'Please, Danny, don't die on my watch': An oral history of a near-death in the dugout

ByMichele Steele ESPN logo
Monday, April 22, 2019

It was "just another day in White Sox baseball." Until it wasn't.

When Danny Farquhar arrived at Chicago's Guaranteed Rate Field on April 20, 2018, he was a journeyman middle reliever who'd pitched for four teams in seven years. By the end of the day, he'd be thrust into the national spotlight. In the sixth inning of a game against the Astros, Farquhar suffered a near-fatal rupture of an aneurysm in his brain and collapsed in the dugout. Paramedics raced him to the emergency room -- as his teammates and family held their breath.

Would he return to the sport? Would he return to his life?

Here's how Farquhar, 32, and those who know him best recall that fateful day -- and his journey back to the mound.

'Please, Danny, don't die on my watch'

On the morning of April 20, Farquhar's wife, Lexie, dropped him off at the ballpark. His mother, Beatriz, was visiting from Florida and had come along for the ride.

LexieFarquhar(Farquhar's wife): He grabbed my booty in front of his mom, and he's never done that before. And I remember thinking I'm going to remember this for the rest of my life and it was the best goodbye. He just grabbed me and hugged me, kissed me, grabbed my booty and went on his way.

With Houston ace Justin Verlander on the hill against James Shields, it was a typical early-season game, on a cold Friday night with a first-pitch temperature of 51 degrees.

Herm Schneider (White Sox head trainer):Just another day in baseball. Nothing different. Nothing new. Just another day in White Sox baseball.

Farquhar: They said that I was acting normal, watching the game normal.

The game was scoreless through three, but the Astros broke out with a five-run fourth off Shields. When Shields ran into trouble again in the sixth, Farquhar got the call.

Schneider: It was a normal pitching change. Just like a routine thing you don't think about. It happens a thousand times a year, maybe more.

Lexie: I remember being up in the suite talking to the wives. It was just a really fun atmosphere in there. We were all excited. We were all chit-chatting. I had the two boys [Landon, then 2 years old and Liam, then 4 months] asleep in the buggy. Madison [then 6] was down in the playroom playing with her friends. And it was kind of funny, there was about four of us who are all sharing stories about how we met our spouses and kind of like our love story on how we got to where we were. And I was telling mine right about when Danny was pitching, which was kind of interesting ... it was kind of just one of those good moments.

Sometime during the sixth -- no one, including Farquhar, knows precisely when -- a blood vessel burst in his brain. Still, he managed to pitch his way out of the inning.

Schneider: He walked in off the field like he always does, and everybody does. Walks down the steps and he came over to me where I was sitting. He said, "Herm, I've got a really bad headache." I said, "How about a couple of Tylenol to see if I can calm it down for you?"

Farquhar: I have zero memory of that day in the bullpen. I can't recall watching the game, I can't recall anything about it.

Schneider: And I waited a few minutes and he said, "Oh jeez, Herm. It's really getting worse. It's really kinda hurting." I said, "Do you think you can keep pitching?" 'Cause he was gonna go back out and pitch. And he said, "I don't think so." He's like pulling on his hair, that his head is hurting that bad. I said, "Danny, you OK?" "My head is absolutely killing me. I'm having the worst headache I could have." Then all of a sudden he starts to vomit. He starts to lean, to fall, because he's passed out.

Lucas Giolito (White Sox pitcher): We were sitting in the dugout when he fainted. Thank God he was in the dugout and people were able to be there to help out. It was scary.

Schneider: In my own head I said, "Please, Danny, don't die on my watch here." 'Cause I'm holding him, you know, and I'm making sure he's not gonna fall off the bench. I was very concerned for him.

Lexie: I think my main concern was to not freak out because I didn't know what was wrong and all they had told me was he had passed out and he's in an ambulance on his way to the hospital.

'They were going to open my husband's skull'

Farquhar was taken to Chicago's Rush University Medical Center where his White Sox jersey was cut off of his body as he was prepared for testing. Doctors made the determination that there was bleeding in his brain; they knew it was coming from an aneurysm (a balloon-like bulge of a blood vessel, almost like a blister) that had burst. Dr. Demetrius Lopes was the neurosurgeon on call.

Lexie: When I got to the hospital ... I kind of felt their panic and I felt the staff and the nurses. I felt their panic and it started to kind of get to me a little bit. And I just wanted to see him and that gave me that anxious feeling, my heart racing, where it was just lead me to my husband. Let me see him. Let's figure out what's going on.

Dr.DemetriusLopes (neurosurgeon): Forty percent of people may not survive the rupture of an aneurysm. If it ruptures, you have potentially a very deadly situation. I think 40 percent mortality is one side of the story. The other one is many patients that have bleeding may not have a functional independent status after recovering from that bleeding, and that could be in the order of 60 to 70 percent of folks may have a disability afterward. The odds are against you in many ways. ... We were really worried, in the first CAT scan that we did, there was a significantly increasing pressure in the brain.

Lopes performed a craniotomy -- removing a piece of Farquhar's skull -- and placed a clip on the compromised vessel in Farquhar's brain to prevent further bleeding.

Lopes: This aneurysm was very small ... which is a really challenging situation because the aneurysm was also in a branch that we call perforators; these are very important blood vessels that supply, what turned out in the end, I found out later on, that that was his pitching arm. So the area that controls his right side.

Lexie: And at that point, I had lost it. I think that I had just signed off that they were going to open my husband's skull. I couldn't even talk to my husband about it beforehand. Liam was asleep ... I lost it, absolutely bawled my eyes out, talked to Danny as if he was there ... I wasn't certain of the next time I spoke to my kids what I'd be telling them. At some point, those thoughts creep into your mind. And that was the moment when they just all creeped in and it was the single worst moment of my life.

After the four-hour surgery, Farquhar was wheeled into the intensive care unit. When he came to, what happened next surprised his doctors.

Lopes: I'll tell you when he came out of surgery he was still pretty sick. He had bleeding of the head that just happened and an open brain surgery. The first thing his dad asked him -- and remember, the arm, the pitching arm was the arm related to where the surgery was done -- "so show me a knuckleball grip," and he goes and does it and I'm like, yes! Yes!

Farquhar: That's awesome that my dad had that perspective to give me a baseball analogy to come up with.

Lopes: It's really interesting, because most people would be like show me two fingers, or wiggle your toes.

Farquhar: So my last memory was walking out to the bullpen for the national anthem. ... My next memory was waking up in the ICU staring into the mirror. My wife walked me to the bathroom and I just looked in the mirror and it looked like there was a softball on the left side of my head.

'When can I go and get my life back?'

Lexie: He asked pretty quickly, I mean when he still had tubes in his head, when he could go back, what the timeline looked like?

Farquhar: When I first started thinking about baseball was when I first woke up and I was like, what time is stretch, I need to be at the field. You guys need to tell the team that I'm here in the hospital so they're not worried about me.

Lexie: He had never said, "I'll never be able to play." Those words never came from him. He was more focused on, "When can I go try? When can I go and get my life back?"

The first step in returning to normal was getting back on the mound in Chicago for a ceremonial pitch, just 42 days after his life-threatening aneurysm. He was surprised to see not just the hospital's medical staff but the entire team behind him on the mound.

Farquhar: Yeah, so I knew that my medical team was going to be behind me on the mound and my teammates surprised me and they went out there behind the mound too for the first pitch, and to have them have my back like that, it's something I'll never forget.

Rick Renteria (White Sox manager): It's miraculous when you think about it. He's a very driven individual.

Farquhar would return that summer to his home in California with his wife and three children, to be reunited with his friend and offseason trainer, Garrett Nelson. Could they reprogram his mind, retrain his body to become the pitcher he once was, and in so doing become the first MLB player to return from this kind of injury?

Farquhar: I don't want to look back in 20 years and be like, man, you still had it in you to play baseball. And you chose not to. Why? So I'm going to go full-go until somebody won't give me a jersey. I had that fire underneath me to get back to playing baseball. And I didn't want any more time just lounging around, I wanted to start as soon as I could.

Garrett Nelson (friend and offseason trainer): At the end of the day, we're not getting back someone who needs to just walk and talk and do their thing. We're trying to bring back a guy who has major league experience and wants to continue having major league experience. That is what's so difficult. Because the last thing we want to do is have them go out on that mound to face a batter and say: Am I ready for this?

While Farquhar focused on his rehab, Sohail Shahpar, his agent for the past decade, was focused on finding that next opportunity -- even if it meant keeping expectations in check.All summer Farquhar had been operating with the expectation of returning to Chicago the next year. But when the White Sox took him off their major league roster in October, Farquhar found himself in free agency.

Sohail Shahpar (Farquhar's agent): I've had players deal with injuries basically on every kind of body part, whether it's the shoulder, the collarbone, the hip, the elbow, the knee, the foot -- you name it, I've had to deal with it. This injury was something different and I think for a lot of people, not just myself, but a lot of people in the baseball industry in general had never really dealt with an injury like this.

Farquhar: The White Sox pulled at my heart a little bit. Just because it was everything that I had been through and everybody knew me there. It was definitely a place that I love, but we sat down and we talked about it and maybe seeing everybody and remembering all the tough times was going to make things more difficult. That's the outlook me and my wife have now, and maybe turning a new leaf is what's best for me. New organization and fresh start as opposed to going back to where I had my aneurysm and where it all started.

Shahpar: I would say the main concern from these teams was the risk of it happening again. I would say none, if not few, had a lot of experience ever dealing with an aneurysm. I would think it was more the unknown that became the biggest issue and the biggest risk. And no team really came out and said, "This is what we're afraid of," but I think reading between the lines, the biggest concern of many teams was, God forbid this happens again, and what our liability would be. It sounds morbid, but what our liability would be if you're on the mound again and this happens one more time.

'Breathe, man. Breathe. Just throw strikes and breathe.'

Weeks turned into months as his intensive rehab progressed. After his agent discussed his future with a number of teams, the New York Yankees offered a Farquhar a minor league deal, with an invitation to major league spring training. He'd have a shot to compete for a job. Before he left, he looked back at the jersey he wore the last day he pitched.

Farquhar: I haven't seen this in seven or eight months. It's pretty emotional because it brings me back to the day. And it's tough. I was talking to my wife a little bit and I was like, "This shows that I'm a fighter and I'll get through whatever I need to, to be a survivor. (Farquhar wells up.)

It makes me extraordinarily satisfied that somebody else believes in me and it's not just me and not just my family.

Now in Tampa, Farquhar was fitted with a special protective helmet and eased into the routine. First, there was a bullpen session. Then two live sessions with a batter, a momentous occasion for Farquhar, who hadn't faced live bats in 10 months.

Farquhar: I was saying out loud to breathe. I'm like, breathe. Breathe, man. Breathe. Just throw strikes and breathe. But I could feel my heart racing. It was exciting. It was an awesome feeling. And to have all the Yankee coaches there support me and watch me, it was pretty incredible.

Aaron Boone (Yankees manager): It's important to understand that this guy can pitch. You know he'll certainly have some opportunities and I think the first thing for him is getting through spring training and getting through that everyday grind of being a big league pitcher.

Lopes: I think he is, I mean, from a scale from zero to 10, he was 100. It was a fantastic recovery. I couldn't ask anything better than that. ... Our personal attitude toward things or positive energy to recover and go back -- I think his drive to do that is definitely a key part of him returning in such a short period of time. Maybe the idea is not necessarily to go back to who you were before, but can you be better or can you transform yourself into the new you.

A year ago, Farquhar nearly lost his life on a big league mound; 316 days later, against exceptional odds, he returned. On March 2, he made a relief appearance -- his first major league outing in 10 months -- against the Pirates in Bradenton, Florida. While he retired just one of the six batters he faced, and was saddled with the loss, Farquhar had won a much bigger victory.

Farquhar: I've never been high-fived so much giving up five runs in my career.

Boone: The fact that he's on the mound and gotten to this point is pretty awesome. I found myself a little more emotional than I even thought. Even though it didn't go great, I think he really appreciated how special it was for him to be back on a mound.

Farquhar: I felt great out there. Obviously, the results weren't great but I call it a good day. I felt like a baseball player, again.

Shahpar: Even if he spends the entire year in Triple-A [Farquhar is currently in extended spring training with the Yankees], I don't see how you can't see that as a win for Danny. And I think that it's only going to propel him to work harder to get back to the major leagues in 2020.

Farquhar: There's a lot of factors for the reason why I'm still here. So it is my bonus time and I'm going to enjoy every second of it.

Lexie: We thought about, "Well, what if you can only make it the minor leagues? Is that going to feel enough? Is that going to be enough?" And I remember him saying, "I just wanna remember my last outing as a major leaguer. I don't want to not know it." And you think about somebody who's worked their whole life since they were 5 years old for this dream. You don't want your dream cut off without your permission or without you knowing that it got cut off. And so, we're just kind of like, "OK, let's get you back out there at least for one more inning. I know you'll do more, but you will remember pitching again."