The Durham Bulls received their championship rings for having the best record in Triple-A last season. In addition to the cluster of diamonds on the face and the names and logos carved into gold on either side, there’s a message etched on the inside. Unlike the gaudy displays on the outside of the ring, this message isn’t there to serve notice that “We won.” It’s more personal, not meant to be seen, but the person who has it on his or her finger will be very aware that it’s there.
“Keep going,” reads the inscription.
It’s the motto adopted by the 2021 Bulls after June 5.
Durham was already in first place at that point in the season, although the Bulls were trailing Norfolk in that night’s game by a 12-4 score in the eighth inning.
Norfolk’s Brett Cumberland hit a line drive up the middle. The ball was measured at 104 mph coming off the bat, returning to pitcher Tyler Zombro about 14 mph faster than when it left his hand.
Zombro, off balance from throwing the pitch, wasn’t in position to catch the ball or defend himself. It made contact with his right temple, and he went down.
Editor’s note: Warning — extremely graphic video
It would be two full days before the Bulls played again.
At the time, variants of COVID-19 were beginning to spike, and the players were in a pseudo “bubble” with access to the field severely limited to prevent exposure. The team pierced that bubble without a second thought, bringing Zombro’s wife, Moriah, out of the stands and out to the mound, her cries echoing through the silent ballpark.
Nearly to a person, observers in attendance that night say they thought they were watching someone’s last moments of life right there on the mound at Durham Bulls Athletic Park. An ambulance was brought through the right-field gate and driven onto the infield to load Zombro inside and rush him to the hospital.
The numbers are ridiculous — nonsensical — and, just like the 104 mph, they don’t really matter to people who saw it happen. His surgery lasted a reported 150 minutes. Doctors placed 16 plates and 36 screws into his skull.
The Bulls would return to the field on Sunday, the same day that Zombro was moved from ICU.
Updates were scarce, partly out of respect for privacy for Zombro and his family, and partly because his journey would be long and slow. Video of him struggling to walk came out later in the season. And, at some point, the team’s message to their fallen comrade became a rallying cry: Keep going.
Eventually, Zombro was able to post a number that had significance: 325
On April 24, 325 days after the line drive changed his life, Zombro returned to the mound to pitch in a game for the Bulls. He was wearing a special Kevlar-lined cap with a protective flap over his right temple. He’d already pitched against live batters a few times in spring training and extended spring after the regular season started. Now, for the first time with his Bulls teammates behind him, Zombro would go to the mound … and keep going.
The game was in Norfolk, against the same opponent as the previous June 5. Cumberland was again in the lineup for the Tides. Zombro entered the game to start the second inning, but before he could throw his first pitch, his warmup tosses were interrupted by an impromptu tribute.
The visiting team put a “Welcome back Tyler” sign on the stadium video board, and the P.A. system began to play the Foo Fighters song “My Hero.”
When he was officially announced as the pitcher, the Norfolk players spilled out of their dugout, quickly joined by the Bulls on the other side of the field. Both teams lined up and gave Zombro a standing ovation. Norfolk play-by-play announcer Pete Michaud’s voice cracked as he described the scene to fans at home, and he could be heard sniffing back tears.
“Not a whole lot on a baseball field that chokes me up, but this moment certainly does,” he said.
Two days later, Zombro took the mound back home in Durham, returning to the same spot where the incident occurred.
“I think it all came kind of full circle there and definitely was a symbol of me ‘completing the journey’ to be back to performing in Triple-A,” Zombro told MLB.com after making his return.
He’s still not happy with his velocity, and he’s actually back on the seven-day injured list with a pitching-related injury. So his journey might not be at the finish line quite yet. But he’s come farther than anyone could have envisioned 11 months ago.
And there’s no reason to believe that Tyler Zombro won’t keep going.