Judging the Royals

Lee Judge: How I got hit by a 92-mph slider

Lee Judge voluntarily got hit by a pitch in 2011.
Lee Judge voluntarily got hit by a pitch in 2011. The Kansas City Star

After all this hit-by-pitch talk, The Star decided to post the video of me getting drilled by a 92-mph slider and the video of me showing the bruise from that pitch.

So I guess it’s a good time to tell the story behind the story. Here’s what happened:

Early in my career as a sports writer I was watching the Royals play a game that had reached the bottom of the eighth inning. The bases were loaded, the score was tied and Wilson Betemit was at the plate. The Royals had their closer, Joakim Soria, warming up just in case Betemit found a way to advance the runner on third to home plate, scoring the go-ahead run. Get the run in, take the lead, put Soria on the mound and the game was pretty much over.

The opposing pitcher wound up and threw a slider to Betemit; the pitch got away and sailed inside. If Betemit got hit by a pitch with the bases loaded that would force in the go-ahead run and get Soria in the game, but Wilson jumped out of the way and the slider missed him. Betemit went on to make an out, the runner on third never crossed home plate, the score remained tied going into the top of the ninth and the Royals eventually lost the game.

That night I wrote a column saying Wilson Betemit needed to get hit by that slider. It was only going 81 mph and while it wouldn’t feel good, staying put and getting drilled was what his team needed. I then wrote that I’d be willing to come down out of the press box and get hit by that pitch if it meant winning a ballgame.

I soon got the opportunity to put my left kidney where my mouth was.

At that time the Royals hitting coach was Kevin Seitzer. Kevin and I had known each other for years and I often hit in his batting cages. That season I was making videos for our website and asking players to participate; we’d show the fans how things were done in the big leagues. So Kevin invited me to step into the Royals batting cages and take a few swings. The original idea was for me to demonstrate my questionable hitting skills and then Kevin would critique what I’d done, but I got a much better and stupider idea: what if I got hit by the same pitch Wilson Betemit avoided?

There are several kinds of pitching machines: Iron Mikes (they have a spring-loaded arm that catapults the baseball toward the hitter), one-wheel machines (drop the ball on the spinning wheel and it shoots toward home plate) and two-wheel machines. Two wheel machines are capable of producing breaking pitches (set the wheels at different speeds and adjust the angle of the wheels and — bang — you’ve got a curve or slider).

I’d written a column saying I would be willing to get hit by an 81-mph slider and here was my chance to back that up. The Royals had a two-wheel machine; we could set it up to throw an 81-mph slider and I could step in front of it and — bingo — video magic. When I asked Kevin what he thought of the idea he laughed until he cried.

So far, so good; that was just the reaction I was looking for.

I then wanted to hear from catcher Jason Kendall — he was fifth all-time when it came to getting hit by pitches — and I figured his advice would be helpful. So I asked Jason what he thought about me getting hit by a pitch. When I asked him about my idea I was standing by his locker and Jason was sitting down. He turned away from me and started rummaging around in the equipment at the bottom of his locker, so I asked him what he was doing.

“Getting you an elbow pad — let’s go do this.”

Whoa — I was thinking about getting hit by a pitch sometime in the far-off, unspecified, vague future. Suddenly we were talking about me getting smoked in the next 15 minutes. I wanted to think things through. Plus, if I was going to get hit by an 81-mph slider I wanted to capture the moment on video.

Right about then the Royals second baseman, Chris Getz, walked up and asked what was up. Jason said I was going to get hit by a pitch. Getz started laughing and decided that was awesome, but being one of the most intelligent ballplayers in the big leagues, Chris immediately wanted to know which body part was going to get drilled.

Kendall: “Take it in the elbow.”

Getz: “He’ll break his arm; he should take it in the ribs.”

Kendall: “If he does that he’ll break a rib.”

At this point I had been reduced to a helpless bystander; apparently I was going to get hit by a pitch and didn’t have much to say about it. But I was extremely interested in finding out which bone I was likely to break in the process.

Next catcher Matt Treanor joined the group and it turned out he was also highly in favor of me getting hit by a baseball. Professional athletes tend to think members of the media are wussies, (which is one letter away from what they actually think of us). Ballplayers tend to see us as a bunch of over-weight, out-of-shape guys who couldn’t put on a jock strap without reading the instructions; they just don’t take us very seriously. So a media guy getting hit by a pitch, even an 81-mph pitch, got their attention.

I’d clearly passed the point of no return without even seeing the sign. Just by bringing it up it was a done deal — I couldn’t back out now. These guys really wanted to see a media guy get drilled and I agreed to do it. But if I was going to intentionally get hit by a pitch we needed to keep that to ourselves or someone would stop us. The Royals wouldn’t want a member of the media getting hit by a pitch in their batting cage; we’d have to do it when nobody was around. And I was pretty sure the people at the Kansas City Star wouldn’t think it was a great idea, either. (Sometimes it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.) I said I’d make the necessary arrangements and let them know when it was going to happen so they could be there to watch.

I went to Star photographer, John Sleezer, and told him the plan. Sleezer decided he would need two cameras: one to record me getting hit by the pitch, the other to capture the players’ reaction. Good idea, but when he was asked by someone at the Star why he needed a second camera Sleezer told the truth. (The guy’s been in the media for years, you’d think he’d know how to lie.) The news of my date with a baseball made it up the bureaucratic chain and the very day I was supposed to get hit by the pitch I was called into an editor’s office and told not to do it.

It seemed like an overreaction. I’d played amateur ball and had been hit by dozens and dozens of pitches. There’s a right way to get hit by pitches and I had learned it — rotate your front shoulder back toward the catcher, protect the bones in your hand and wrists and take the pitch in the back. It hurts and you get a nasty bruise, but you don’t have to go to the emergency room and wear a cast for six weeks. I was completely confident in my ability to get hit by a pitch without serious damage, but everyone at the newspaper acted like I was proposing to catch a bullet in my teeth.

See? We are wussies (which once again is one letter away from the word I want to use).

I left the newspaper with the editor’s warning ringing in my ears, but I knew I was going to get hit by a pitch anyway. We might not ever show the video, but by this point I had to get hit by a pitch for a very simple reason: credibility. Kendall, Getz and Treanor had been like school kids waiting for this stunt to come off. Every day they’d ask how soon I was going to get drilled. Baseball players get bored with their routine and the prospect of a media guy getting smoked by a baseball was going to be a highlight of their season. Kendall was even trying to get me to dial up the velocity.

Kendall: “How hard is the pitch going to be?”

Me: “81.”

Kendall: “81? Geez, why am I even coming? If you want the real deal it’s got be at least 90.” I had no interest in the real deal; 81 miles an hour seemed like plenty. Jason then offered to get hit by two 90-mile an hour pitches if I’d get hit by one — I declined.

After all the excitement and interest from the ballplayers there was no way I was walking into the clubhouse and telling those guys I wasn’t getting hit by a pitch because an editor wouldn’t let me. Plus they were showing up at 1:30 for a 7:05 game; that’s how much they wanted to see this thing happen.

Jason, Chris and Matt showed up looking like kids who’d just been told Santa was on his way; they were giddy. Kevin Seitzer had the two-wheeled machine set up and we recruited coach Kelly Heath to hold a radar gun; we wanted to get the pitch going exactly 81 miles an hour, but the pitching machine had other ideas.

One pitch would come out at 79 miles an hour and the next one would be 93. There was some kind of problem with the power source and the machine kept speeding up and slowing down. Seitzer kept messing with it and finally got it dialed in; the machine threw three 81-mph pitches in a row. At that point Kevin yelled for me to get in the batter’s box and I did. Kevin said: “God bless you, Lee Judge” and dropped the ball into the pitching machine.

The pitch came out at 92 miles an hour.

If you’ve seen the video you know Chris Getz and Matt Treanor freaked. They could see that the pitch was way too hard. Of course, that didn’t stop them from laughing until they cried. Kevin Seitzer laughed so hard he literally — and I mean literally — fell on the ground.

I, on the other hand, had a different reaction. I turned to take the pitch in the back and quickly found another flaw in our plan: not only was the pitch way too hard, but we’d set the machine up to throw a slider — a 92-mile an hour slider. If the pitch had been straight it would have given me a glancing blow off the angle of my back. But being a slider, it curved around and hit me square in the left kidney. When a ball hits a batter and keeps traveling, it means it deflected off the player’s body and didn’t cause much damage. When a ball hits a batter and drops straight down to the ground, the batter got smoked square — and I got hit square.

The first part of the plan had gone OK; I’d been hit by a pitch. The next part required me to shake it off. Any admiration I’d won from the ballplayers by getting hit by a pitch would be lost if I fell on the ground and started crying. So I took it like a man and even got off a pretty good bat flip. (Chris Getz later told me I was getting cocky.)

The other thing I did was drop about 15 F-bombs in the next thirty seconds. When a high-speed object hits you in the back, your body thinks it’s getting attacked — and your body’s right. So your body then churns out a load of adrenaline and you either charge the mound or start cussing. I walked down to the end of the batting cage where Jason Kendall was standing, got a high-five from him and then said, “Hey, I got hit by a 90-mph pitch — now it’s your turn.”

Just as I suspected, Jason declined: “That looked like it hurt.”

I’d done my part: I’d stepped into a batter’s box and been hit by a 90-mph pitch — then came the aftermath. Matt Treanor was thoughtful enough to get me some ice to lessen the swelling. Kevin Seitzer asked me if I’d do it again the next night. Treanor wanted to know if I’d do it again in the next at-bat.

Those guys had a good point: it’s one thing to get hit by a pitch once; it’s another thing to do it again when everyone knows you’re still hurting. If a pitcher comes inside and drills you and knows you’ll back off the plate after that, he’s got you. All a pitcher has to do is come inside just enough to scare you at the beginning of an at-bat, then he can go to the outer part of the plate and you’ve got no chance.

Jason Kendall’s 254 hit by pitches had a whole new meaning.

While Treanor and Seitzer stayed with me, Kendall and Getz went back to the clubhouse and told people what I’d done. Players started to arrive and wanted to see the spot where I’d been hit. The players also complained about not being invited. I told them they’d have to wait for the video. We waited to see if I survived the night and next day I was fine so I told John Sleezer to post the video on-line.

That morning my phone started to ring; people wanted to show the video and it ended up being seen everywhere. ESPN, MLB network — hell, it was even seen in Japan. It played on the MLB network while I was in the Royals clubhouse and the players gave me a standing ovation. One day Mitch Maier brought a player over who wanted to meet me. Mitch said he’d watched the video a hundred times and laughed every time he watched it. Coach Doug Sisson said I now had more street cred than 50 Cent and I said that the most amazing thing about that was Doug knowing who 50 Cent was.

Manager Ned Yost asked me to come out to the batting cage during BP — the media is supposed to keep its distance — so A’s broadcaster Ray Fosse could see my bruise. (It was massive.) Fosse took a picture and showed it on an Oakland A’s broadcast.

Jeff Francoeur spotted me on a crowded elevator at Kauffman Stadium and made me get off so I could show his wife the bruise and tell the story. Melky Cabrera came over, motioned for me to lift my shirt and walked off laughing and shaking his head. Players were watching the video on the team’s charter flights.

The first day Eric Hosmer came to the big leagues I walked over to introduce myself and Eric looked up and said, “Are you the guy?” Yup, I’m the guy. That night Hosmer and I walked out of the stadium together and I expected him to get swamped. We stepped out the stadium doors and a kid walked right past Hosmer and wanted to talk to me about getting hit by that pitch.

Now there’s something that will never happen again — because I’m pretty sure I only have one functioning kidney left.

To reach Lee Judge, call 816-234-4482 or send email to ljudge@kcstar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @leejudge8. Download True Blue, The Star’s free Royals app, here.

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