Spectre of what could have been haunts Orioles win

Ken Rosenthal

April 23, 1992|By Ken Rosenthal

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Bill Ripken and Randy Milligan are two of the Orioles' most gregarious souls, but they weren't joking during the ambulance ride to St. Luke's Hospital last night. Milligan was flat on his back in a neck brace. An emergency medical technician was checking his vital signs.

Assistant trainer Jamie Reed said the players asked the ambulance driver to put the game on the radio, but otherwise the ride was silent. At one point Ripken recalled making Milligan laugh. Milligan told him to stop, it was hurting his jaw.

It could have been worse, so much worse, but no one knew that yet. "The only thing I could think of was [Mike] Utley," said Orioles manager Johnny Oates, referring to the Detroit Lions' lineman who was paralyzed in a NFL game last season. "I just hoped and prayed to God he was OK."

Milligan laid motionless on the field for nearly 20 minutes after his fifth-inning collision with Ripken, but escaped with a severe concussion, a bruised cheekbone and a stretched nerve in his right shoulder. He was expected to be released from St. Luke's today after staying overnight as a precautionary measure.

Ripken suffered a bruised left shoulder, and typical of his star-crossed career, the injury overshadowed his biggest hit of the season. It was Ripken's two-RBI hit-and-run double in the top half of the inning that gave the Orioles their sixth straight victory, 2-1 over Kansas City.

Who remembered after Milligan was knocked unconscious? According to Oates, "There weren't five words said in the dugout the rest of the night." Rick Sutcliffe was so unnerved, he nearly vomited in the clubhouse between innings. But somehow, he pitched his third complete game in four starts.

"It's our job to go on, but I wanted to get in the ambulance with him," Sutcliffe said. "It looked bad. Billy was crying. At that point, the game didn't matter. I love this game. You've got to battle for everything. But to be honest, at that point I didn't care."

Milligan is nicknamed "The Moose" from his days as a high-school linebacker in San Diego. He is 6-foot-1 and 234 pounds, a huge man with a thick neck. The last place you would expect to see him is on a stretcher, in a neck brace, his eyes closed.

The collision occurred on a simple grounder to second by Keith Miller. Milligan had no business making the play, but catcher Chris Hoiles recalled he was disgusted by his slow response on a single in the hole the previous night. Apparently, Milligan did not want it to happen again.

Sutcliffe broke late to the bag, thinking the play routine. Ripken knew the only chance for an out was if he fielded the ball, but Milligan actually beat him to it. "I told him in the ambulance, when you check the replay out, dude, you might find yourself over in my position," Ripken said later, with a smile.

Bancells raced out of the dugout, and Milligan remained unconscious for 5-8 more seconds after he arrived. Oates and 10 players gathered around him on the infield. They were joined by umpires, doctors, emergency medical personnel. It was a scene out of football, not baseball.

Bancells asked Milligan to move various limbs, then pinched them to make sure Milligan was sensitive to his touch. The ambulance took forever, but Bancells made no issue of it afterward. Milligan faced a potential neck injury. He was not about to be moved quickly.

Eventually he was placed on a stretcher. His boyhood friend Sam Horn kneeled down next to him. Milligan told Horn he was starting to feel better. Ripken stood nearby, trying not to look. "I was emotional," he said. "I didn't like seeing Moose lying down like that, that's for sure."

Milligan was still groggy in the ambulance, but became more alert in the St. Luke's emergency room, and started to relax. "Once they took off his collar, he realized everything was fine," Reed said. "He was calm, cool and collected. He didn't show any signs of being nervous."

Meanwhile, TV crews gathered outside the hospital, seeking interviews with the players. "The media crunch was unbelievable," Reed said. "ESPN was on the phone as I walked through the door. The head nurse said there were 40 phone calls."

Back at Royals Stadium, the game resumed after a 20-minute delay. Reed updated Bancells from the hospital every five minutes. Bancells updated Oates in the dugout every 15. Incredibly, the Orioles held their one-run lead. Sutcliffe finished with a six-hitter.

Afterward the news on Milligan kept getting better. No nerve damage. Negative X-rays. Just one night in the hospital. Inside the clubhouse, the Orioles devoured fried chicken, gathered on couches to watch ESPN. Everything was back to normal. But hardly anyone said a word.

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