August 31, 2007: Juan Encarnacion suffers career-ending eye injury

Less than a year after celebrating the 2006 World Series championship with his teammates, Juan Encarnacion’s career was cut short when he was struck by a foul ball while standing in the on-deck circle awaiting his opportunity to pinch-hit.

By the time he came to the Cardinals, Encarnacion was a veteran outfielder who already had won a World Series title with the Marlins in 2003. Since making his major-league debut with the Tigers as a 21-year-old in 1997, Encarnacion had played with the Reds, Dodgers, and Marlins. In 2005, he enjoyed one of the best seasons of his career, batting .287 with 16 homers and 67 RBIs. After the season, he signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Cardinals.

In 2006, Encarnacion established himself as the Cardinals’ everyday right fielder, batting .278 with 19 homers and 78 RBIs to help St. Louis win the National League Central with an 83-78 record. Encarnacion hit .286 with two RBIs in the NLDS against the Padres, but was just 4-for-22 (.188) in the NLCS and 0-for-8 in the World Series.

In 2007, Encarnacion was batting .283 with nine homers and 47 RBIs when he stepped into the Busch Stadium on-deck circle on August 31, 2007. The Reds had jumped on starting pitcher Anthony Reyes early in the game, scoring four runs in 1+ innings to force St. Louis to turn to its bullpen.

The Cardinals’ relief corps, however, was up to the task. Todd Wellemeyer threw three scoreless innings and Randy Flores silenced the Reds’ bats for two more. Thanks to an RBI double from Jim Edmonds and a two-run homer from Yadier Molina, the Cardinals entered the bottom of the sixth trailing 4-3.

With Aaron Miles at the plate against Reds reliever Jon Coutlangus, Cardinals manager Tony La Russa sent Encarnacion to the on-deck circle to pinch-hit. He never got the opportunity.

As Encarnacion warmed up for the at-bat, Coutlangus threw an outside pitch and Miles fouled a line drive that struck Encarnacion squarely in his left eye. The 11-year veteran collapsed and lay face down and unmoving for several long moments as the stadium grew silent.[1]

La Russa and assistant trainer Greg Hauck rushed to Encarnacion’s aid and a car wit ha stretcher came onto the field. Encarnacion, however, waved them away, rising under his own power and descending the steps of the Cardinals’ dugout with the assistance of Edmonds.[2] Before the game ended, he was taken to Barnes-Jewish Hospital for examination.[3]

As Encarnacion received medical attention, the game continued. Coutlangus struck out Miles before he was replaced by another reliever, Gary Majewski. Batting in Encarnacion’s place, So Taguchi doubled. Brendan Ryan and David Eckstein both reached to load the bases, and outfielder Rick Ankiel scored them all with a grand slam over the right-field wall. The Cardinals went on to win the game 8-5.

“We won a nice game and there isn’t any celebrating,” said La Russa, whose 1,042nd victory made him the winningest manager in Cardinals history. “We’re all concerned.”[4]

Star first baseman Albert Pujols went directly from the stadium to the hospital to visit Encarnacion after the game, staying with his friend until after 3 a.m. He returned once more the following day before the Cardinals’ night game. Miles, Joel Pineiro, and Molina also visited Encarnacion in the hospital.[5]

“He’s doing all right. He’s doing pretty good,” Pujols said. “He’s talking and making some jokes. This morning was better than last night. He talked more and he was about to eat when I left the hospital. They’re taking care of him pretty good. They’re in and out of there every two seconds.”[6]

Encarnacion’s injury added to the list of challenges the defending World Series champions had faced. In spring training, La Russa was arrested for a DUI. In April, Josh Hancock was killed in a drunk-driving accident. Third baseman Scott Spiezio was released by the team due to substance abuse issues. In lesser issues, stars Chris Carpenter and Scott Rolen each suffered season-ending injuries.

On September 2, the Cardinals reported that Encarnacion had slight improvement in the vision in his left eye, but were cautious to note that did not indicate he would regain full vision.

“He definitely had improvement from (Saturday) to today – clear improvement in his vision,” Dr. George Paletta said, “but it’s way too early, and those improvements are so relatively small in terms of their increments that it’s too early to say whether that means he’s going to recover full vision or 90% of his vision or 80% of his vision. But it’s a good sign for Juan and a positive factor that there has been improvement in the last 24 hours. You would certainly prefer that to no improvement at all.”[7]

As Encarnacion’s family arrived in St. Louis to support him, the next step was to schedule surgery to repair the fractures around the eye after the swelling subsided and his optic nerve no longer was endangered.[8]

“This is the worst trauma I’ve seen,” Paletta said.[9]

As a rookie with the Tigers, Encarnacion had previously suffered a broken left cheekbone and broken nose when Kansas City pitcher Blake Stein hit him with a pitch in 1999.[10] This, however, was a far worse injury.

“The socket is, in a way, like an ice cream cone,” Paletta said. “That thing is sort of shattered at this point. It’s not as if there’s one fracture or two fractures. It’s as if an egg shell has cracked, basically. So there are multiple fracture lines and pieces of bone that are broken, and the way they fix that is to put a plate on it and reconstruct that socket so it’s smooth again.”[11]

On September 26, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Encarnacion had the procedure to repair his orbital bone.

“His friends sound very encouraged with where he is,” assistant general manager John Mozeliak said.[12]

That encouragement, however, did not extend to the likelihood of Encarnacion playing again. By October, Encarnacion had regained only 20/400 vision in his left eye.[13] Since having surgery in Boston, Encarnacion had remained there to recuperate.

“What really needs to take place is for Juan to be seen by a specialist in St. Louis,” Mozeliak said. “We’ll know more then.”[14]

As the calendar flipped to 2008, however, Encarnacion’s return appeared more and more unlikely. The right fielder had signed a three-year, $15 million contract with the Cardinals ahead of the 2006 season, and the 2008 campaign represented the final year of that contract.

“As far as an update on whether he’ll play or not I would say it’s probably likely he will not,” Mozeliak said in January, “but until we actually see him in St. Louis and get our own doctors to deal with that, it will be hard for me to answer that firmly.”[15]

Prior to the 2008 season, the Cardinals extended Busch Stadium’s protective netting from dugout to dugout to better protect fans.[16] Encarnacion spent the entire 2008 campaign on the 60-day disabled list. At the conclusion of his contract, he became a free agent but did not attempt to resume his career.

Encarnacion finished his 11-year career with a .270 batting average to go along with 156 homers, 667 RBIs, and 127 stolen bases.

Following his playing days, he established the Juan Encarnacion Foundation. In August 2021, Encarnacion was arrested and charged with sexually assaulting his underage daughter in the Dominican Republic.[17]


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[1] Derrick Goold, “Ankiel’s slam helps ease the hurt,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 1, 2007.

[2] Derrick Goold, “Ankiel’s slam helps ease the hurt,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 1, 2007.

[3] David Wilhelm, “Encarnacion’s injury shows some improvement,” Belleville News-Democrat, September 3, 2007.

[4] Derrick Goold, “Ankiel’s slam helps ease the hurt,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 1, 2007.

[5] David Wilhelm, “Eye injury will end Encarnacion’s season,” Belleville News-Democrat, September 2, 2007.

[6] David Wilhelm, “Eye injury will end Encarnacion’s season,” Belleville News-Democrat, September 2, 2007.

[7] David Wilhelm, “Encarnacion’s injury shows some improvement,” Belleville News-Democrat, September 3, 2007.

[8] Derrick Goold, “Cards Notes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 3, 2007.

[9] Derrick Goold, “Cards Notes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 3, 2007.

[10] David Wilhelm, “Eye injury will end Encarnacion’s season,” Belleville News-Democrat, September 2, 2007.

[11] David Wilhelm, “Encarnacion’s injury shows some improvement,” Belleville News-Democrat, September 3, 2007.

[12] Derrick Goold, “Cards Notes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 26, 2007.

[13] Joe Strauss, “Cards meet with White Sox assistant GM,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 13, 2007.

[14] Joe Strauss, “Cards meet with White Sox assistant GM,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, October 13, 2007.

[15] Associated Press, “Encarnacion’s career in jeopardy after injury,” Daily Herald, January 17, 2008.

[16] Derrick Goold, “Cards Notes,” St. Louis Post-Dispatch, April 1, 2008.

[17] “Former MLB player Juan Encarnacion accused of sexually assaulting daughter,” ESPN.com, https://www.espn.com/mlb/story/_/id/32103602/former-mlb-player-juan-encarnacion-accused-sexually-assaulting-daughter.