Braves starter Paul Maholm has been a bright spot since being added to the rotation last year. But Maholm’s future wasn’t always so bright after he was struck in the face by a line drive during his rookie season in the minors. Maholm needed multiple surgeries and months of rehab, but he returned and has gone on to a nice MLB career.
ATLANTA — Paul Maholm’s 10 months with the Braves have been a study in quiet workmanship. His approach has more resembled that of the man who forges the bell, not the one who rings it.
Radar guns do not bow at this starter’s approach. Nor are statisticians blinded by the numbers he produces: A career record of 70-88 — six-plus seasons in Pittsburgh will dent a man’s lifetime ledger — and an ERA of 4.25. With the Braves, those figures are a little prettier, 8-9, 3.70.
Left-handedness and a sort of all-terrain-vehicle tenacity seem to be the chief commodities he has brought to market, and that has been plenty to assure a long, profitable career.
The trusted partners of stoicism and determination that he went to when he was tested — and Maholm has been tested sorely — continue to work for him now.
Nine years ago Wednesday, Maholm was presented with his best excuse yet to fail, in the form of a line drive back up the middle. In a fraction of second, quicker even than the instinct of self-preservation, he was laid out on the mound in Lynchburg, Va., a career in crisis while still in the Single-A incubator.
Two strangers with the same goal were brought together that night in Central Virginia. At the plate for the Winston-Salem Warthogs was first-baseman Casey Rogowski, 6-foot-3, 230 pounds, as strong as lye soap. Pitching for the Lynchburg Hillcats was Pittsburgh’s first-round pick in the 2003 draft.
“(Maholm) was one of those guys that when I saw his name in the scouting report, I knew it was going to be a tough matchup, especially lefty on lefty,” Rogowski recalled.
All these years later, the hitter summons keen detail about one at-bat among thousands.
“He had me 0-2 on two fastballs on the outside corner — boom, boom, strike one, strike two,” Rogowski said. “Then he hung a breaking ball. I saw right out of his hand that it wasn’t the fastball.
“As good as you can hit a baseball, as flush as possible, that’s how I hit that ball. It was one of those you don’t even feel it off the bat.”
The line drive struck Maholm flush on the left side of his face. It is a hazard of a pitcher’s job — standing there terribly exposed after finishing his delivery, with the ball coming back at his head just as fast, if not faster, then when it left his hand.
On May 7, Toronto’s J.A. Happ was struck by a line drive and taken off the field on a stretcher with a “minor” skull fracture. The ball ricocheted off his head all the way into right field. In Maholm’s case, doctors later told him it was as if his eye socket had tried to catch the ball, which landed not far from his feet.
Maholm’s first move was toward the ball, as if to try to pick it up off the ground and make the throw to first. Then he crumpled, and would lay motionless, bleeding yet conscious, for 20 minutes.
“It didn’t knock me out, which at the time, I wish it would have,” Maholm said.
“My first reaction was, ‘This isn’t good.’ I almost didn’t run to first base. I almost ran to the mound,” Rogowski said.
At the start of this season, Maholm had grown out his hair a little from the buzz cut he fashioned in July, when he arrived in a trade from the Cubs. But the weather has warmed again, and on the most recent road trip he shaved it back down, revealing once more the long scar that bridges the top of his head.
That marks the entry where the surgeon went in to place titanium plates around his shattered eye socket. His nose, too, had been crushed. Maholm would require a second surgery three months later when his comeback was cut short by double vision, and doctors determined they needed to build additional support for his left eye.
Immediately afterward, and to this day, whenever Maholm is asked about the ordeal, he is as matter-of-fact as if discussing a stubbed toe.
He found reason afterward to be relieved: Doctors told him that had his head been turned just a couple inches to the right and had the ball struck him in the temple, he might not have survived.
He even found reason to be thankful: His mother, who died the following year, had been diagnosed with colon cancer. Healing back home in Mississippi, Maholm never strayed far.
“The way I look at it now is that for a few months I got to spend some time with my mom,” he said.
Physically, his face would heal and eventually show no signs of the trauma. Most important was the mental recovery; and for Maholm, the scar beneath his cap didn’t seem to work its way beneath the skull.
A little more than 15 months after the injury he made his major league debut — eight innings, four hits, no runs against Milwaukee. The pace with which he advanced is the best corroboration for Maholm’s claim that he never found himself flinching on the mound.
The biggest concern in the aftermath, he joked, was how he would look in his wedding photos so soon after his second surgery.
Just this spring, his first with the Braves, as a coach hit liners at the pitchers during a fielding drill, manager Fredi Gonzalez suggested backing off a little bit. It was Maholm who yelled back, no, no, hit it hard, right at us.
“I’ve been drilled with a few line drives since — fortunately not in the face,” Maholm said. “Being a (pitching-to-contact) guy, I’ve got to be ready. I’ve got to be able to field the position. Hopefully I don’t hang too many pitches anymore.
“For me it was just something that happened, and I got over it and went back to pitching. I don’t think a whole lot about it until someone comes up and asks me about it.”
There are enough challenges facing a player trying to climb Jacob’s ladder to the majors without worrying about future facial reconstructive surgery. For Maholm, clearing his mind of what can happen while standing 60 feet from a missile launch was but one in a series of obstacles between him and putting his Mississippi State golf-management major to practical use. It was just something he had to do to fulfill the vision of himself, so he did it.
The man who hit the line drive that could have rearranged Maholm’s life is a walking example of how difficult it is to give form to a baseball dream, even without a traumatic injury in the mix. Rogowski, a 13th-round pick of the White Sox, was a 10-year minor leaguer, hitting the ceiling at Triple-A, never enjoying a single major league at-bat.
Married at 32 with three kids, the guy who laid out Maholm is today someone who would go to his aid. A firefighter and paramedic in Southgate, Mich., Rogowski found another career that gave him the sense of camaraderie and teamwork that he so enjoyed in his other life.
Rogowski doesn’t watch a whole lot of baseball — “I don’t know how to explain it. It’s not so much a bitterness; it’s always a what-if. What if I could have made it a little farther?” he said. And he has never talked to Maholm about the line drive in Lynchburg.
Still, he has taken some joy in the substantial major league career Maholm rescued from that moment.
“It was a pretty traumatizing event — obviously for him, but for the person hitting the ball it’s pretty bad, too,” Rogowski said.
“A shot like that, the injury plus the mental side, you start thinking days later: Is this guy ever going to come back and pitch again. Or if he is, is he going to be the same? You never want to be the person who ended a guy’s career on a play like that.
“Doesn’t seem like he has thought twice about it.”