Surgery, Uncertainty Await Encarnacion

By Derrick Goold
Updated: September 3, 2007

ST. LOUIS — Cardinals outfielder Juan Encarnacion’s career is in jeopardy because of a severe, season-ending eye injury suffered when a foul ball struck him Friday night at Busch Stadium.

Encarnacion has multiple fractures in his eye socket and a “serious” injury to his left eye, the team announced Saturday. The extent of the damage to his left eye will not be known for at least several days as the swelling calms. One team source acknowledged that Encarnacion’s sight in the left eye is threatened and said the outlook “for the return of his vision is extremely guarded at this point.” The Cardinals right fielder remained in the hospital Saturday and was visited by several teammates including Albert Pujols and Aaron Miles. Pujols was with Encarnacion after the game Friday and until 3 a.m. Saturday. Pujols said his teammate was “in good spirits, as good as possible.” “Just pray for him,” Pujols said. “It’s tough. It’s something you don’t want to happen to anybody. It’s just the toughest situation, and all you want is for him to be better.” Said Miles: “We’re all pulling for him. Hoping for the best. We hope he’ll be able to see and hopefully play ball again.” Encarnacion was on the on-deck circle, preparing to pinch hit, when Miles lashed at an outside pitch and fouled a line drive that hit Encarnacion flush in the left eye. Encarnacion collapsed and was quickly surrounded by trainers and teammates. Though Encarnacion left the field under his own power, several teammates described him as dazed when taken to a hospital. A team official said Encarnacion’s orbital bone “exploded” and that there was significant harm to the eye itself. The concern is that Encarnacion’s optic nerve was damaged by the trauma. Eye specialists saw Encarnacion on Saturday, though it could be several days and even a week before he has surgery to repair the fractures. It also could take that long for swelling and bruising to withdraw and reveal the true scope of the injury. His right eye is unharmed. “Clearly, at this point, we know it’s a serious injury and we know he is out for the rest of the season,” Cardinals team physician Dr. George Paletta said. “He is in the care of specialists, and we’re working with them to determine what the long-term prognosis is. We want to give him the best chance to continue and have his career. But that has yet to be determined.” A retina surgeon from Barnes Jewish Hospital, who spoke to the Post-Dispatch about eye injuries in general, said the range of damage from blunt trauma to the eye can vary widely. Fractures to the orbital bone can trap the muscles that control the eye, and cause double vision. Other fractures can damage the optic nerve — “and that is very serious as it can lead to a loss of all vision,” Dr. Gil Grand said. Any direct blow to the eye can cause long-term consequences, he said. “With blunt trauma to the eye, the potential is there — with an emphasis on potential — for cataracts, glaucoma and retinal detachment,” said Grand, who is a member of the Barnes Retina Institute. “There is tremendous variability in the injuries. Some blunt trauma will end up with nothing more serious than bruising or swelling around the eye. The shape of the object, how hard and how fast it traveled are all factors. “There can be anything from bruising of the eye to disturbing the retina to a loss of vision. Sometimes it takes weeks or a month to know what the potential loss of vision will be. Eyes recover very slowly.” Encarnacion, 31, was hit by a pitch in September 1999 and had a small plate inserted to repair a fracture in the same area as this injury. He played 141 games the next season. He is in the second year of a three-year contract. He missed the first 1 1/2 months of this season rehabbing from wrist surgery but was able to elevate his numbers to his career standards. He hit .356 with 19 RBIs in July, and he finishes the season with a .283 average, nine home runs and 47 RBIs in 78 games. The Cardinals released a statement Saturday that said Encarnacion’s “long-term prognosis is undetermined at this time,” and manager Tony La Russa echoed the sentiment by calling speculation about the future of Encarnacion’s career “unfair to him.” “He has more immediate concerns,” La Russa said. General manager Walt Jocketty said: “With an injury that is this serious, you worry about the guy’s long-term well-being, not just whether he plays baseball again.” In the sixth inning Friday, Encarnacion was preparing to be the second batter of the inning when he was struck by the foul ball. “If he was looking elsewhere on the field and not paying attention,” La Russa said, “he might have gotten killed.” The Cards relocated their on-deck circle for Saturday night’s game, moving a few feet farther from the dugout. Miles said he saw a few replays of his foul ball and each time “it was just as frightening.” He said he spoke with Encarnacion at the hospital and the question the outfielder asked him was if he got a hit after Encarnacion left the field. Miles told him about the rally that happened that inning and how the game was won four batters after Encarnacion was felled. But he also told him that he did not get a hit. “No, I struck out,” Miles said. “He got kind of mad at that. He just told me to go get them tonight. He gave me the thumbs up.”