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|| News Item: Posted 1999-12-23

Wild Throw
By John Iacono, Sports Illustrated

It was baseball playoffs again, but this time it was between the Arizona Diamond Backs and the New York Mets at Shea Stadium Friday October 8,1999. Upon entering the field at Shea Stadium, I had to go through an entrance behind home plate. I noticed some of the writers did not want to enter the field because of a ladder blocking the entrance. I said, "Are we superstitious today?"

Photo by
I looked at the ladder and said again in the same breath " Don't be silly." The writers smiled then looked at me without saying a word as they witnessed me confidently walking under the ladder with a Smile and moving on. My photo position was located on first base, field level. Just before the game began, I was telling a photographer from Arizona sitting to my right, "you must be very careful shooting from here, because a lot of wild throws come in".

The game began and I was having problems seeing second base. Ray Stubblebine (a Reuters photographer) was sitting to my left and said to me, "Johnny why don't you take my photo position while I go to the back row and shoot from there." I replied, "Thank you Ray."

The very next play, the Mets' Robin Ventura was at bat. This part I can't remember. I was told that Andy Fox (Diamondbacks shortstop) stepped on second base and fired the ball to first. Unfortunately no one was there to catch the ball because Ventura collided with the pitcher covering first base.

The ball must have been traveling over 80 miles an hour. I think I was shooting the double play situation and in between changing cameras the ball came crashing into the right side of my face. I thought somebody hit me with a baseball bat.

Photo by
Being a good Nikon person, I somehow managed to place my camera on the wall and I don't remember going from point A my photo position to point B the ground. While on the ground all I can think of was my wife and daughter. Everyone thought I was unconscious because I had my eyes closed. I thought I bit my tongue off. My top jawbone was hanging with my teeth down my throat and a doctor sitting behind me told me to stay down and I told him " I can't!" He asked, "Are you swallowing blood?" And I said, "Yes."

The doctor asked my name, I didn't answer him and he then asked me "do you know where you are?" I didn't answer him, but after a few seconds I did say, "I'm on the floor at Shea Stadium."

I tried to get up and my legs were shaking like hell. The photographers in the area tried to help me. Meanwhile, Bobby Valentine (the Mets' manager), noticed me holding a towel around my face which was covered in blood.

He ran over to me and said, "John are you okay?" At that point I removed the towel and Bobby Valentine stepped back and said "Ooooo!" By looking at the expression on his face I realized I was in bad shape.

I Turned to the fans sitting behind me and I looked at them only to see their faces dropping to the ground. Mark Levine a New York Mets photographer and Bobby Valentine escorted me into the dugout with the emergency unit that was on the scene to help me.

While in the dugout, some of the ball players came over to me and said "You'll be okay, don't worry man." Fearing that lightning would strike again, one of the ball players suggested for me to leave the dugout for safety reasons.

The emergency unit asked me if I wanted a stretcher to the ambulance waiting for me out side and I said, "No, I can walk." I was in the ambulance heading towards Elmhurst Hospital when I called my wife Nancy on my cell phone to try and tell her what has happened. It was very tough for me to talk with my teeth hanging in my throat. I sounded like the "Godfather". At first she didn't recognize my voice. I said to her that I'll be okay and I'm on my way to the hospital. I told her I was hit in the face by a baseball. There was silence for about five seconds. I pleaded her not to worry and told her what hospital I was going too.

Photo by Chuck Solomon

Photo by Chuck Solomon
Entering the emergency room the doctor on duty looked at me and said "Oh my God!" In return I said "You think that's bad, you should see the baseball." Doctors said that was funny coming from a man with a broken jaw.

It's funny because whenever I get hurt, I seem to make light of it by joking around. Maybe it's a defense mechanism inside of me, hiding my fear. If that's so, I recommend this remedy to everyone.

While getting a CAT scan, my daughter Alexis, who was five blocks away from the hospital at a friend's house she rushed over to see me. When she arrived she kept on saying "Oh my God, daddy is that you? Is that you?" She hugged me and it was very tough keeping the tears back, my face looked like the "Elephant Man".

A short while later my wife Nancy came in. Just before that, Alexisprepared her for what she was about to see. She must have been crying outside for some time because her eyes were puffy.

Later on Chuck Solomon a friend and photographer with Sports Illustrated gathered all my camera equipment from Shea and brought it to the hospital. I noticed Chuck in the hallway, frozen in his tracks staring at my face. I could read his lips saying, "Oh my God!" I 'm thinking to myself that those three words are sounding way too familiar lately.

Chuck could not look me straight in the eyes and didn't blame him. At that point, I asked Chuck to photograph me.

A doctor came over and said that the CAT scan showed that my Jaw was broken in several places plus the bone with my teeth hanging had to be operated on. But he said they could not do it at that time because my sinus were filled with blood and they wanted to do more testing.

I told everyone to leave the hospital and that I will call them when I was ready to go home. It was around 6 in the morning when I was finally released.

While I was outside waiting for the car service, I started to get very Nauseous. I ran back inside and told the doctor I was sick and I wound up vomiting up all the blood that I swallowed.

After that uncomfortable experience, I was actually feeling much better and I went home.

Later on the day I called a friend of mine, Dr. Scott Levy, who is both a dentist and a sports photographer. I told him what happened and he recommended an excellent oral surgeon Dr. Alex Greenberg. The first time I saw Dr. Greenberg I felt very comfortable and I knew I was in good hands.

Photo by
Dr. Greenberg took one look at me and called Mount Sinai Hospital to set up surgery for me the following week. BUT, before the surgery, I had to go see my eye doctor, a neurologist and my internists to get an okay for surgery.

Thursday came and surgery was scheduled for 8 am. The procedure was completed around 10:30 .A nurse woke me up and said to get dressed and that I can go home. I had no idea where I was. I thought it was a cleaning lady in a hotel waking me up (hahaha).

I called Nancy to come and get me and she was so excited and happy. I told her that Dr. Greenberg said the surgery went very well.

You can't imagine all the emails and phone calls I received. While I was home, I received a picture of Bobby V. holding a sign saying "Get Well John".

It's nice to be loved! That Friday (day after surgery), I went to Shea Stadium to thank everyone that helped me, especially the Mets' manager Bobby Valentine.

All the photographers and ball players were shocked and happy to see me. Jack Balletti and Bob Olen told me to check out the scoreboard. At the and of the fourth inning a sign flashed up on the scoreboard saying, "The New York Mets and the New York Press Photographers Welcomes Back Sports Illustrated Photographer John Iacono". What a great honor and once again I had trouble holding back the tears. Like I said before, it's nice to be loved.

Oh by the way, do you remember in the beginning of this story I mentioned the ladder and being superstitious. Well, let me add to that.

The day after my surgery, Chuck Solomon called because I gave Chuck my photo credential just in case Sports Illustrated wanted to assign someone to take my place. As it turned out, no one wanted to use my photo pass. The number on my credential was # 13 and I was hurt on a Friday- the 13th!

Ladder, Friday and number 13. NOW I am superstitious!

Photo by Mickey Palmer

Photo by Mickey Palmer
A few days later I went for a check up by Dr. Greenberg and found out what was done to my face. Dr. Greenberg told me that my jaw was shattered in many places, resulting in two titanium plates plus twenty screws and wiremesh. It's amazing I have no pain and I don't feel all the hardware in my face. I was told that I would be losing more teeth and having implants in the near future.

Two weeks after surgery I went to the World Series and I told Steve Fine (Director Of Photography for Sports Illustrated and my boss), that I would like to shoot upstairs and far away because I was gun-shy. I was very happy to be working.

In the meantime, I was receiving fun gifts like chattering teeth, flowers and baseballs. The photographers that were sitting around me were upset because they could not find the baseball that hit me. I told him don't bother looking for it because I probably swallowed it.

Always joking and happy that I am alive. Now I know the meaning when they say, "You don't hear the shot that kills you." Believe me I didn't hear the ball coming.

Once again, I would like to thank all my friends, Sports Illustrated, the New York Mets, the emergency unit service and the New York PressPhotographers for all their undying support and prayers. Love you guys!

(Johnny Iacono (aka "Johnny Eye") is Sports Illustrated staff photographer based in New York.)

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