Linda K. Epling Stadium doesn’t have a batter’s eye. It had been bothering Greg Cypret for years.
Most baseball fields come equipped with a dark-colored covering behind the centerfield wall, to help hitters spot pitches in the light as they’re flung from the mound to home plate. But beyond the fence of Linda K. Epling lies only a throng of oak trees, a spacious patch of grass, two small scoreboards and stadium lights. Cypret, head coach of the Chillicothe Paints, kept that in mind as his players prepared to play the West Virginia Miners in Beckley, W. Va.
It was June 15, 2012, and Cody Stevens was one of hundreds of NCAA ballplayers sharpening their skills in the wood-bat, May-through-August Prospect League. Stevens, a rising junior at Northwestern, saw his Paints down 4-0 to Miners starting pitcher Will Blalock as he stepped up to bat in the fifth inning.
Ball. Ball. Foul. Ball. A 3-1 count is baseball’s universal green light; a pitcher reluctant to issue a walk has little choice but to hurl a guaranteed strike across the heart of the zone. Stevens squared his stance and was ready to capitalize.
“That night, we were playing with a philosophy of backing hitters off the plate,” Blalock remembers. “But when I released the pitch, I knew right away that I let it sail. I saw it going for his earhole. I knew something serious had happened.”
Without a batter’s eye, Stevens was slow to see the errant fastball and it drilled him in the head. A ringing persisted in his helmet as he stumbled toward first base, getting only about four feet past home before Cypret and his coaching staff decided to help him back to the Paints bench. Reserve Vinnie Booker was called to pinch run. Stevens’s night was over.
The next four innings brought a slew of pupil, reflex and light sensitivity tests from an onsite EMT and the Miners’ trainer. The Paints lost by a final score of 6-3, and the medical staff concluded that Stevens’s injury was a concussion. He would be sidelined for three weeks, he was told, as the team packed up its equipment and boarded for a short drive home.
Air conditioning blasted through the Paints’ coach bus, but Stevens began sweating as it merged onto the West Virginia turnpike. Then came the tingling in his hands and feet. Then numbness. His jaw started hurting.
“I can’t do this,” a woozy Stevens told Cypret. “I’m in pain.”
The team pulled over to the nearest toll phone, where Cypret and bench coach Marty Dunn called for an ambulance. Stevens grabbed a blanket from the bus, found a patch of grass and gazed up at the stars. A promising summer of baseball was about to be cut short.
“Why me?” he thought to himself. “Why me, why here, and why now?”
The whirring of sirens cut short any subsequent questions. Stevens was loaded onto a stretcher with Cypret and rushed to Raleigh General Hospital in Beckley.
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