HOUSTON — Former Houston Astros player Brandon Backe testified Tuesday in Houston’s federal court, about a mile from the team’s Opening Day celebration at Minute Maid Park.
The visibly emotional pitcher recalled the end of his professional baseball career and claimed his retirement in 2009 was forced by a shoulder injury he suffered at the hands of Galveston police officers less than a year earlier.
Backe, an island native who was a star player at Ball High School and Galveston College before entering the Major League Baseball draft, is among 12 men suing the city and some of the more than 30 police officers involved in an incident at The San Luis Resort’s H20 bar in October 2008, hours after a wedding.
Backe, a groomsman at the wedding, said he was at the bar with his wife, members of the wedding party and other guests shortly after the reception.
When Backe and most of the guests at the bar heard a commotion, they walked just outside the bar to see the bride’s handcuffed brother bloody and lying on the ground with Taser wires sticking out of his back.
When one of the officers standing near Cole O’Balle used profanity and asked Backe to back away, the then-professional baseball player said he put his hands in the air and asked the officer to “chill out.”
Backe said he was unable to back away because a crowd was behind him and told the officer as much. The officer grabbed Backe’s chest and shoved him against a wall before throwing him to the ground, Backe said.
He said a group of three to four officers “jumped on me,” kicking and beating him. Backe said he never resisted and never took any aggressive action toward the officers, before or after he was detained.
Backe was driven to the police station by an officer he said took “violent turns” to throw Backe and another man about the police car and was released about six hours later.
Backe said he went to Mainland Medical Center that day to have wounds to his face and head examined but didn’t complain about a shoulder injury until months later, when spring training for the 2009 season was getting underway.
He said he was not initially forthright about his shoulder injury because he at first didn’t think it was serious, and Backe referred to a common view among professional players that some injuries can be played through.
Backe and the jury were shown highlights of Backe pitching in Game 5 of the 2004 National League Championship Series and Game 4 of the 2005 World Series, where he had seven strikeouts and allowed five hits.
In 2006, Backe underwent elbow surgery. In 2008, Backe’s first full season back, he was statistically one of the worst starting pitchers in the league, going 9-14 in a career-high 31 starts with a 6.05 ERA.
In 2009, Backe made only eight appearances before being released by the Astros.
Former Houston Astros manager Phil Garner testified Tuesday that a pitcher recovering from the “Tommy John” surgery Backe underwent would require two years to recover fully, and Backe said he fully expected to make a comeback in 2009.
Backe, who said he underwent two surgeries months after the alleged brutality in 2008 and had several pieces of bone fragment removed from his shoulder, contended that Galveston police officers were responsible for the end of his career in professional baseball.
He was released from the Houston Astros in 2009. Backe had expected lucrative contract opportunities in free agency before the surgeries to his shoulder, but said he was forced to quit playing professionally.
“I was sick of the pain I had to deal with,” he said. “I was tired of taking medicine. It just came to a breaking point where I basically knew I was done.”
Attorney William Helfand, who is representing the city and the accused officers, has argued that Backe’s shoulder injury was likely caused by a strenuous pitching career or another factor, rather than the use of force by Galveston police. He has also contended that Backe did not attribute his shoulder injury to the officers until 2010, when Backe filed a lawsuit seeking millions of dollars in damages from the city.
Under cross-examination by Helfand, who told Backe he had been in attendance at Minute Maid Park in 2005 for Game 4 of the World Series against the Chicago White Sox, Backe said the injury had taken time to manifest itself.
A tearful Backe said he now struggles to perform tasks such as buckling a seat belt or grabbing a milk jug out of the refrigerator.
Backe played his final game as a professional baseball player in 2009 in Arlington. He said his last time on the mound came years before it should have.
“I think that’s what every baseball player, professional athlete, wants — is just be able to hang them up yourself, and not have somebody hang them up for you,” he said.
Backe is expected to continue testifying today.
Contact reporter Alex Macon at 409-683-5241 or firstname.lastname@example.org.