Durham Bulls pitcher Tyler Zombro was hit by a line drive in the head during a game on July 12th, 2017. The ball struck him square in the forehead and he went down immediately. After being taken to the hospital, doctors told his family that he would be lucky if he ever woke up from his coma.
Tyler Zombro walked to the mound at Durham Bulls Athletic Park on June 3 and threw his 2,245th pitch, a 90.6 mph sinker, in his minor league career. In the top of the eighth inning, a little after 9 p.m., he faced his first hitter of the night, Brett Cumberland of the Norfolk Tides, with a 1-2 count. The game had been postponed due to rain, and spirits were low. The Bulls were behind by eight runs.
The hitter made contact after the pitch exited Zombro’s right hand.
What occurred next happened swiftly at first, then painfully slowly. On a line drive up the middle, the ball exited the bat at 104 mph. It struck Zombro on the right side of the head, just above the ear, and he hardly had time to react. Before he struck the ground, he was knocked out.
“It was the most horrific thing I’ve ever seen on a baseball field,” said Bulls pitching coach Rick Knapp, who has spent almost 40 years in the game. “We turned him over, and he’s covered with grass on his face and torso. He’s starting to look gray. It was excruciating… I was afraid we’d lose him.”
Following that, Bulls sports trainers, EMTs, emergency room personnel, and the Duke University Hospital’s neurosurgery department probably saved Zombro’s life and definitely his cognitive function. Doctors had put 16 plates and 32 screws into his skull by the time the sun rose over Durham.
Zombro, on the other hand, has no recollection of any of this. When Knapp instructed him to get ready to pitch in the fifth inning, his recollection faded. The remainder of the night’s events were recounted to him by others, with pieces of knowledge uncovered and brushed off one by one like a shattered antique. The days and weeks afterwards have been a harrowing and exhausting trek back to the Tyler of old.
The most common question he gets today is whether or not he will be able to play baseball again. He was first irritated by the question, which he saw as a myopic perspective of him as a person. His greatest talents, according to him and those closest to him, are not in his arm, but in his intellect. He had a 3.9 GPA and was at the top of his class when he graduated from college. He’s a data genius who speaks statistics and complex arithmetic fluently, all of which Zombro has utilized to assist other pitchers achieve the pinnacles of their games.
“I’ve been able to influence hundreds of athletes via my secondary work outside of my playing career,” Zombro stated. “I’m not one of those people who has totally given up on their athletic talents. You might say, “God given [him] the physical ability to be a professional pitcher,” and I believe I have the physical capacity to pitch in the major leagues. However, it is not the whole picture of who I am.”
Zombro’s narrative isn’t going to be one of a return to dominant baseball supremacy in the traditional sense. Rather, his path is about finding out how someone who once desperately needed baseball — who broke down on his college baseball field after being undrafted — becomes someone who baseball requires instead. Most sportsmen would feel unmoored at best and overflowing with uncontrollable anger at worst as a result of this altering of their identity.
Despite this, Zombro has already recorded the tale of his injuries in the book of posterity at the age of 26, the emotion locked in the ink as it dries. It was just one of those things that occurred in the long arc of a life full of them, in his view. His wife and teammates, on the other hand, aren’t having it so easy.
On June 3, a 104 mph line drive hit Tyler Zombro, a 26-year-old relief pitcher for the Durham Bulls in the Tampa Bay Rays organization. TA Films is a production company based in Los Angeles.
THERE WAS A TIME, just a few years ago, when Zombro questioned if he’d ever put on a professional uniform. The Major League Baseball draft got underway in June 2017. Zombro was all set. He was with his family and his then-girlfriend, Moriah, who is now his wife. Everyone was expecting a ringing phone as they switched on the draft on their TV.
He’d thrown four years at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, and finished his senior season with a 2.78 ERA in 15 starts. He also heard the Kansas City Royals had many GMU graduates in their front office, including GM Dayton Moore, so he felt they’d be a good match. He’d also been close to signing a contract with a club the year before, and despite the fact that it didn’t work out at the time, he expected them to be back in the mix.
Zombro sought ways to pass the time like going out to dinner and playing cards, but the minutes, hours, and days of the draft passed him by without a call.
“When you’re undrafted, you’re always comparing yourself to others. It’s not a pleasant sensation… it causes a great deal of self-doubt and rage “Zombro said. “I’d be lying if I told you there wasn’t a lot of resentment in seeing individuals who handed over their lives to me.”
Since graduating, Zombro has worked at R&D Baseball Academy, a research-based player development and training facility near Washington, D.C. While interning there in college, he found his passion for game analytics. To create customized programs for professional and college players, Zombro utilized data from every element of a pitch. He was also quite darn good at it, as it turned out.
“I’ve met a lot of people that know a lot about baseball,” Sam McWilliams said, “but I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of or seen anybody who’s really doing both at the same time and at such a high level as he is.”
Zombro was beginning to believe that he had a future on this side of the game. He watched pitchers improve as a consequence of his efforts, but he was still not ready to retire.
“I knew I needed to play the game and be a part of it,” Zombro added. “I was still living on campus at George Mason, and I’d go by the baseball field and think to myself, ‘How can I have this quality of a collegiate career and I’m not signed?’ ‘How come I’m not a pro baseball player?’”
On one of those trips, Zombro sat beneath a tree on a grassy bank beyond left field. He prayed for clarity, for a response of some kind. Baseball was so much a part of who he was that he had a connection to it via generations of his own family.
Melvin “Wimpy” Zombro, his grandpa, was a member of the Philadelphia Athletics organization. On the stadium’s home plate, he married Tyler’s grandma, who was dressed in a bridal gown while he was dressed in his uniform.
Tim Zombro, Zombro’s father, played baseball at Bridgewater College and had a few colleagues and friends make it to the big leagues. Going to games with his father in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, especially former Virginia Tech star and Pirates’ closer Mike Williams, was a big part of Zombro’s upbringing. They returned to the park the next morning after Williams had a great save on one of those excursions. When they got to the bullpen, Williams tossed the game ball to Zombro from the night before.
“I’ve simply always been around the game,” Zombro said. “It was the core of our interactions for as long as I can remember, whether it was walking down to the batting cage that my grandpa constructed for me, going to the field, or going to see a game.”
As he grew older, Zombro went from being awestruck by the huge stadiums and pro baseball players to understanding that he, too, had a chance to play under the lights. As a result, when the draft concluded without his name being called, he was confronted with the possibility of having to redefine everything he had envisioned his life to be.
That’s how he ended himself sitting beneath a tree, pleading with God for a path ahead, the field of his college days stretched out in front of him through the fence.
When Zombro’s phone called the following day, he was at work. The call came from an area scout informing him that the Tampa Bay Rays wanted to sign him.
“Life changed in an instant. The following day, I had a flight.”
During a 2-and-a-half-hour emergency operation, Duke University Hospital neurosurgeons inserted 16 plates and 36 screws to stabilize Zombro’s skull. TA Films is a production company based in Los Angeles.
ZOMBRO WORKED HIS WAY UP THE RAYS’ FARM SYSTEM and made his Triple-A debut with the Durham Bulls in 2019. Within the Rays organization, he was selected minor league reliever of the year. When the coronavirus epidemic struck, minor league baseball canceled the 2020 season, leaving the ballpark vacant. The minors began in the spring of 2021, and Zombro was back on the field. He and Moriah had been childhood sweethearts who had just married. They’d gotten a new dog and were finally able to live together full-time after years of being separated due to the minor leagues’ transitory nature. For the first eight games of the season, life was wonderful.
In the ninth game of the season, Zombro relieved Joey Krehbiel in the top of the eighth inning. Moriah sat with Tyler’s closest buddy among the devoted fans who’d suffered the rain delay, all of them blissfully unaware of the event that loomed just beyond the horizon.
Any pitch, any at-bat, has the potential to morph from a routine and unremarkable play into one that leaves an everlasting impression on those who saw it. For a lifetime, you aim for the type that makes top-10 reels, but due to the fickle character of destiny or the dependable nature of statistics, the results sometimes vary.
Brett Sullivan, the Bulls catcher and one of Zombro’s closest friends, was one of the first persons to approach him after he was struck. As a seizure swept through Zombro’s body, Sullivan watched him arch and stiffen. He was at a loss for what to do. He pleaded with Zombro to just keep breathing. He snatched up a towel to shield the spectators and cameras from seeing what he and his colleagues were witnessing.
Until she witnessed the seizure from the stands, Moriah assumed he’d been struck in the stomach or ribs. She dashed onto the field, yelling for his teammates to check on him. She was gasping for air. Josh Lowe, the center fielder, assisted her over the fence and onto the field.
“It was the sight of him on the ground, face down in the dirt, that was the worst part. Then I heard the sounds he was making, which were like him screaming in pain “she said “It didn’t sound like him at all. He wasn’t even making sounds that sounded like him.”
“‘Where’s the ambulance?’ I recall asking our first base coach. ‘Can you tell me where the ambulance is?’ Because it felt like time was slowing down and none of us understood what was happening on with him, “The Norfolk Tides’ Brett Cumberland, whose line drive hit Zombro, stated as much. “I was in a bad mood. I couldn’t take my mind off him.”
Zombro, who joined the Bulls in 2019, was hospitalized for six days, four of which were spent in critical care. Getty Images/Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos
Zombro was carried off the field and transported to Duke University Hospital 11 minutes after he was struck. Moriah was permitted to visit him when he arrived at the emergency department. Zombro was awake, but his thoughts were jumbled. Visitors were not permitted to remain, so she was forced to leave as he was wheeled into surgery.
“My greatest worry is that if I leave him for surgery and go for the night, he won’t even realize I was there with him. I simply didn’t want him to wake up and have no idea where he was “Moriah said.
Dr. Steven Cook is a Durham Bulls season ticket holder and a neurosurgeon at Duke University Hospital. He intended to attend the game on June 3 but assumed it would be rained out. He was also on trauma call that evening when his phone rang with a call to come in; a patient with a baseball-related head injury was on his way. His kid showed dad the video as he was leaving. He was familiar with Zombro’s name. He’d already pitched to them.
Dr. Cook and two neurosurgery residents operated for two and a half hours to remove bone fragments, raise the fracture pressing into Zombro’s brain, and implant the screws and titanium plates needed to rebuild and stabilize his skull. A drain was also installed to relieve pressure caused by the brain hemorrhage.
“When the baseball struck the side of his head, it produced a comminuted fracture of the temporal bone, which is a very thin portion of the skull,” Dr. Cook said. “It was serious, and he required immediate help… but I knew if we got him to surgery and provided him with the proper post-operative care, he’d be OK.”
Moriah need more persuasion. During his initial days in the ICU, she and the Zombro family kept a close eye on him. He was in excruciating agony, unable to talk or remain awake for more than a few minutes at a time. She was concerned that he would forget who he was and that his speech would be lost forever.
“Seeing my mother, father, and wife was the first moment of clarity for me,” Zombro added. “I wasn’t saying much, but I could look them in the eyes and say, “I know that’s my mother, I know that’s my father, I know that’s my wife.” Just being able to see them, comprehend who they are, that they were there, that they were conversing with me, and that I could say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ with a little head movement were very beneficial to me.”
His speech, motor function, and feeling and control over the left side of his body were all impaired by the bruise and subsequent swelling of his brain. In his mind’s eye, he relived his wedding day, seeing the faces of those who had been there, and he knew he still retained his memories. He was able to see through the fog using this.
The comminuted fracture on Zombro’s right side is seen in pre-op 3D scans. His speech, motor abilities, and cognitive function were all harmed as a result of the bruises. Duke University Hospital/Tyler Zombro
Zombro was released from the hospital after four days in the intensive care unit and two days in the hospital for monitoring. Moriah, a certified nurse, assumed responsibility for his care. He still had a long path ahead of him in terms of treatments, including occupational, speech, physical, and cognitive, but he was at home.
“I and [Bulls relief pitcher] Phoenix [Sanders] saw him the first day he came home from the hospital,” Sullivan recalled. “Seeing him made my heart so joyful. He didn’t say anything, but he knuckled all three of us — me, my son, and Phoenix. We told him we loved him, and you could see he loved us by the look on his face. I knew he was going to be OK right then.”
The first month was challenging. Because Zombro’s brain was still enlarged, he had sensory and motor problems on the left side of his body. His voice was sluggish, and even a few minutes of speaking left him tired. He was a heavy sleeper.
“Overall, a psychological dread of not being able to go back to where I was before definitely loomed,” Zombro added. “It was extremely difficult to go to my first OT session and be given a job that needed me to utilize my left side of the body. But after about a month, when the inflammation subsided and the speech, motor, and sensory cortex improved, I began to feel lot better about where I was at.”
When a therapist informed Zombro that he was taking too long on certain pattern recognition tests, he went out and bought a Sudoku book, which he ripped through in one night, timed himself on each problem. Later, at home on his kitchen island, he put up an eye-tracking test with flashing buttons and worked on it regularly.
Moriah, his family, and teammates battled with the memories of June 3 even as Zombro grew more and more into himself. Moriah viewed the footage of the hit when she got home that night, waiting for word on Zombro’s operation. She claims she has no regrets, but she now suffers from nightmares over the picture.
“The worst time of day seems to be at night, when it appears to be on a never-ending loop. There have been many times when I couldn’t take it anymore and had to weep till I couldn’t anymore “she said
Zombro’s teammates, coaches, and management are all having trouble getting it out of their heads. When questioned about it, almost everyone became upset, and Zombro said that many players were disturbed in the locker room after reliving the event for ESPN’s interviews.
“I shouldn’t feel guilty about it,” Zombro said, “but the fact that it was the most traumatic night of many of their lives pains me — which is why I’m even more driven to be back around them, to continue to be better mentally, physically, and to get back to where I need to be.”
Zombro’s bone restoration and the drain his doctors placed to eliminate a fluid accumulation are seen in a postoperative CT scan. Duke University Hospital/Tyler Zombro
ZOMBRO HAS RETURNED TO HIS ORIGINAL STATE. Though he has completed all of his rehab treatments, he is still working on eye tracking and response time. He’s also returned to Tread Athletics, a private training facility in Charlotte. On most days, Zombro can be found pouring over film of big league pitchers to identify biomechanical problems, discover methods to add depth to a curve ball, or eke out a velocity gain. He then develops a one-of-a-kind training program and works with the athlete to put it into action.
“I think the overall effect that I’ve felt now over a few years of working in baseball, but technically outside of the professional game in the private sector,” Zombro said, “is being able to watch people’ careers grow, being able to see them receive answers that they previously didn’t have.” “To me, the most gratifying thing in the world is to help people improve their circumstances. In a lot of cases, that’s preferable than doing a save.”
Zombro has personally trained approximately 300 players via R&D Baseball and Tread Athletics. That figure rises to almost 1,500 pitchers at all levels of the sport when you include in his job monitoring statistics and producing suggestion reports.
“There aren’t many guys in the game right now who can analyze data, pitches, biomechanics, and then show guys how to actually implement it and get better doing it,” 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 an incredible job in terms of assisting people in becoming better. If he wants to pursue baseball in that direction, the sky is really the limit.”
Tyler will have another CT scan in December, six months after his injury, to see whether he can return to the mound. Tyler is eager to play again, but not necessarily for his own benefit, according to Dr. Cook.
“There’s a chance they’ll say I’m not allowed to play again if the fracture hasn’t healed correctly. And if that’s the case, I don’t want that footage to be the enduring picture of me on the mound for people who have cared about me, supported me, and known me through the game “he said
There will come a moment when Tyler and Moriah’s lives aren’t so clearly split into two halves. Moriah is back at work, and the intervals between her panic attacks over him being alone at home are becoming longer. He’s been given the green light to drive again, which means he’ll be getting her coffee in the mornings. He does laps on the warning track at the stadium to stay in shape. His teammates said that seeing him there, jogging and laughing, has helped them get over what they saw that night.
The scar that runs down Zombro’s right side of his skull is the only tangible reminder of what occurred. He’s attentive about the event and his rehabilitation, but not in the manner that traps him in a never-ending cycle of whys. He’s also well aware of the significance of each milestone and marker of development for people he cares about.
To safeguard his mending fracture, Zombro now wears a custom-fitted, Kevlar-padded protection liner in his hat when he goes to the stadium. Professional pitchers Brandon McCarthy, Matt Shoemaker, and Daniel Ponce de Leon have all been struck in the head by line drives in the last nine years, necessitating emergency brain surgery. All three were ultimately reintroduced to the game. Though precise statistics aren’t kept, at the top levels of baseball, a pitcher gets struck in the head a handful of times each season on average. Chris Bassitt, the Oakland Athletics’ ace pitcher, was hit on Aug. 17 and had to have face surgery.
For some, the uncertainty of Zombro’s own future on the field would be all-consuming, but his needs for baseball in the weeks after his undrafted status have altered. He wants to throw again, to finish his playing career on his own terms, but he is OK with any result for the time being.
“Since I signed as a free agent, I’ve had this perspective. I’m just using home money here, and I’m going to keep going until I can’t anymore.”
This article was co-written by ESPN senior baseball expert Jeff Passan and producer William Weinbaum.