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How Bryce Florie found his way

Nearly blinded by a line drive 13 years ago, the former Red Sox pitcher is making a new life for himself in the game he loves.

Former Red Sox relief pitcher Bryce Florie.

Greg Foster

Former Red Sox relief pitcher Bryce Florie.

BRYCE FLORIE could see, in the thick grass beneath his feet, the black snake slithering toward him.

He was sitting on metal bleachers, the kind you’d find next to a high school ball field. The setting was familiar for Florie — he’d watched and played baseball his whole life. In all likelihood, the field lay somewhere in the South. And in the South, you don’t mess with snakes. You run. So the moment Florie caught sight of it he shot off those bleachers, stealing a glance at the creature in his flight.

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The next thing he knew, he was awake, and he was bleeding. Badly. The snake — that had been fictional, a vivid nightmare conjured by his anxious, scattered mind. The gash on his chin? That was real.

It was a Thursday night in late February 2004. Florie was living in a rental unit near the ballpark in Jupiter, Florida, where the Florida Marlins — now called the Miami Marlins — hold spring training. It had only been a few seasons since that awful outing at Fenway Park, when a sizzling line drive off the bat of a Yankees outfielder struck him squarely in the right eye, shattering bones, temporarily disfiguring his face, and threatening his vision. Now Florie was mounting a comeback, determined to prove that, nearing his mid-30s, he still had the stuff to pitch in the big leagues.

What he’d actually done, when he thought he was fleeing the snake, was jump off his bed and run toward a window. Turning his head forward, he sliced his chin on the metal blinds and banged his face against the glass. He stumbled into the bathroom holding his head, trying to make sense of what he’d just done. The commotion roused his housemates — fellow pitcher Scott Sanders, Sanders’s wife, and their children.

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“Uncle Bryce cut himself shaving!” their daughter called out after seeing Florie’s face.

Florie found his glasses. He looked in the mirror. He could see a piece of skin hanging off his chin. Sanders accompanied him to a hospital. It took almost 20 stitches to sew Florie up.

Even before the bad dream, it had not been a good day. Florie had pitched batting practice behind an L-shaped metal screen, which teams use to protect pitchers from hit balls. Still wary from the Boston accident, he’d modified his delivery so that, after releasing the ball, he could immediately duck behind it. The unorthodox follow-through caused him to pull a rib cage muscle, an injury he knew would sideline him. Up to that point, he’d been pitching well. His confidence had returned. His body felt strong. “I’m in the best shape I’ve ever been in,” he had told a newspaper reporter just days earlier.

Now he had to explain to the Marlins that, in addition to his rib muscle injury, he had sliced his chin open.

“Who’d you get in a fight with?” the other players asked, assuming he’d been drunk and stupid. “Did you fall off the curb?”

“You know what? I ain’t lying about this,” Florie shot back, insisting the sleepwalking story was true.

No, it wasn’t something he could easily laugh off with his teammates, many of whom were a decade younger. It had been a hard few years. Florie knew that if he was going to make it back to the majors, time was running out. Every injury and misfortune stung, and there had been many. His comeback attempt seemed cursed. “I’m tired of the old ‘It will make you a better person,’ ” he told the press at the time.

Ten years on, he can (almost) chuckle at the absurdity of it all. Only now can he see that the many adversities he endured after the accident in Boston — the battle to regain sight in his damaged eye, the myriad other injuries, the coldness of team executives, the what-am-I-doing-here moments in minor league towns — have added up to something meaningful. Like any aspiring big-leaguer, a young Bryce Florie would have never asked for an intimate knowledge of pain, darkness, and struggle. But an older, wiser Bryce Florie? He’s learning how valuable that knowledge can be.

***

I REMEMBER exactly where I was. It was a Friday night, September 8, 2000. As we often did, my wife and I hit the Thirsty Scholar Pub in Somerville, where they put Red Sox games on a projection screen. The Yankees were in town for a three-game series. We settled in with our pints. The Sox were down 2-0 in the top of the ninth. With one out, Sox skipper Jimy Williams brought on Bryce Florie, a 30-year-old right-hander, a specialist in sliders and lively sinking fastballs whom they’d picked up the year before. Florie quickly notched a second out, but then he walked a batter — loading the bases — and promptly surrendered a two-run single to Derek Jeter. That brought up Ryan Thompson, a 32-year-old from Maryland who’d recently joined New York after playing in Japan and elsewhere in the majors. Thompson had entered the game as a pinch runner and taken over as the Yankees’ left fielder.

William B. Plowman

On September 8, 2000, Red Sox relief pitcher Bryce Florie was seriously injured when a line drive smashed into his right eye.

Florie stared in and got the sign. He cocked his arm back and delivered a first-pitch slider. The ball dipped over the outside of the plate. Thompson, batting right-handed, dropped his bat and drilled it straight back. In an instant, before Florie could drag his glove over his face, the ball smashed into his right eye. The sickening sound — the ball was traveling perhaps 100 miles per hour — was audible to many at Fenway and watching on TV. “Like someone stepping on glass,” Thompson would say afterward. Florie collapsed on the mound, thrashing in pain. Teammates, coaches, and trainers raced to his side as third baseman Lou Merloni picked up the ball and threw Thompson out at first. The inning was over, but that hardly mattered. Nothing about the game, after that, really mattered at all. Not after one of the worst baseball injuries in memory.

At first, Florie didn’t know precisely what had happened. “I just knew my head felt like it was on fire,” he says. Joe Kerrigan, the Red Sox pitching coach that season, was one of the first to arrive at the mound. Florie was bleeding from his eye and nose. Kerrigan had to turn his head. “It was horrific,” he says. Fenway Park just stopped. “Everything went silent,” remembers Florie’s father, Robert, who had driven up from South Carolina to the game on a whim, sleeping in his car at a rest area on the way because he couldn’t find a hotel room.

Matthew J. Lee/Globe staff/file

Florie after being hit.

Florie gathered himself and sat up, ignoring the trainers’ instructions to stay down. He was a gruesome sight. The broken bones in his eye socket gave his bloodied face an uncommon sag. He was driven off the field on a golf cart, speaking to his dad briefly before an ambulance took him to the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. Florie’s younger brother, who was also at Fenway, tried to reach out to Florie with his hand as the ambulance pulled away. They were both in tears. Florie’s mind raced. He didn’t know whether he would survive, let alone keep his eye. He’d taken a severe blow to the head, and he knew people had died for less. At the hospital, the doctors implored him: Do not look in the mirror. “I might not make it out of here,” he thought.

Two surgeries followed — one to relieve the pressure around his eye and a second to repair the bones. Dr. Mack Cheney, who was director of facial, plastic, and reconstructive surgery at the Eye and Ear Infirmary at the time, said Florie’s bone damage — a dozen or so fractures in his nose, cheek, and face — was among the worst he had ever seen. A primary threat to his vision was a pool of blood behind his damaged retina. Doctors, not knowing whether it would recede, were guarded about Florie’s prospects for regaining sight in the eye.

In the difficult weeks that followed, he was buoyed by the cards, flowers, and religious figurines sent by fans. One gave him a golden necklace bearing a medal of the patron saint of sight. Another sent a ring for good luck. A woman wrote him a note saying he should consider changing professions. Inside was a $10 check. Go buy yourself some ice cream, she said.

As he watched the replay again and again, the hardest part wasn’t so much reliving the pain but the dawning realization that he might need, for the first time, to plan for life after baseball. Baseball was his everything. He’d been drafted by the San Diego Padres out of Hanahan High School, north of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1988 and never looked back. Now, just to play catch with his twin brother, he had to leave store-bought baseballs in their plastic packaging so they wouldn’t roll away when he missed them.

Ryan Thompson was shaken, too, fearful that, with one swing, he had ended Florie’s career. He knew too well what Florie was going through. In minor league ball a decade earlier, Thompson had taken an up-and-in fastball to the face, suffering fractures in his eye socket and nose. “I don’t want to take food off someone’s table,” he said after the Florie accident. Thompson went on to win a World Series ring with the Yankees that fall. Before the next season began, in 2001, he told the media he still prayed for Florie every day.

***

JUNE 28, 2001. Red Sox-Tampa Bay Devil Rays at Fenway. Sox starting pitcher Frank Castillo left the game early with a strained muscle. Jimy Williams called the bullpen: He wanted Bryce Florie. The beleaguered reliever, who had worked for nine months to make it back, entered the field to a standing ovation from the sellout crowd of 33,433. His father, watching at home, was in tears. After Williams gave him the ball, Florie, now wearing protective glasses, quickly got the third out of the inning. He raised his right hand to the fans as he ran off the field. He collected high-fives from teammates. He was so emotional that, for a few brief moments, he decamped to the Sox clubhouse to collect himself. He went on to pitch two solid innings. “I’m back,” Florie said triumphantly.

The fairy tale return, however, would be short-lived. The very next night, in Toronto, he gave up a game-winning grand slam to Blue Jays slugger Raul Mondesi. Three days later, another comebacker — a line drive off the bat of former Sox infielder Jeff Frye — struck him on the hand. Badly rattled, Florie left the game immediately. He couldn’t believe his luck. The ball had found him once again.

Meanwhile, his relationship with the Sox brass, strained since spring training, continued to sour. Team leaders were skeptical that he was mentally ready to pitch again. They sent him to a psychologist. Florie believed the Sox were never truly committed to his comeback, and he started saying so publicly. On July 22, 2001, after a poor outing in Chicago, the team cut him from the roster. He hadn’t been back a month. “Boston pushed me out the door,” Florie says. A “business decision,” Williams explained at the time. Florie knew he didn’t pitch very well those few weeks, but he felt the Sox owed him more than that, and he felt they could have handled his situation with more humanity. Joe Kerrigan says Florie’s reaction was a natural one. But, Kerrigan says, the team spent considerable effort trying to help him. “It’s a cold business,” says Kerrigan, now a motivational speaker and sports analyst for TV and radio in the Philadelphia area. “And if people are unable to get to the field to compete, you got to worry about the guys who can compete.”

Things only got worse after Florie’s bitter divorce from the Sox. His departure set him on a wandering course that would define much of his 30s. He signed with the Detroit Tigers and then the Oakland Athletics, playing minor league ball for each organization. His vision was still shaky and his confidence flagged. Even before the accident, he had been legally blind, owing to a birth defect. He’d always been able to fix that with contacts. Now contacts weren’t enough. The thing he’d always loved — baseball — became a source of stress, anxiety, and, ultimately, depression. “When you’re battling an injury like that, you can’t get away from it,” he says, “because I look through it every day.”

On top of everything else, Florie lost his best friend, Eddie Bentley, in a workplace accident. His grandmother died. In 2003, he took a break from baseball. Back home in South Carolina, he joined softball leagues, played golf, and tried to relax. His vision problems lingered, especially at night. He was missing softballs in the outfield by 10 feet. He suffered headaches. He needed a visor in the car to dampen the glare from headlights. Then there was the abortive comeback attempt with the Marlins in 2004. He overcame the pulled rib muscle and the sleepwalking, only to blow out his elbow pitching in Albuquerque for the Marlins’ Triple-A team. Just like that, his season was over and he needed reconstructive elbow surgery. A year later, just as he was making fresh progress in the Marlins organization, his elbow problems returned. Nothing, it seemed, would go his way.

Florie had always said they’d have to rip the uniform off his back before he’d quit baseball. The deeper he got into his 30s, though, the greater became the distance — mentally, physically, socially — between him and younger baseballers. And he was still single, so he didn’t have a wife and family to return to. For stretches he was living out of anonymous hotel rooms. “You go to eat dinner and you’re done at 7 o’clock,” he says. “Then you go back and sit in the hotel.” At his lowest points, he was reluctant to talk to anyone about his fragile state. That wasn’t the culture he knew. “What am I going to tell them — how depressed I am?” he says. “What guy does that, you know?” Throughout, he replayed in his head the pivotal moments in his career, ruing the missed chances to alter his fate. If only he could have gotten that glove over a shade quicker. Or retired Jeter to end the inning with Thompson still in the on-deck circle. Or forced a ground-ball out before his elbow popped.

There were, in the dark years after Boston, two bright spots. One came in the summer of 2003, when he coached a youth travel team back home. He had helped friends out with coaching in the past, but this was a more consistent commitment, offering a taste of what it felt like to lead a team of his own. He wasn’t yet ready to hang up the cleats, but the experience showed him that playing wasn’t the only way to pursue his lifelong passion. The second bright spot was a woman named Lynn Cobb, the daughter of a Hanahan mayor. They married in 2009.

As Florie neared his 40th birthday, these two impulses — love and coaching — fit together naturally. After years of lonely existence on the baseball circuit, Florie was finally ready to call it quits. He wanted to settle down and start a family. Coaching offered a way to do that. He’d already been, in 2007, a pitching coach for the Macon Music, an independent-league team in Georgia. He had also run baseball camps and helped build the roster one season for the River City Rascals, a minor league team outside St. Louis. He started volunteering at his old high school and at a rival school coached by longtime friend Mike Darnell. Pitching mechanics, fitness, game strategy, injuries, dealing with scouts — Florie was fluent in all of it. “He taught those guys so much,” Darnell tells me. It’s true that Florie didn’t leave baseball quite the way he wanted to. It’s also true that he never really left baseball.

***

Rick Stewart/Allsport/Getty Images

The ball that hit Florie came off the bat of then Yankee outfielder Ryan Thompson.

NOT LONG AGO, Ryan Thompson was combing through DVDs in the basement of his Indianapolis home. He came across a copy of a 2001 TV segment on Florie and other pitchers who’d been hit by comebackers. Thompson popped the disc in. That night at Fenway came rushing back. At one point after the accident, Thompson was upset with Florie for wondering aloud, in an ESPN interview, whether steroids contributed to Thompson’s powerful swing, a suggestion Thompson called “ridiculous.” That friction has since faded. The memory of the game, though, probably never will. “It’s something I think I will always have to carry with me,” Thompson says.

Indeed, every time another pitcher gets hit, Thompson can’t help but think of Florie. Over the years, there have been many. In May 1957, Herb Score, a promising young left-hander for the Cleveland Indians, took a ball in the right eye; he returned the next season but never again had a winning record. Last May, J. A. Happ, pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays, was stretchered off the field after a hit ball struck him on the left side of his head, fracturing his skull. Happ, who returned three months later, was one of a dozen major league pitchers tagged by line drives from 2008 through 2013, according to one estimate from Major League Baseball. Every time it happens, Florie’s name resurfaces in the news.

For the first time this season, Major League Baseball approved the use of a padded pitcher’s cap, designed to provide protection against balls traveling up to 90 miles per hour. (A study commissioned by the baseball league found that the average speed of a line drive when it reaches the mound is 83 miles per hour.) The new caps, heavier and bulkier than traditional ones, are entirely optional. Prior to the 2014 season, it was unclear whether pitchers would wear them — some praised the concept but called the approved model too hot and ugly.

Emotional scars can be the hardest for struck pitchers to overcome. Bob Tewksbury, a former mental skills coach for the Red Sox who’s now director of player development for the Major League Baseball Players Association, has worked with two pitchers injured by line drives. The phases they went through were similar — the flinching, the fear, the tentative throwing. One of them ultimately made a successful return; the other did not. Tewksbury, himself a former big-league pitcher who was Florie’s teammate in San Diego, says it makes perfect sense that Florie struggled both physically and emotionally after being hit. Any time an injury ends or severely hampers a pro athlete’s career, he says, it can be devastating. “You keep thinking something was taken away from you.”

Ryan Thompson knows something about that, too. After the 2000 season, Thompson, like Florie, bounced around the major and minor leagues for a few years. When Florie took the 2003 season off, Thompson largely did, too, having torn up his knee. During spring training in 2004, as Florie was in Florida trying to battle back with the Marlins, Thompson was doing the same with the Houston Astros at their winter ballpark in Kissimmee, two hours north of Jupiter. Thompson, too, felt that, after much frustration, his recovery was on track. But just a few weeks after Florie pulled his rib muscle, Thompson developed plantar fasciitis — a result, he believes, of walking around SeaWorld in flip-flops on a day off with his son on his shoulders.

Then, on July 5, 2004, six weeks after Florie blew his elbow out, Thompson was finishing his own rehab assignment with the New Orleans Zephyrs, the Astros’ Triple-A team. He hit a blooper into right center field and ran through first base toward second, hoping to score the runner ahead of him. As Thompson dived into the base headfirst, his chin caught shortstop Manny Alexander’s knee. The collision fractured Thompson’s neck. He was temporarily paralyzed from the neck down, unable to feel much of his body for 13 hours — a hair’s-breadth, his doctor later explained, from ending up like Christopher Reeve. “It was like a car wreck,” Thompson says. He had been due to move back up to the majors just three days later.

After more than 18 months of rehab, Thompson, living in Indianapolis, began trying to resume his normal life. A life without baseball, however. His playing days were over. Initially, it was difficult for him to accept that fate. “It’s not how you pictured your career to end,” he says. Eventually he was able to move on, to feel grateful for the years the game had given him. He and his wife built a construction and contracting company. He also started coaching, drawn to the opportunity to show kids how to play sports with values. “You have to start educating these young folks that once you’re there, there’s so much more to being a man than swinging a bat or shooting a jumper or catching a pass,” says Thompson, now 46.

Leaving pro baseball gave Thompson the chance, too, to spend more time with his own family, which life on the road had made difficult. He has since cherished watching his children — six boys, two girls — grow up, helping to guide their own budding sports careers. One of his sons, Trevor, is now a 6-foot-11-inch freshman forward on the Virginia Tech basketball team whom dad pegs as the next Kevin Durant. His sons have played baseball, too. But Thompson, spooked by what his bat did to Florie, laid down one ironclad rule: His kids would never be pitchers.

***

Greg Foster

Florie now coaches baseball at Northwood Academy, a private Christian high school in North Charleston, South Carolina.

THE LOW SOCKS just aren’t cutting it. “Last day for wearing footies,” Bryce Florie announces to the young players. “We’re not playing tennis.” It’s a Monday afternoon in late January, the first day of spring baseball practice at Northwood Academy, a private Christian high school in North Charleston, South Carolina. In Florie’s evolution from player to coach, this is a milestone — the start of his inaugural season as head coach of a high school squad. But the mundane details come first — learning all the kids’ names, making sure they have proper attire, and finding the key to the equipment trailer at the ball field.

Florie is wearing blue athletic pants, a long-sleeved black shirt, and wraparound sunglasses on the brim of his green ball cap. His instructions, during practice and in brief team meetings before and after, are firm but gentle. The lessons are elemental: Showing up every day matters; hard work is everything; effort sets the best athletes apart. He runs them hard over nearly three hours, sprinkling his commands with levity.

“I heard you were on steroids,” he jokes to a batter after the kid blasts a home run in batting practice.

Another player hits a foul ball off school property; the ball is gone.

“That’s seven dollars that we don’t have,” Florie tells him.

Then the kid does it again.

“Fourteen dollars,” Florie says dryly.

Someday, Florie may seek a more ambitious coaching gig — maybe at a college or for a pro team. (A job with the nearby Charleston RiverDogs, a Single-A affiliate of the Yankees, would hold particular allure.) After spending considerable effort working toward his degree and his certification in history and social studies, he might also pursue a high school teaching position. For now, Florie, who will be 44 in May, is grateful for the coaching opportunity at Northwood, knowing he can help shape the lives of his young players. “The bottom line is being an impressionable influence — this is the time that it happens,” he says. All that he’s been through only brings more weight to his mentorship.

Greg Foster

Florie.

The Northwood gig also suits his station in life. He and Lynn have a daughter who’s going on 2 and another child on the way. Together with the big-league money he stashed away, his wife’s job — she’s in pharmaceutical sales for Johnson & Johnson — provides enough financial stability for him to be a stay-at-home dad in the mornings and a coach in the afternoons. The day before the first Northwood practice, Florie turned to Lynn over breakfast and thanked her for supporting him. “He’s very proud about being the head coach,” she says. “Right now, this is perfect.”

These days, Florie can do almost everything he did before the accident. Golfing and reading are difficult. The vision in his right eye hovers around 20/50. With the old regime long gone, the Red Sox remain one of his favorite teams. He looks back now on his playing career knowing he was fortunate to achieve what he did. “Me fulfilling my childhood dream happened every day I was able to walk on the field,” he says.

Florie and Thompson both understand they’ll always be remembered as those guys — the pitcher who got hit in the eye and the batter who did it. But they also know that by the time it’s all over, they will have left a much deeper impression on this world than one fateful collision at Fenway might suggest. As Thompson says, “God gave me a second chance to do other things.”

BRYCE FLORIE BY THE NUMBERS

Seasons in majors

8

(1994-2001)

Win-loss record

20-24

Saves

2

ERA

4.47

Scott Helman is a Globe Magazine staff writer. He can be reached at scott.helman@globe.com or on Twitter @swhelman.

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