Inside the Phillies: Lehigh Valley manager knows damage a batted ball can do

Toronto pitcher J.A. Happ, a former Phillie, suffered a skull fracture when he was hit by a live drive Tuesday.
Toronto pitcher J.A. Happ, a former Phillie, suffered a skull fracture when he was hit by a live drive Tuesday. (Associated Press)
Posted: May 13, 2013

ALLENTOWN - It wasn't the most macho confession, but Dave Brundage has too much experience with the damage that can be done by a batted baseball to care.

Like everyone else who saw the video footage from Tuesday night's game between the Toronto Blue Jays and Tampa Bay Rays, Brundage cringed in horror as former Phillies pitcher J.A. Happ lay writhing in pain on the mound at Tropicana Field after being struck just above the left ear by a Desmond Jennings line drive.

Brundage, 48, in his first year as manager of the Phillies' triple-A Lehigh Valley affiliate after spending six seasons in the same role with the Atlanta Braves, openly admits to being afraid of line drives bearing down on him while coaching third base or even just standing in the dugout.

"I go through it every night standing in the third-base coaching box," he said. "I got hit last year, only I was in the dugout. I got hit in the ear. It tore the whole back of my ear off, and [Happ] got it way worse and wasn't able to defend himself."

Happ was released from the hospital the day after being drilled. He said he suffered a skull fracture that should heal on its own and admitted to feeling fortunate.

"I stand there, and I don't feel like I'm going to be able to get out of the way sometimes," said Brundage, a 1986 Phillies fourth-round draft pick who spent nine seasons in the minors, including the last one primarily as a pitcher with Seattle's triple-A team. "It's a big fear. Oh my God, it scares you to death. You see a guy with a glove who is a good, young athlete, and with the speed of the ball he can't defend himself.

"The older you get you feel like you need a little more than a helmet that doesn't even cover up my ears or half my head."

Helmets that leave the ears exposed became mandatory for base coaches at all levels of professional baseball only after Mike Coolbaugh was killed by a line drive while coaching first base for Colorado's double-A Tulsa affiliate in July 2007.

"I knew him well," Brundage said. "He had asked me at one point when I was managing in San Antonio if I wanted to rent his house."

The potentially devastating impact of a hard-hit baseball has struck even closer to home for Brundage. Eight years ago, when he was managing with San Antonio in the Texas League, he had his oldest son, Beau, in uniform and in the dugout with him.

"He was 8 years old, and he was in the dugout," Brundage said. "The ball went off the concrete wall at about 100 m.p.h. It hit the concrete and just missed me. I was on the top step managing, and he was standing next to a chair. He didn't have a helmet on, but he was behind a screen and down [the stairs], and the ball ricocheted off the wall and hit him right in the head."

Brundage immediately went from minor-league manager to frightened father.

"He had a lot of bleeding on the brain, and I had to carry him out of the dugout," Brundage said. "That will break your heart worse than anything in the world. To see that happen to your son - I mean you want him in the dugout in uniform with you - but the ball lifted him clean off his feet. The ambulance came and had to take him to the neurology center in downtown Dallas. He almost had to have brain surgery. I'll never forget it."

Beau Brundage is 16 and fine. He's playing high school baseball in Georgia, but his father said he missed an entire year of playing sports because of the head injury.

Dave Brundage also saw the damage a squared-up baseball could do two other times. Two years ago, while he was managing the Braves' Gwinett Valley team, a pitcher named Erik Cordier was struck in the head by a line drive.

"The ball split his ear in half," Brundage said. "It just scares the living crap out of you."

Earlier that year, Luis Salazar was standing three people away from Brundage when he was hit by a Brian McCann foul ball in the left eye during a Braves spring training game at Disney's Wide World of Sports complex. He was airlifted to the hospital, and his eye was removed during surgery.

Brundage's greatest trepidation is for the young kids and families who sit behind a dugout and do not pay constant attention to the game.

"Sooner or later I know what's going to happen," he said. "There are going to be nets extended more than they are now."

Something terrible might have to happen for that to take place, but let's hope not.

In the meantime, forgive Brundage if he has a fear of foul balls. He knows how dangerous they can be.

Contact Bob Brookover at Follow on Twitter @brookob.

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