NILES - It's not so much a paranoia as it is a concern for the safety of the thousands of fans who visit his ballpark on a nightly basis. Jordan Taylor, Mahoning Valley Scrappers general manager, has many game-day responsibilities, but he'll always pause whenever a foul ball is hit into the Eastwood Field stands.
On Sept. 2, 2009, Taylor, then the assistant GM, was standing in the press box when a Ben Carlson foul ball shot into the front row down the first-base line, striking 4-year-old Luke Holko in the back of the head.
"It's something I never will forget," Taylor said Friday night during the Scrappers game against the Tri-City ValleyCats. "I remember looking down and I saw the ball go in.
Tribune Chronicle / Michael Taylor
Luke Holko, 7, of Bloomfield winds up for the ceremonial first pitch Friday for Luke Holko Night at the Mahoning Valley Scrappers baseball game at Eastwood Field, Niles. Holko suffered a fractured skull, brain swelling and damage to the brain stem when hit by a foul ball on Sept. 2, 2009.
"Immediately, we noticed how serious it was."
Luke suffered from a fractured skull, brain swelling and damage to the brain stem. Now, he must wear a brace on his right leg and he is deaf in his left ear.
Carlson, now a Baptist seminarian in Kentucky, is close friends with the Holko family and is visiting their Bloomfield home from Monday to July 21 to help celebrate Luke's eighth birthday.
Just like the crew members of Lane Ambulance that night, the Scrappers front office sprang into action after the accident in an attempt to brighten the Holko family's spirits and show sympathy for the horrible incident.
Former GM Dave Smith held the first Luke Holko Night on Aug. 8, 2010, and the tradition continued on Friday. Luke had a private meet-and-greet with Scrappers players in the dugout, received autographs, gave high-fives and threw out a first pitch, his third time doing so.
"It was his strongest throw yet," said his father, Chad Holko, of the toss that bounced in front of home plate to Mahoning Valley catcher Ryan Battaglia. "This past year I could tell his skills and strength have really improved. His coordination and balance is really strong. From last year to this year, it's a big change."
For the third straight year, the Scrappers sponsored a Mystery Ball sale, with all proceeds going to the Holko family. The 3,054 fans in attendance had an opportunity to purchase signed baseballs for $10. The balls featured autographs by major and minor league players from teams across the country. All of the 100-plus baseballs were sold on Friday.
"It's something we definitely wanted to continue," Taylor said. "We do something every year. Luke is a special part of the Scrappers family."
Battaglia, in his third stint with the Scrappers, has followed the Holko story and was happy to catch his first pitch.
"It's great to see him back out here," said Battaglia, a native of Australia. "I'm glad he is recovering very well. I'm sure he loves throwing out the first pitch."
Just like Taylor, Battaglia, 20, grimaces whenever there's a sharp line drive. Even when he's at the plate.
"Ah man, every time it goes into the stands (I cringe)," he said. "When you hit it hard, it's scary. Everybody has to make sure they're watching the game because those balls can be deadly. The speed it goes in there, you just can't get out of the way."