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Pitcher Tyler Zombro’s remarkable recovery after being hit by a line drive

Aug 26, 2021

  • Tonya Simpson

ON JUNE 3, Tyler Zombro stepped to the mound at Durham Bulls Athletic Park and threw the 2,245th pitch of his minor league career — a 90.6 mph sinker. He faced his first batter of the night, Brett Cumberland of the Norfolk Tides, with a 1-2 count to open the top of the eighth, a little after 9 p.m. Rain had delayed the game, and morale wasn’t great. The Bulls trailed by 8 runs.

The pitch left Zombro’s right hand, and the batter made contact.

What followed happened quickly and then excruciatingly slowly. The ball left the bat at 104 mph on a line drive up the middle. Zombro barely began to react before it hit him on the right side of the head, just above the ear. He was unconscious before he hit the ground.

“It was the single most traumatic thing I’ve ever seen on a baseball field,” said Bulls pitching coach Rick Knapp, who has been in professional baseball for nearly 40 years. “We rolled him over, and he’s got turf all over his face, all over his body. He’s turning gray. It was brutal. … I thought we were going to lose him.”

An ensuing series of responses from Bulls athletic trainers, EMTs, emergency room staff and the neurosurgery department at Duke University Hospital arguably saved Zombro’s life and certainly his cognitive function. By the time the sun rose over Durham, doctors had installed 16 plates and 32 screws into his head.

Zombro, though, recalls none of this. His memory stops sometime in the fifth inning when Knapp told him to be ready to throw. The details of the rest of the night have been relayed to him from others — bits of information unearthed and brushed off piece by piece like a broken relic. The days and weeks since have been a pitiless and grueling journey back to the Tyler that Tyler was before.

The question he hears most often now is whether he will be able to play baseball again. At first, he bristled at being asked — it was, to Zombro, a myopic view of him as a person. He and the people who know him best understand that his greatest gifts lie not in his arm but his mind. He graduated from college with a 3.9 GPA at the top of his class. 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.

“Through my work on the secondary side, outside of my playing career, I’ve been able to impact hundreds of players,” Zombro said. “I’m not somebody who has completely sold out on my physical abilities. You can say, ‘God gave [him] enough physical ability to be a professional pitcher,’ and I certainly think I can be a big league pitcher. But that’s not the bigger picture of who I am.”

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. 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. It is a reshaping of one’s identity that would leave most athletes unmoored at best and brimming with an uncapped rage at worst.

Somehow though, at 26 years old, Zombro already has written the story of his injury in the book of posterity, the emotion trapped in the ink as it dries. In his mind, it is a thing that happened in the long arc of a life full of things that happen. It is not quite that easy for his wife and teammates, however.

THERE WAS A TIME, just a few years earlier, when Zombro doubted whether he’d ever wear a professional uniform. It was June 2017, and the Major League Baseball draft was underway. Zombro was ready. He was with his then-girlfriend, now wife, Moriah, and his family. They turned the draft on their TV; everyone was anticipating a ringing phone.

He’d pitched four years with George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, with a 2.78 ERA in 15 starts his senior season. He also knew the Kansas City Royals had several GMU alumni, including GM Dayton Moore, in their front office, so he thought they might be a logical fit. He also had neared a deal with a team the year before, and although it didn’t work out at the time, he thought they’d be back in the mix.

Zombro found ways to pass the time — went out to dinner, played cards — but the minutes and then the hours and then the three days of the draft slipped by without a call.

“When you go undrafted, you’re comparing yourself to everybody. It’s not a good feeling … it creates a lot of self-doubt and a lot of anger,” Zombro said. “I would be lying to you if I said there wasn’t a lot of bitterness seeing people that they signed over myself.”

Zombro had been working at R&D Baseball Academy, a research-based player development and training facility near Washington, D.C., since graduation. He interned there while in college and discovered his love of the game’s analytics. Zombro used data from every aspect of a pitch to engineer unique programs for professional and college players. And, as it turned out, he was pretty damn good at it.

“There’s a lot of guys that I’ve come across that know a lot about baseball … but I don’t think I’ve ever heard of or seen anyone that’s actually doing both at the same time and doing it at such a high level that he is,” said Sam McWilliams, who credits Zombro’s training with helping him sign a major league contract in November 2020.

There was a growing sense within Zombro that he had a future on this side of the game. He saw pitchers improve as a direct result of his work, but he still wasn’t ready to let go of playing.

“I knew that I still needed the game to play and be within it,” Zombro said. “I was still living right off campus at George Mason, and I would walk by the baseball field and a lot of my reflection would be like, ‘How do I have this caliber of a college career and I’m not signed? How am I not a professional baseball player?'”

Zombro sat down under a tree on a grassy bank behind left field on one of those walks. He prayed for clarity, for some kind of answer. Baseball was so much of who he understood himself to be — it was a connection through generations of his own family.

His grandfather, Melvin “Wimpy” Zombro, played in the Philadelphia Athletics organization. He and Tyler’s grandmother were married on the stadium’s home plate, her in a wedding gown and him in his uniform.

Zombro’s dad, Tim, played at Bridgewater College and had a few teammates and friends go to the bigs. Much of Zombro’s childhood in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley was going with his dad to see them play — particularly former Virginia Tech player and Pirates’ closer Mike Williams. On one of those trips, they went back to the park the morning after Williams had a big save. They got to the bullpen, and Williams flicked Zombro the game ball from the night before.

“I’ve just been around the game always,” Zombro said. “Whether it’s going down to the batting cage that my grandfather built for me, or going to the field or going to watch a game … it was the center of our relationships for as long as I can remember.”

As he got older, Zombro grew from being starstruck at the big stadiums and pro ball players to realizing he, too, had a realistic shot at earning a place beneath the lights. So when the draft ended without his name called, he faced the prospect of redefining everything he imagined his life would be.

That’s how he found himself sitting under a tree, begging God for a way forward, the field of his college playing days spread out through the fence in front of him.

The next day, Zombro was at work when his phone rang. It was the area scout, telling him the Tampa Bay Rays wanted to sign him.

“Just like that, life changed. I was on a flight the next day.”

ZOMBRO WORKED HIS way through the Rays’ farm system and debuted with the Triple-A Durham Bulls in 2019. He was named minor league reliever of the year within the Rays organization. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit and the ball field sat empty when minor league baseball canceled the 2020 season. By spring of 2021, the minors resumed and Zombro was back on the field. He and Moriah were childhood sweethearts turned newlyweds. They had a new puppy and were finally able to live together full-time after years of the transient nature of the minor leagues. Life was, for the first eight games of the season, good.

In the ninth game of the year, Zombro came in at the top of the eighth to relieve Joey Krehbiel. Moriah sat with Tyler’s best friend among the loyal fans who’d endured the rain delay — all of them oblivious to the event that lay just over the horizon of the moment.

Any pitch, any at-bat, stands the chance of forking off from an unremarkable and ordinary play into one that is indelible in the minds of those who saw it. You hope for the kind that makes top-10 reels for a lifetime, but either by the mercurial nature of fate or the reliable nature of statistics, every once in a while, the outcomes differ.

When Zombro got hit, one of the first people to reach him was Brett Sullivan, the Bulls catcher and one of Zombro’s best friends. Sullivan saw Zombro arch and stiffen as a seizure ripped through his body. He didn’t know what to do. He implored Zombro to just keep breathing. He grabbed a towel to block the fans and the cameras from having to see what he and his teammates were seeing.

Moriah thought he’d been hit in the stomach or the ribs until she saw the seizure from the stands. She ran toward the field, screaming to his teammates to ask if he was OK. She couldn’t breathe. Center fielder Josh Lowe helped her over the fence and onto the field.

“The worst part was just seeing him on the ground having fallen face first into the dirt. And then just hearing the noises that he was making of just screaming out in agony,” she said. “It didn’t even sound like him. The noises coming from him didn’t even sound like him.”

“I remember asking our first base coach, ‘Where’s the ambulance? Where’s the ambulance?’ Because it just seemed like time was going so slow and none of us knew how he was doing,” said Brett Cumberland of the Norfolk Tides, whose line drive struck Zombro. “I felt terrible. I couldn’t stop thinking about him.”

Eleven minutes after he was hit, Zombro was carted off the field and taken to Duke University Hospital. When he reached the emergency room, Moriah was allowed to see him. Zombro was awake but not very coherent. Visitors couldn’t stay, so she had to leave as he was rolled into surgery.

“My biggest fear, leaving him for surgery and leaving for the night … is he even going to know that I was there with him? I just didn’t want him to wake up and not know where he was and be alone,” Moriah said.

Dr. Steven Cook is a neurosurgeon at Duke University Hospital and a Durham Bulls season ticket holder. He planned to go to the game on June 3 but figured it would likely be a rainout. He also happened to be on trauma call that evening when his phone rang with a call to come in; a patient was en route with a head injury sustained from a baseball. As he headed out, his son showed him the video. He recognized Zombro’s name. They’d seen him pitch before.

Dr. Cook and two neurosurgery residents performed a two-and-a-half-hour operation to remove bone fragments, elevate the fracture that was pushing into Zombro’s brain and install the screws and titanium plates necessary to reconstruct and stabilize his skull. They also put in a drain to release pressure from the brain bleed.

“The impact of the baseball, when it hit the side of his skull, caused a comminuted fracture of the temporal bone, which is a very thin part of the skull,” Dr. Cook said. “It was severe, and he needed urgent intervention … but I knew if we got him to surgery and he got the right post-operative care, he would do well.”

Moriah needed more convincing. She and the Zombro family kept careful watch during his first days in the ICU. He was in pain, struggling to speak and stay awake more than a few moments at a time. She worried he wouldn’t remember who he was and that his speech would never return.

“The first moments of clarity for me were seeing my mom, my dad and my wife,” Zombro said. “I wasn’t speaking much, but being able to look at them and say, ‘I know that’s my mom, I know it’s my dad, I know it’s my wife.’ Just being able to see them, understand who they are, that they were there, they were speaking with me, I could give ‘yes’ or ‘no’ via a little bit of a head shake — those moments were really good for me.”

The bruising and subsequent swelling of his brain affected his speech, motor function and the sensation and control over the left side of his body. He revisited his wedding day in his mind, pictured the faces of people who were there, and knew he still had his memory. With that, he could see through the fog.

AFTER FOUR DAYS in the ICU and two more in the hospital for monitoring, Zombro went home. Moriah, a registered nurse by trade, took over his care. He had a long road of therapies ahead — occupational, speech, physical, cognitive — but he was home.

“The first day he got home from the hospital, me and [Bulls relief pitcher] Phoenix [Sanders] saw him,” Sullivan said. “My heart was so happy seeing him. He didn’t say anything, but he gave all three of us — me, my son, Phoenix — he gave us all knuckles. We told him we loved him, and you could see it on his face that he loved us, too. I knew right then he’s going to be all right.”

The first month was difficult. Zombro’s brain was still swollen, so the left side of his body lacked sensory and motor control. His speech lagged, and speaking even for a few minutes left him exhausted. He slept a lot.

“Overall a little bit of the psychological fear of not getting back to where I was before certainly kind of loomed,” Zombro said. “That first OT appointment and having a task in front of me that required me to use the left side of my body was very frustrating. But at about a month … as the inflammation went down, speech, motor, sensory cortex cleaned up, then I started to feel much better about where things were.”

When a therapist told Zombro he was a bit slow working through some pattern recognition tests, he got a Sudoku book and ripped through puzzles that same night, timing himself on each one. Later, he set up an eye-tracking test that involved flashing buttons at home on his kitchen island and worked at it consistently.

Even as Zombro became more and more himself, Moriah, his family and teammates struggled with the memory of June 3. When Moriah had gone home that night and anxiously awaited updates from Zombro’s surgery, she watched the video of the hit. She says she doesn’t regret it, but now struggles with recurring nightmares of that image.

“Nighttime seems to be the worst, where it just kind of plays on a continuous loop. There’s been countless nights where I couldn’t hold it in any longer, and I just had to cry until I couldn’t cry anymore,” she said.

Zombro’s teammates, coaches and manager also struggle to stop seeing it on replay in their minds. Almost all got emotional when asked about it, and Zombro shared that several were shaken up in the locker room after reliving the incident for ESPN’s interviews.

“I feel guilty about this and I probably shouldn’t, but the fact that it was the most scarring night of a lot of their lives hurts me — which is why I’m even more motivated to be back around them, to continue to be better mentally, physically, and get back to where I need to be,” Zombro said.

ZOMBRO IS ALMOST completely back to normal. He is still working on eye tracking and reaction time, though he has tested out of all his rehab therapies. He’s also back to his work with Tread Athletics, a Charlotte-based private training facility. Most days, Zombro can be found poring frame-by-frame over video of major league pitchers to diagnose their biomechanical issues, find ways to get more depth on a curve ball or eke out an increase in velocity. He then creates a unique training plan and works with the player to implement it.

“I think the overarching impact that I’ve felt now throughout a few years of working in baseball, but technically outside of the professional game in the private sector, is being able to see guys’ careers flourish, being able to see them get answers that they previously didn’t have,” Zombro said. “If I can put them in a better situation, that’s the most rewarding thing to me in the world. That’s better than executing a save in a lot of scenarios for me.”

Between R&D Baseball and Tread Athletics, Zombro has directly trained about 300 athletes. When you include his work overseeing data and writing up recommendation reports, that number reaches nearly 1,500 pitchers at all levels of the sport.

“His ability to analyze data, pitches, biomechanics, and then to show guys actually how to implement it and get better doing it — there’s not a lot of guys in the game right now that can do that,” said Brian Grieper, a lawyer and agent with baseball agency Paragon Sports International who has sent several clients to see Zombro for coaching. “He’s done a phenomenal job in terms of helping guys get better. … From his standpoint, the sky is truly the limit in baseball if he wants to go that route.”

Tyler will receive another CT scan in December, six months post-injury, which will determine whether he will return to the mound. Dr. Cook is optimistic, and Tyler certainly wants to play again — though not necessarily for his own benefit.

“If the fracture hasn’t settled properly, there’s a situation in which they can say I’m not cleared to play again. And if that is the case, I certainly don’t want those who have cared about me, supported me, have known me through the game, to have that video be the lasting image of me on the mound,” he said.

There will be a time when Tyler and Moriah’s life isn’t so sharply divided into a before and an after. Moriah is back at work, and more time stretches between the moments in which she is suddenly awash with worry about him being home alone. He is cleared to drive again, which means he goes to get her coffee in the mornings. He works out at the stadium, running laps on the warning track. His teammates say seeing him there, running and joking, has helped them move on from what they saw that night.

The scar that curves along the right side of Zombro’s head serves as the lingering physical evidence of what happened. He’s thoughtful about the incident and his recovery, but not in a way that keeps him trapped in an infinite loop of whys. He’s also acutely aware of how much every milestone, every marker of progress means for those he cares about.

When he’s at the ballpark, Zombro now wears a custom-fitted, Kevlar-padded protective insert in his hat to protect his healing fracture. In the past nine years, professional pitchers Brandon McCarthy, Matt Shoemaker and Daniel Ponce de Leon have been hit in the head by line drives and required emergency brain surgery. All three eventually returned to play. Though the exact numbers aren’t tracked, on average, a pitcher is hit in the head a couple of times per season at the highest levels of baseball. Most recently, Oakland Athletics ace Chris Bassitt was struck on Aug. 17 and underwent facial surgery.

The uncertainty of Zombro’s own future on the field would be understandably all-consuming for some, but the way he needed baseball in those weeks after going undrafted has changed. He wants to throw again, to end his playing career on his own terms — but, for now at least, he has made peace with every outcome.

“I’ve kind of viewed it this way since I signed as a free agent. I’m just going on house money here, and I’m just going to keep going until I can’t.”

ESPN senior baseball insider Jeff Passan and producer William Weinbaum contributed to this story.

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