BRADENTON, Fla. — When Shaun Cunningham saw the bat fly out of the hands of Pirates outfielder Danny Ortiz, he knew he had only seconds to react.
So, Cunningham did what any father would do. He stuck out his arm to shield his son and braced for the impact.
Images of Cunningham’s quick reflexes were caught Saturday by Tribune-Review photographer Chris Horner. Within hours, the photos went viral on social media and made worldwide celebrities of the father and son from Ocala, Fla.
“I was just protecting my son,” Cunningham, 37, said Monday. “There wasn’t a lot of time to think about it. I just reacted.”
In the fifth inning of the Pirates’ spring training game against the Atlanta Braves in Orlando, Ortiz lost his grip on his bat on a swinging strike. The wooden bat whizzed into the seats on the first-base side of the field.
Cunningham and his son, Landon, 8, were seated a few rows behind the Braves’ dugout. The outing was a birthday present for Landon, who had never attended a professional baseball game.
Just before the bat incident, Landon had snapped a photo with his cellphone, then texted it to his mother. As the boy looked down at his phone, Ortiz was fooled by a breaking pitch. He tried to alter his swing but lost his grip on the bat.
Cunningham, a firefighter and former high school baseball player who once trained at Clint Hurdle’s youth baseball camp in Vero Beach, Fla., realized what was happening and thrust out his left arm to protect his son’s face.
“Thank God he has those reflexes,” said Cunningham’s wife, Ashley. “That bat was flying dead-center toward Landon’s head.”
The barrel smacked Cunningham’s arm. As the bat twirled away, the handle caught Landon on the shoulder.
“We’re both fine,” Cunningham said with a chuckle. “I’m a little bruised, but I’ll survive. I’ve been through worse.”
Ortiz stood at the plate for a moment, unsure what to do. When play resumed, he struck out.
“I didn’t know what happened — if it (hurt) the boy or anything,” Ortiz said. “I went home and my wife said to me, ‘You almost killed that kid!’ ”
Ortiz’s wife went online and showed him Horner’s photo — Cunningham’s forearm absorbing the blow, the bat inches from Landon’s face.
“I saw the picture. It was crazy,” Ortiz said. “That guy took a shot for the kid. He protected that kid.”
The photo was picked up by news outlets throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain and Australia. The Cunninghams were asked to appear on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and NBC’s “The Today Show” on Tuesday.
“It’s been crazy all day with all the phone calls,” Ashley Cunningham said. “It was a pretty memorable birthday for Landon. Dad’s really a hero in his eyes.”
Fans who sit in lower-level seats are always at risk of being struck by foul balls or flying bats.
In April, a fan in the seats behind home plate at PNC Park was knocked unconscious by a sharply hit foul ball. The woman was standing with her back to the field and close to the netting, which was flexible enough for the ball to connect with the back of her head.
About a week later, a person watching the Pirates play the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field was clobbered when Addison Russell lost his grip on his bat.
In December, MLB told all 30 teams to consider extending protective nets within 70 feet of home plate.
According to a Pirates spokesman, PNC Park meets the MLB guidelines and there are no plans to add more netting.
“Fan safety is a priority in 2016,” said Danielle Day Huff, president of C&H Baseball, Inc., a Florida-based company that has supplied and installed field equipment to MLB since the 1960s. “Many teams have been actively working to prepare for the MLB recommendation and many were doing so before they were released.”
C&H Baseball has provided netting information to the Pirates. The team was the company’s first baseball customer.
Huff added that it is important for fans to be aware of what’s happening on the field and avoid distractions such as cellphones.
“Fans have to actively watch the game,” Huff said. “It is just like crossing the street — you need to look up from your phone to do so safely.”