ST. PETERSBURG - He wanted to get up even as they strapped him to the stretcher in the middle of the baseball game. He was tougher than that. He lost his mom when he was still in high school. What could be harder? He lost the end of the 2011 season when a blood clot formed in the area of his first right rib. Surgeons removed a piece of that rib. He still has it, as a souvenir. Rays pitcher Alex Cobb, 25, is a bulldog.
Then the bulldog looked up.
"I remember, as I was getting wheeled off, looking at the roof of the Trop doing circles," Cobb said. "That's when the headaches first began."
Nine days after the frightening, sickening thud of a lined baseball hitting Cobb's right ear at 100 mph, he returned to Tropicana Field, which had stopped spinning, to be with his Rays teammates and meet with media. He remains on the seven-day concussion disabled list.
"Just seeing him makes you smile," Rays reliever Jake McGee said.
Strange, but the Blue Jays were in town. They were in town May 7, too, when Jays pitcher J.A. Happ was drilled by a Desmond Jennings liner, making a small fracture in his skull. Cobb was wheeled into Bayfront Medical Center, just like Happ. A nurse said, "I can't believing this is happening again, in a month."
Happ isn't close to returning to the major leagues. Cobb might not be, either, though don't tell him.
"I've read a few things, people saying I might not pitch again this year, which is . can't be further from the truth," Cobb said. "I'll be ready to go as soon as my body tells me I'm 100 percent."
There are good days and bad. Monday was good. Cobb said his doctor told him he was healing quicker than expected, and there should be dramatic progress in the next few weeks.
"Today has been the best day by far," Cobb said. "The headaches after the fact, the first few days, were pretty tough to handle. It was leading to some nausea and stuff like that. Today has been the best day by far."
But no one knows for sure about his recovery. And no one, Cobb included, knows what will happen when he takes the mound again, 60 feet, 6 inches away from someone with a bat.
"I'd love to sit up here and tell you . that once I get out there, I'll have the mindset that it's happened once, so there's probably a good possibility that it won't happen again," Cobb said. "I'm not going to lie. I've had some nightmares about it, how bad it could have been. That's obviously in the back of my mind."
There are nightmares, a few. There are headaches. There are vertigo symptoms.
"It's with you every second of the day," Cobb said. "Whenever you look in a certain direction too quickly, or even try to lay down to try to go to bed, you're reminded you have something serious going on. You're not going to be able to fight through that until your body says you're good."
About that night, he remembers letting the ball go. He didn't remember what pitch it was. At the hospital, where ballplayers swarmed, Kansas City's Eric Hosmer, who hit the line drive, told him it was a fastball.
"Hosmer coming by, that was a real class thing to do," Cobb said.
He says he was scared only once, riding in the ambulance with his dad and girlfriend, when he thought of a former Rays A-ball teammate, Darin Downs. They pitched together for the Charlotte Stone Crabs. Shortly after Downs moved up, to Double-A, he was hit in the head by a line drive. He nearly died.
"We heard about it and were told he was doing OK," Cobb said. "At night, there was heavy bleeding in his brain and they had to go in and do emergency surgery. That crept into my head and I started getting really tired and the pressure in my head started building up."
Cobb's CAT scan showed no bleeding, easing the stress, overnight hospital stay or no. So did his father's usual low-key approach, "zero reaction on his face," Cobb said with a smile. "When I saw his look, and he was kind of bored being there, it calmed me down a little bit. I had to tell my girlfriend to stop crying a few times. She was bothering everybody, making it a little bit more dramatic than it had to be."
Alex Cobb is in for a battle, which is fine with him. He feels fortunate. It could have been worse. Monday, he was grateful to be back with his club.
"I've been looking forward to this day since I was released from the hospital," he said with a grin. "I've been going crazy at the house. My girlfriend gives me a walk twice a day, with the dog."
He hasn't picked up a baseball yet. J.A, Happ continues to rehab at the Blue Jays' facility in Dunedin. Toronto manager John Gibbons said Happ "has a ways to go." Happ will visit the Trop today to see his teammates.
No, pitchers don't need protective headgear, not much.