FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. -- Marcus Hernandez never saw it coming. He was working on a bunt drill in practice in New York last year when one of his teammates, working on a different fielding drlll for pitchers, threw a ball right at Marcus by mistake. It caught flush on the right eye. What's worse, Marcus was moving toward the ball at the time, intensifying the impact.
He dropped to the ground, dazed, a bloody mess.
"I was bleeding from my nose, my eye and the inside of my mouth," he said. "It was pretty bad."
He suffered two orbital fractures around his eye and also had a tear in the retina (retinal dialysis). His doctor wasn't sure if he'd ever be able to play baseball again, but let's flash to the good news and end the suspense. It took three long, anxious months, but Marcus recovered nicely and is playing again. He's here in Fayetteville with the New York Nine for the Premier Baseball Sophomore Championship, excited and ready.
The accident happened in practice on May 1, 2008 at Poly Prep Country Day School in Brooklyn, where Marcus is a solidly built catcher. There were a lot of balls flying around in practice that day, but the team had done those drills many times before without a problem.
"It was a little dangerous," he said. "I definitely should have been wearing a mask, but I wasn't."
Marcus was taken to the training room at Poly Prep for treatment. They cleaned him up and applied ice to his face. The hospital across the street had closed a month earlier, so he had to endure a long cab ride to another hospital on the other side of Brooklyn. His mother, Ana Hernandez, raced to the school after learning about the accident and made the cab ride with her son. Marcus remembers the cab windows were down and the wind blowing painfully on his face. He doesn't remember much else.
"I was in shock," he said. "Once they got me to the emergency room and sat me down, I was in immense pain."
His pupils were dilated and he had a concussion. The lights in the emergency room at Methodist Hospital were bright, he recalled, and gave him a massive headache. A CAT-scan revealed the broken orbital bones, but they did not operate that day. He was referred to a specialist, and two days later was diagnosed with a severe retinal detachment. He was told the broken bones would heal by themselves, but that he needed surgery for the retinal injury.
"I remember Marcus asking the doctor right before he went into surgery whether he would be able to play baseball," Ana Hernanez said. "The doctor responded by saying that the injury is a 'potential show stopper,' and his job was to save his vision. My son was devastated."
Marcus remembers asking that question.
"This whole time I thought I was going to be able to play, because my body felt fine," he said. "So I said, 'Do you think I can play baseball again?' And I kind of said it as a joke, because that's what they say in movies and everything. I didn't expect him to say 'no.'"
The doctor told him about Sugar Ray Leonard, other boxers and baseball players who had the same kind of injury and how it ended their careers. "I think he was trying to be real with me," said Marcus, who was 15 at the time. "I was really scared."
The doctor said his future in baseball depended on whether a "silicon implant" in his right eye would succeed and hold the retina in place. There was a chance the implant would leak and require further surgery, complicating his recovery.
Marcus missed the rest of his high school season last year after the injury. "After every bi-weekly visit during the next three months," Ana said, "Marcus always wanted to know when and if he could play baseball."
After three months, he was given the green light. Marcus was delighted, of course, and ready to play, but had a setback the first time he stepped in the batter's box to face a live pitcher in a real game. As it turned out, he wasn't ready.
"It was an inside pitch," he recalled. "Now it's something I wouldn't even move for. The pitch was up and in, and I ended up jumping back off the plate. And I could hear my teammates going, 'Oh, man, he's really scared.' That's not something you want to hear. After that inside pitch, I realized I was terrified."
His summer-team coach was reluctant to play him in games after that. Shortly after, Marcus left that team and joined the New York Nine, determined to play. He got his chance and says he's been fine ever since, although the vision in his right eye is not as good as it was. He gets occasional flashbacks to the injury, but has learned to deal with it.
"I'm doing well," he said. "I haven't had any problems with it, I haven't had any setbacks or anything. For the most part, it's fine. The vision is doing well. It was tough at first, but it's a lot easier now."
Marcus has a slight scar under his right eye, but otherwise appears fine. He purchased a batting helmet with a face-guard, but never used it. "I really didn't want to wear it," he said, acknowledging it was a matter of pride.
Marcus played for his high school team this season as a sophomore and everything went fine.
"I feel good," he said.