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Struck By Lightning…Twice

Donley - cardboard cutout

by Austin Donley

Sometimes, life is just about being in the right place at the right time. Catching lightning in a bottle, if you will. If you had told me back in February, that “Will Smith and Mookie Betts both hit me in the face” would end up being a factual statement about my life in the coming months, I would have either laughed you out of the room or been genuinely concerned about what I had done to get punched by two of the best players on the Los Angeles Dodgers. But, 2020 has been a bizarre year in every sense of the word and amidst a fan-less, 60 game MLB season, I found myself getting struck by lightning TWICE, at the center of one of the stranger “it could only happen in 2020” stories of the year. 

I have been a baseball fan and, more importantly, I have been a Dodgers fan for my entire life. I was 3 when I attended my first game. I wanted to stay for the entire game and I then made us wait in the parking lot so we could watch my favorite non-Dodger, Sammy Sosa, get on the bus. In high school, I played centerfield and I wore an arm sleeve so I could look more like perennial MVP candidate, Matt Kemp. In college (go Ducks), I flew home for multiple playoff games  and even spent weeks moving organic chemistry labs around so I would be able to fly home to watch the Dodgers unfortunately fall to the Astros in the 2017 World Series Game 7. All of this to say that I am a huge baseball fan and even bigger Dodgers fan.

Austin, 9 years old at Dodger Stadium.

In my family, the baseball season is a routine. As season ticket holders, we go to about 65-75 games per year and we watch every road game on TV, so when it was announced that the baseball season would resume in late July, we could not have been more excited. While we could not be there in person, the Dodgers gave fans the opportunity to be there in spirit with a cardboard cutout, which we did not hesitate to pull the trigger on.

My dad and I decided to request our cutouts be placed in the left field bleachers, as opposed to our normal seats in the field level by the dugout. We figured that if we are going to pay for a cutout, we may as well see it on TV in the background of a RBI double or home run. We never even considered the possibility that what ended up happening, would happen.

Fast-forwarding to opening weekend, the Dodgers are playing the Giants on a lazy summer Saturday afternoon. I decided, after watching the first 6 innings, to make the short bike ride to the beach for a little bit. I was streaming the game on my phone, but in the 9th inning, I put my phone down for maybe five minutes. When I returned, my phone was absolutely on fire. I was getting text messages from family, friends from high school, college acquaintances, and everyone else in between. I opened the video my mom texted me and saw my face getting obliterated by a Will Smith home run ball on national TV. I had to watch the clip about 4 or 5 more times to make sure that what I thought I was seeing was what really happened.

July 25, 2020 at Dodger Stadium. Will Smith HR hits Austin’s cardboard cutout.

I tweeted out that video to my 150 or so followers simply as a joke, with the caption “Hey @Dodgers @will_smith30, do I get to keep the ball?”. Immediately, my tweet takes off. I had several hundred retweets on the bike ride back to my house and a few hours later, I see that Will Smith himself has replied to my tweet, telling me to DM him, where he asked me for my address so he could send me something! 

Austin’s twitter exchange with Dodgers’ catcher Will Smith.

A few days later, a box arrives at our house with the “Dodger Stadium, 1000 Vin Scully Avenue” return address. Inside is a baseball bat, with the inscription “Sorry I hit you in the head. Go Dodgers! Will Smith”. Now I’d like to point out that the Dodgers never stated anywhere that they would be sending a ball or any other souvenir if your cutout was hit during a game. Will had no responsibility to send anything or even respond to my tweet, which I only intended as a funny comment to share with my very small Twitter following. I tweeted out a picture of the bat, thanking Will and the Dodgers, and that is where it really went crazy. Local news channels were messaging me, asking if they could come to our house to film a segment. I got my own notification on the ESPN app and the clip of my cutout being hit is even in a commercial for Postmates on the Dodgers channel. It was out of hand and I’ve joked with people that this is the least possible effort one could expend to go famous: having a picture of yourself getting hit by a ball at a game you were never at.

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Now for the part where it borders on the absurd. A few weeks later, we are watching the Dodgers play the Rockies and Mookie Betts hits a towering fly ball to left. I know where our cutouts are so I know it’s headed in our general direction. I see the ball descend from the top of the screen, hit a seat and bounce up, knocking my previously tilted cardboard head back into an upright position. I have been hit again. Dodger announcers Joe Davis and Orel Hershiser immediately recognized my face. The internet immediately recognized my face. I tweeted out to my slightly more sizable Twitter following that “I need to go buy a lottery ticket”, which of course takes off and results in another flurry of tweets, emails, and is capped off with an appearance on ESPN’s Baseball Tonight! The fact that it happened a second time still leaves me in a slight state of disbelief. (See two other videos at the bottom of story)

Donley family – 2015 Spring Training at Camelback Ranch

They say that baseball will always break your heart and that has been very apparent to Dodger fans in recent seasons, but their postseason shortcomings have made it that much more important to me to savor the little moments of every season, as only one fanbase out of thirty is lucky enough to win the last game of the year. Although we have not been able to enjoy our trips to the stadium, this Dodgers season was memorable in a way I could have never predicted and it has given me once in a lifetime stories and a unique souvenir I will cherish forever. The only thing that would make this season better is if they go out and win the World Series! (Please GOD let it happen!!!). By the way, according to a study by Standford University the odds of catching just 1 home run ball at a baseball game are around 1 in 5,000. The odds of being struck by lightning are 1 in 3,000. I suppose I shouldn’t be venturing outside during storms any time soon.

Joe Davis, Dodgers broadcaster, gives shout-out to Austin after the Mookie Betts HR.
The side-by-side comparison between the Smith HR and Betts HR.

Other Media:
– Sports Illustrated: Will Smith Reaches Out To Fan
– ESPN: In Your Face
– ESPN Baseball Tonight: Interview (via dropbox file)
– Dodgers Nation: The Dodgers Continue Assault on Defenseless Cardboard Cutout
– KTLA-5: 24 Year Old Dodgers Fan Gets Momento
– Fox Sports Radio: Dodgers Player Refunds Fan
– Think Blue LA: Bring Your Glove!

Dodger Stadium, LF – Austin’s cardboard cutout after getting hit by the Will Smith home run.

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