned to use a protective L screen for his own workout on Saturday, but quickly changed his mind after the Tanaka left the field. “It’s a freak accident with one in a million chance of happening, and when it does, it’s terrifying.”
It was an obvious question in the immediate aftermath: Where was the L screen that protects pitchers when Tanaka was on the mound? He was pitching a simulated game, according to a team spokesman, in which screens are rarely used.
Still, this was the first workout after three months of inactivity. It’s natural that Tanaka would be shaking off some rust, and the Yankees might be kicking themselves for not taking every precaution with baseball’s daily dangers in the same way they are with the coronavirus.
“We always give that option. (Tanaka) didn’t want it,” manager Aaron Boone said. “You’ve got to get out there at some point without it, but as we go forward, we’ll have guys who will have it out there. Obviously, it’s unfortunate happened today, and in a lot of ways we feel fortunate it wasn’t something really bad. But that’s the risk that goes along with it.”
It’s hard not to shake your head at the irony: For all the effort put into protecting the team from the coronavirus — and, to be clear, all of that is understandable given that a few positive COVID-19 tests could jeopardize the entire season — the century-old dangers of the sport resurfaced with one swing of the bat.
From the press box, as he lay motionless on the mound, the concern wasn’t about when Tanaka might pitch again. It was if he would get up at all. That was Boone’s first thought: “You worry about a guy’s life. That’s your immediate focus.”
Now the team waits to hear more about Tanaka’s status going forward. This is the reality of a shortened season, of course. An injury that might have have been absorbed in the 162-game grind has devastating potential in a 60-game sprint.
Boone revealed that two players, infielder DJ LeMahieu and reliever Luis Cessa, had tested positive for COVID-19 before arriving in the Bronx. Neither player is sick, but the news was something else to worry about with the start of this season less than three weeks away.
Ultimately, it will be up to the players to enforce the well-known preventative measures as the number of case climbs around the country. But each trip to the ballpark is a reminder of just how much is outside of the team’s control — there is a reason, after all, that so many epidemiologists think this reboot is doomed to fail.
Maybe that’s why the Yankees manager already looked drained on his Zoom call with reporters. Boone is just beginning to navigate a championship-or-bust team during what figures to be one of the strangest seasons in professional sports history.
That is hard enough without this scary reminder on Day 1 that, in baseball, the biggest danger is often right there in the game’s name.
Steve Politi may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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