Inches from tragedy, Oswego overcomes

The ballpark fell eerily silent, the only noise a wailing siren from an ambulance that couldn't arrive fast enough. Players fell to their knees. Parents and fans did the same. No one said a word, but nearly everyone feared the worst.

"I didn't think he was going to make it," said St. John Fisher pitcher Justin Lutes.

"It was a no-brainer that this could end up real bad," added Fisher coach Dan Pepicelli.

And then there was State University of New York at Oswego junior Dan Pecora. Said Pecora:

"I thought I had killed my coach."

Baseball, suddenly, was the farthest thing from anyone's mind. And in a touching display of sportsmanship, Pepicelli and St. John Fisher made sure it stayed that way.

In the top half of the ninth inning of the play-in game for the Eastern College Athletic Conference tournament on the Fisher campus in Rochester, N.Y., Pecora took an inside pitch from Lutes and pulled a sizzling line drive down the third base line, drilling Oswego manager and third base coach Frank Paino in the side of the head. Paino dropped to the ground, evoking horrific memories of Mike Coolbaugh, the minor league coach who was struck and killed by a line drive last July.

Coolbaugh's death led to a new rule requiring all base coaches in Major League Baseball and the minors to wear a helmet, but no such rule exists in high school or college. Paino was not wearing a helmet.

"The sound of the impact -- the sound that ball made hitting his head -- it was like someone had smashed a coconut on the driveway," Pecora said. "It was just this disgusting, hollow thud."

Pepicelli, the opposing manager, hopped out of the third base dugout, screamed for someone to call 911 and was beside Paino within seconds. He grabbed Paino's hand and said to the coach, "Stay with me."

"He had this hollow look in his eyes," Pepicelli said. "His eyes were open, but he was just staring up past me and to the right. You could just tell that no one was home. I knew that the meter was running. Over the next 20 minutes, I knew this could go to a very bad place."

Paino lay motionless for 10 to 15 seconds, his eyes rolling in his head, the spot where the ball struck his skull already swelling. For 22 seasons he had been the toughest of tough guys as the head coach at Oswego. A hunter, a camper, "the definition of a bad-ass," Pecora said.

His team had trailed the May 8 play-in game 5-2 before rallying with a seven-run eighth inning to take a 9-5 lead. Now, an inning later, Paino was flat on his back, fighting for his life.

The coach regained consciousness quickly, but his vision was blurred. He couldn't move his left hand. His body was going through hot and cold flashes. But he could still talk.

"He kept saying just to put him back in the dugout, put him back in the dugout. His team had a game to finish," Pecora said.

Pepicelli told Paino that wasn't going to happen. Paramedics arrived quickly and placed Paino in a neck brace, then rushed him to a nearby trauma center where doctors could begin a battery of tests to see what was happening inside his swollen head.

As the paramedics rolled him into the ambulance, Paino had one last message for his players: "Don't forget to eat -- the meal money is in a bank envelope in my duffel bag."

At 23-9 entering the final week of the season, Fisher coach Dan Pepicelli's team, one of the league's best, had its sights set on the Division III NCAA tournament. But the Cardinals dropped four of their last six, relegating them to the play-in just to make the ECAC tournament. And in that game, they squandered their three-run lead against Oswego to find themselves down by four in the ninth inning.

Then Pecora's line drive changed everything.

After Paino was loaded on to the ambulance, Pepicelli, in his eighth year at Fisher, gathered his players around him in the dugout. He could see the look of fear on their faces. He knew Oswego didn't have any other coaches on the trip. And he had that awful feeling in the pit of his stomach that this story wasn't going to have a happy ending. So he suggested they stop the game right there and allow Oswego to win. To a man, his players agreed. He then walked over and delivered the news to Oswego, highlighting the point that they weren't being given anything. They had earned the victory.

"I wasn't trying to give some life lesson. I was just trying to do the right thing," Pepicelli said. "Nobody wanted to play anymore. We all felt sick. I took one look at their team and knew I had to get them back with their coach.

"Look, could we have come back and won? Of course. Was it likely? Of course not. And if you play that scenario out and we do win, then what? What do you get out of that?"

The decision not only eliminated Fisher from the ECAC tournament, but ended its NCAA dreams. It also brought a premature end to the careers of eight seniors, including Lutes. Lutes' inside fastball to Pecora was the last pitch he threw in his college career.

"It isn't exactly the dream I had about how I wanted to go out," Lutes said. "But there was a lesson that we all learned. People may think that sports is their life. But when you see somebody's life flash before you, you realize there are bigger things in the world than a baseball game."

Having lost his Internet connection -- his one and only in-game tie to his team -- Frank Paino fell asleep. He had been through a lot in the past 72 hours, from a rival coach holding his hand and comforting him during the scariest moment of his life, to turning control of his team over to a seldom-used sophomore outfielder.

He tracked his team closely in the days after that horrific accident, following along as best he could online as his team, the fifth and lowest seed in the ECAC tournament, advanced to the championship with a pair of come-from-behind, extra-inning victories. Via cell phone, he shared in the joy of those victories and felt the pain of an 11-3 loss to Brockton in the first of two potential championship-clinching games.

Now, 100 miles away from his Oswego home, at Red Dragon Field in Oneonta, N.Y., his team was playing in the biggest game of its season. And he couldn't get an update. All those games, all those practices, all those winter afternoons of shoveling a foot of ice off the baseball field -- the payoff for all that hard work came down to this one game. And here was Paino, grounded to his couch.

He knew they were playing for him, these 23 boys who idolized their coach. He knew their foundations had cracked three days earlier, when they watched him absorb that line drive to the skull. He knew he was lucky. A few inches up, down, to the left or to the right and he wouldn't be around to worry about winning a baseball game. Instead, a hairline fracture to the skull, a minimal amount of cranial bleeding and a monster concussion had left him woozy and confused with a never-quit-pounding headache. But he was alive.

Without an assistant coach available for the tournament, sophomore Brian Stark was calling the shots in Paino's place for the championship. Stark, a seldom-used outfielder whom teammates describe as a "baseball whiz" and "mature beyond his years," has coaching aspirations after college, which is why Paino pulled him into his hospital room the night of the accident and told him the team would be his for the rest of the tournament.

"He just said, 'Starkey, I trust you. I know you'll do fine,'" the sophomore said. "And that's all I needed to hear. I told the guys before that first game: 'We have two choices here. We can make fools of ourselves or we can do something pretty darn special.' And we ran with it."

That first night in the hospital, Paino and Stark mapped out the lineup and pitching rotation for the first game. But Stark would still have to make all the calls: when to pinch hit, change pitchers, send in defensive replacements. And in the first game, in the top of the 11th inning, when to call a fake-bunt double-steal that would help lead to the game-winning run.

After each game, Stark called his coach to give him a rundown of what happened, and then they made plans for the next game. The chats were nothing but positive … until the 11-3 loss to Brockport.

"After that game, I could hear it in his voice," Paino said. "I almost started to cry. I could tell how much it meant to him, how much it meant to the whole team. I just told him, 'We're going to be all right. We're going to be all right.' And he bought into it."

And now here they were, the kids without their coach, playing for the tournament championship. Back home, Paino followed along online, pounding the refresh button to see his Lakers take a 5-3, 6-3 and then 8-3 lead. But then, trouble. Brockport scored six runs in the bottom of the eighth to go up 9-8. And that's when Paino's Internet connection went out. And that's when the highs and lows got to him, and the exhausted man with the cracked skull fell asleep.

An hour or so later, his phone rang. It was Stark. Paino had but one demand: "Tell me the good news."

Responded Stark: "Coach, we got it done. We won it. We did it. And you were right there with us the whole time."

The Lakers had scored three in the eighth and one in the ninth to win the tournament championship, only the third in school history. And it was only fitting that Pecora, who had hit the ball that struck his coach four days earlier, closed the game out with a two-inning save.

Back in Rochester, word spread quickly amongst the Fisher baseball team that Oswego had done it.

"It was perfect. Absolutely perfect," Lutes, the senior pitcher, said. "There's no question we were cheering for them. I can't think of anyone who deserved it more."

His voice quivering on the line after hearing his team had won, Paino told Stark to get off the phone, celebrate with his teammates and call him tomorrow. But the reality was the tough-as-nails coach needed some time to gather himself. Even now, almost a week after it all took place, the thought of that phone call, the thought of what his team accomplished, overwhelms him.

The Lakers finished the season 18-12 and didn't get a bid to the NCAA Division III tournament, but they brought the ECAC Division III Upstate Baseball Championship home to their coach.

"Just a typical bunch of blue-collar kids. They love the game, they love each other and they're so incredibly resilient," Paino said, his voice cracking. "I couldn't possibly be any more proud of what they accomplished."

Paino was released from the hospital on May 9, but he is under strict orders to lay low, not lift anything heavy or operate machinery. This Wednesday, though, he couldn't help himself. He hadn't seen any of his kids since that gruesome day a week earlier, so he left his home, hopped in his truck and drove himself to school to shake a few hands, share a few hugs and hear a few stories. He wanted to see his players. He wanted to celebrate with them. And for a little over an hour, he sat in his office and did just that.

"For 22 years, this has been my second family," Paino said. "We say a prayer before and after every game and every practice. We share a lot of faith. And I have to believe that in this case, God was looking down on us. He gave me another day to breathe. And he gave my team a lesson they will never forget."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.