Christi Milledge takes two fingers and slides the dental appliance out of her mouth, then curls her upper lip to reveal the space where her upper-left front tooth used to be.
“I wish it would have been my bottom one,” the 52-year-old Charlottean says, shaking her head slowly, “because my bottom ones have shifted and I would love to have been able to say, ‘Let’s just take ’em all out and get ’em fixed.’ Ohhh, nooo. It had to be my perfectly straight front teeth.”
Still, after she pops the appliance (called a dental flipper, which has clasps like a retainer to secure it around her remaining teeth) back into place and smiles, it’d be hard to deny: All things considered, Milledge looks remarkably good for someone who took a foul ball right on the kisser at a Charlotte Knights game and wound up in a trauma-care unit just 2-1/2 weeks ago.
There’s very little visible scarring from the stitches. She’s feeling no lingering effects from the concussion. And, most likely, only close friends would be able to recognize that she’s got an ever-so-slight speech impediment due to the dental appliance.
In fact, aside from a growing pile of dental and medical bills that she anticipates will run up into five-figure territory, Milledge says she feels pretty fortunate. Though she is the victim of the most serious foul-ball-related fan injury of the Knights’ 2019 season so far, she knows things could be much, much worse.
‘There is blood everywhere’
It was Saturday evening over Memorial Day weekend, and Milledge and her friend Jeremy Stephenson had settled on a Knights game as the perfect way to show Stephenson’s old high school pal — Ryan Wiebe, visiting from Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. — a fun night in the city.
They arrived at BB&T Ballpark while the Knights’ game against the Durham Bulls was already in progress, settling with sodas into fourth-row seats in Section 117, about even with the dirt behind third base and just beyond the visiting dugout.
Stephenson says he doesn’t remember what they were talking about when it happened shortly after 9 p.m. — whether all three of them were paying attention to the action on the field, or whether no one was. He doesn’t remember the inning, or which team was up at the plate, much less who exactly was batting.
All he remembers for sure is a left-handed batter making late contact with a pitch, and in the next instant, the whoosh of a baseball as it sailed within a few inches of his nose.
“Did you see tha —” he started to say, turning toward Milledge.
“And I realize she’s holding her face, and there is blood everywhere,” Stephenson says.
Milledge, who works at Levine Children’s Hospital as a pediatric nurse, says she doesn’t remember the impact itself. But she does recall the blood pouring from her face, and using napkins to try to catch as much of it as she could, and looking down to see her front tooth — root and all — on the concrete in front of her.
There was a burst of chaos, she says, as Stephenson, Wiebe, other fans and Knights staff either summoned help or offered it themselves. (One of the more surreal moments came when a fan who identified herself as a dentist shouted, “If someone gives me gloves, I can put the tooth back in!,” though, not surprisingly, no one had any gloves.)
When it became clear she could walk at least with assistance, she was helped up the stairs to the concourse, where a nurse — who, coincidentally, happened to be a former co-worker of Milledge’s — was waiting with a wheelchair to take her to the first-aid station.
Things briefly got worse, though: Milledge lost consciousness and experienced either a seizure or a vasovagal syncope, the latter of which can be caused by fainting and sometimes produces convulsions that mimic seizures. When she came to, she began vomiting and had trouble stopping.
Medic arrived soon after and transported her to Atrium Health’s Carolinas Medical Center, where she was admitted to the emergency department — again coincidentally, she used to work there (from 2015-2016) — and treated in a trauma bay.
Over the next few hours, she received four stitches on the inside of her mouth and four stitches on the outside of it; she learned that her tooth couldn’t be saved, so she’d need to get a dental implant; and she was diagnosed with a concussion that would keep her out of work for two full weeks.
She was released without having to spend the night, but she experienced headaches off and on for more than a week and a half.
And yet Milledge says that, for the most part, her recovery was less painful than she’d expected it to be. In fact, perhaps the most discomfort she felt was anytime she had to go out in public over the course of the 10 days between the accident and the time she was given her dental appliance.
“I swear one woman at Chick-fil-A seriously must have thought I (got beaten up), because she kept looking at me, like, ‘Oh, honey, I’m so sorry,’” Milledge says. “I’m like, ‘Really, no, it was a baseball.’”
‘The right thing to do’
Jeff Lantz, senior director of communications for Minor League Baseball, says MiLB does not keep statistics on foul-ball injuries. But according to an analysis by Bloomberg News in 2014, about 1,750 fans are injured each year by balls batted into the stands at Major League Baseball games — or about twice every three games.
As for the Charlotte Knights, the team’s chief operating officer Dan Rajkowski says his staff keeps records on every fan that gets hit at BB&T Ballpark, and while he declined to share statistics, he says serious injuries are rare.
“We’re 35 games into the season, and that is the most severe we’ve had all year — knock on wood,” he says of Milledge’s injury. Since moving to uptown from Fort Mill in 2014, “I’m kind of jinxing myself, but there’ve only been two or three incidents where fans have had to go to the hospital for either surgery or any type of severe medical treatment.”
Perhaps the worst case: In May 2016, a 6-year-old boy spent several days in an intensive care unit after being hit by a foul ball at the stadium. He suffered a skull fracture and a bad concussion, as well as bleeding on both sides of his brain.
Prior to that season, Rajkowski says, he personally sought and gained approval for the Knights to extend the netting protecting the lower-level seats near home plate by 34 feet, so that a 40-foot-high net stretched to the ends of each dugout. Previously, a three-foot-high net had been installed above the dugouts. (Milledge, Stephenson and Wiebe were in seats that were just beyond the protection of the netting between home plate and the stands.)
Not everybody approved of the decision: After it was announced, Rajkowski says a number of season-ticket holders either asked for a refund or requested seats further down the line, in unprotected areas.
“They want the foul balls,” he says. “Or, our players will throw balls to the kids as they’re coming off the field. They used to do it over the dugouts. Now they can’t. Also, signing autographs, you can’t do it through the netting. ... But it was the right thing to do.”
Throughout professional baseball circles — in both the majors and the minors — teams have continued to kick around conversations about netting at ballparks. The discussion gained steam last month, after a young girl was hit by a foul line drive at a Houston Astros game and hospitalized.
“I think if you talk to any general manager in Minor League Baseball or Major League Baseball, every time a ball goes in the seats, they hold their breath,” says MiLB’s Lantz. “The best thing you can see is that ball bouncing off an empty seat. ...
“I played college baseball, and I don’t sit down there, because I know how hard they come. I’m fairly confident in my hand-eye coordination where I could probably deflect a ball if it was coming right at my face, but I can’t guarantee that’s gonna happen — and I sure can’t guarantee that it wouldn’t hit my wife next to me, or my son in the other seat on the other side of me.
“So we always sit behind the nets, and it does not affect our enjoyment of the game one bit.”
‘And life will go on’
There’s fine print on the back of any ticket you buy to a professional sporting event.
On the back of a Charlotte Knights ticket, that disclaimer basically reads the same as it does for any other MLB or MiLB game: By purchasing this ticket, you’re entering into a contract that says the team is not liable if you get hurt by a flying bat or a flying baseball.
Milledge says she’s been told by the team to submit all of her receipts when all is said and done, so that it can forward them along to the insurance company; Rajkowski, meanwhile, says the Knights’ liability insurance company does indeed look at incidents where fans are injured at the stadium “on a case-by-case basis.”
For now, though, Milledge fully anticipates being permanently out for the $500 dental appliance, and the $4,000 dental implant that will replace it (a multiple-step process that takes several months), as well as the ambulance and the emergency-room visit and the various follow-up visits and related costs. She estimates those will total $10,000 or more.
She had expected nothing from the Knights.
Still, during a recent return to the stadium, she excitedly accepted — from Knights vice president for stadium operations Tom Gorter — a baseball (not the one that hit her), a black Louisville Slugger signed by every player on the team, and an invitation to come back to watch a game as a VIP.
A big part of the reason she’s able to shrug all of this off, she says, is her experience as a nurse in the emergency department and at Levine Children’s.
“I mean, when I’m seeing a kid coming in whose cancer has relapsed four times, and he’s 3 or 4 years old, that bothers me. That is where I’m gonna put my efforts in,” Milledge says. “This will get fixed. It’s a hassle financially, and of course it’s never a good financial time to have it happen. But at the end of the day, there will be money to pay for it, and I will get it fixed, and life will go on.”
The incident itself actually seems to be more haunting to her friend Jeremy Stephenson than it is to her.
“If that had hit an inch higher, it would have broken her nose,” Stephenson says. “If it had hit two inches higher, she could have lost an eye. If it had hit two inches down, it could have crushed her larynx. If it had hit a little kid as hard as that ball was going, it could have killed him.
He pauses for a couple seconds. Then: “There’s no way I’m gonna sit in those seats again.”
As for Milledge?
“I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, I bet you’ll never go back to a baseball game again,’ or ‘I bet you’ll sit up in the nosebleed section’ — and I won’t,” she says, as she sits in Seat 14 of Row 4 in Section 117 at an empty BB&T Ballpark on Tuesday afternoon. It’s her first time back since the accident. She’s fidgeting with the ball Gorter gave her.
“I mean, these are great seats. I will watch the game a little bit more closely. Lesson learned is to pay attention to the game. But it happened, it was an accident, foul balls are an inherent risk of the game. That’s part of baseball. I’m not upset at the player that hit it, I’m not upset at the Knights for not protecting me from foul balls. ...
“So I’ll be back,” she says, smiling and gesturing at the seats next to her, “somewhere around here.”