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Most athletes, even those who posture, are distant brothers to the stableboy. They know the sensation of a single butterfly fluttering up to their throats. Expressions covering fear are common—he choked up, his lump came up—including references to anatomical shortcomings in various parts of the body. Fear of physical hurt, of failure, dwells in the secret places of an athlete's consciousness, but few, most of them boxers, will even say that fear is often an agent of boldness. A player who admits fear is like a surgeon who confesses to having bad hands; it is not good for business.
"How do you kill fear?" Joseph Conrad wanted to know. "How do you shoot a spectre through the heart, slash off its spectral head, take it by its spectral throat?" That is what fear is in sports: ghostly, never seen, never heard, yet there, like a barely perceived ground fog far away. And of all the private terrors in sports, none is more swift in the extinction of a career, none sits on the shoulder of a player more threateningly nor extinguishes the spirit more abruptly, none is more deadly than the beanball.
Almost childish in its playground sound, the word can turn a dugout into a savage pit, can zipper the biggest mouth. Consider it again, picture the objects: a head and a ball. The head seems to be the easiest part of the body to move, but it isn't; a head has to be conditioned to move in an instant. Mainly because of the peripheral vision required, football, soccer and basketball demand superb head movements. This is not true of baseball, a game more of sharp angles than of fluid arcs, a game in which the athleticism is more studied than free-form. Rather than head agility, which many of them do not have, batters rely on instinct, the quick recognition of spins and paths of thrown balls, to preserve their fragile heads against the physics of ball and velocity.
Look closer at the head, and its vulnerability is even more chilling. The entire face is exposed, and the skull casing, eight hundredths of an inch thick at the temple, is protected by a thin plastic helmet. That is hardly a match for the pitcher, standing out on the rise of ground 60'6" away, so close, it seems, he could tell if one of your incisors needs dental work. The rise, of course, is never a mound. It is the Grand Teton, and on top of it (whatever happened to little pitchers like Bobby Shantz?) is usually a gentleman who is tall and bony, or tall and as wide as a bus. It does not matter, for they all seem immense and have foul dispositions.
In his hand (a prehistoric paw might be more apt) is a ball, a large white tablet of poison three inches in diameter. What he does with that very hard ball, and what you do with it, will be the basis for endless analyses and judgments: contracts sent back and forth with notes of hurt, maybe arbitration and more hurt, long winters of kicking your favorite hunting dog. According to hitters, the trouble is that a pitcher can do too much with the ball. He can make it curve like a cougar buzzing around a mountain corner, or give it a lunch-pail hop that, like the curve, has turned many an earnest young man into a labor statistic. He also can stick it in your ear—at 90 mph.
Along with the abject case of Tony Conigliaro of the Red Sox, who recently found himself on a lonely beach running with his golden retriever and trying to accept or reject being sent down to Pawtucket, the history of baseball is littered with the crumpled wills, ended careers and expired aggressiveness of players who have been hit in the head. Only one has been killed. He was Cleveland's Ray Chapman, who was felled in 1920 by a pitch from Yankee Carl Mays. Mays' pitches came from around the knees (from the bottom of hell, that's what hitters think of that kind of pitch), and although he was not the vicious predator some thought he was, he was not exactly fraternal either. Ty Cobb remembered the incident well: "The ball had rebounded from his left temple so hard that it bounded down to Aaron Ward at third base. Ward, thinking it a bunt, had scooped it up and shot it over to Wally Pipp at first." Chapman collapsed at the plate and died that night in the hospital.
Just a snap of the fingers is how long it takes for a pitch to be on top of you, and there is no question that it is the most dangerous moment in team sports. "It's dangerous every time you step in the batter's box," says Dave Cash of the Phillies. "Your life is on the line. You're subject to getting killed. I hate to put it that way, but how else can you put it?"
The Orioles' Paul Blair would agree, for he survived one of the messier beanings in recent years when he was hit by Ken Tatum of the Angels in 1970. The ball hit him on the left side of the nose and the lower part of the orbital ridge. His eye was swollen shut. "I put his nose back in place," said the doctor, "but we'll probably have to operate just to set it. It was all over his face."
Luckier than Blair, the Orioles' Brooks Robinson has been hit in the head seven times, although his reflexes are as sharp as a stropped razor. "Even if that's not a record, I've had enough," says Robinson, who recalls everything about each beaning but the color of the pitcher's eyes. "If it is a record, let's pray it stands unchallenged by any batter forever. It's amazing to me that more guys don't get hit. When you get a guy out there throwing hard, it's only a matter of inches. Even if the ball's close to being a strike, say four or five inches inside, you can get hit. When a guy throws hard, I don't care who you are, he has a scare factor going for him. And if you get hit too many times, it scares you. You think about it, think you might have a blind spot."
As basic a drive in humans as it is in baboons or mockingbirds, establishing dominance of territory is central to hitter vs. pitcher. Territory is at the core of many games, but never is it so maddeningly subtle as it is in this conflict that brings into play elaborate gamesmanship over a strike zone 12 inches wide and little more than two feet high. Catchers study it as if it were a map of land mines; pitchers keep elaborate mental and written notes on who did what while there; managers become crazed over it; and hitters twist and snarl in their sleep, dreaming of textbook pitches that are low and away. Even the best hitters view that portion of the plate through a glass darkly; it is a graveyard of lost ships, that killing ground.