Suddenly, boys of spring face grown-up dangers of their game


SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- The lighthearted business of spring training came to an abrupt halt around Scottsdale Stadium. There just wasn't anything nice to discuss. The grim, bitter side of the game had arrived like a thunderstorm, and it wasn't blowing over any time soon.

At Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, Matt Keough lay in the intensive-care unit after being hit in the head by a foul ball. Across the street, at the ballpark, San Francisco Giants rookie sensation John Patterson, who hit the foul, looked shaken and worried. And manager Roger Craig had just heard the disturbing news that pitcher Trevor Wilson has a broken rib, with words like "cyst" and "tumor" showing up in his vague prognosis.

Even the ballpark itself, that idyllic little stadium in the sun, was coming under question.

"Everything was going so good," Craig said. "All the enthusiasm we had, the spark our young kids were giving us . . . I don't know, you still have to be optimistic, but . . . damn."

Craig's six-year run with the Giants has been tormented by injuries, particularly to pitchers. From Atlee Hammaker to Dave Dravecky, from Mike Krukow to Kelly Downs -- it seems they've all been hurt, in every conceivable manner. And now it is Wilson.

With luck, Wilson will be pitching in April, as if nothing ever happened. The flip side is too depressing for Craig to even consider.

The news on Keough was more definitive. His condition had improved from critical to serious, and he was reported to be cognizant and alert, with full use of his extremities. But the fact remained that Keough, merely biding his time in the Angels' dugout, had suffered a life-threatening injury during Monday's game.

"Sometimes," said Giants hitting coach Dusty Baker, "you forget how dangerous this game really is."

Keough was felled by a line drive off the bat of Patterson, one of the brightest spring prospects the Giants have seen in years.

Tuesday morning, as he walked out of the clubhouse, Patterson stopped for a moment and gazed into the vacant dugout, visualizing the exact spot where Keough had been sitting. The memory could stick with Patterson a while, because if he's sent to Triple-A, he'll be playing all of his home games at Scottsdale Stadium.

"I remembered the reaction of Matt's teammates," said Patterson, "the sight of him lying unconscious there. I'm doing all right, I guess. I'm glad to know he's OK.

"I really feel bad for him and his family. Other than that, there's not much I can say."

The Giants didn't want him to say much more. Craig, sensing the kid was troubled, asked that Patterson issue a general statement to keep the media off his back. "I just don't want people bugging him about it all day," Craig said.

The unspoken concern was Patterson's long-term reaction -- whether he could shake it off and get back to business. "I remember one spring, Duke Snider broke his bat on a pitch from Larry Jackson," said Craig, "and a piece of the bat flew out and broke Jackson's jaw. There was the Steve Yeager incident, too. I'm sure Dusty remembers that one."

He does. "God, that was ugly," said Baker, a former Dodger. "Bill Russell broke his bat with Yeager in the on-deck circle, and Steve was looking the other way. A piece of that thing just helicoptered over there and cut Yeager's throat open. It could have killed him -- almost did."

General manager Al Rosen recalled old Cleveland teammate Herb Score, whose brilliant pitching career was severely curtailed by a line drive to the face off the bat of Gil McDougald in 1957.

"Gil was never the same after that," said Rosen. "He never forgot. He just wasn't the same player."

Giants announcer Duane Kuiper also had a story. "The one I remember is Ray Knight," he said. "Sometime around the early '70s, in Indianapolis, a minor-league game. He hit a line drive, foul, and it hit a little baby right in the head. The kid was in critical condition for a long time, and Ray visited the hospital every day. It had a tremendous effect on him.

"It's a random kind of thing, all of these incidents we're talking about," said Kuiper, "but it's still tough to get it out of your mind. It makes you realize the risk you're taking when you sit in the stands.

"I remember this one guy, a peanut vendor in Milwaukee. He's going, 'Get your peanuts' and WHAM! -- just a pea, right off his head. Completely flattened him. Hell, the guy got right up. He looked like a MASH unit, selling peanuts."

When it comes to Scottsdale Stadium, meanwhile, you're talking about a brand-new image. Just last week it was the ultimate ballpark, a jewel of intimacy and flavor. Now people are beginning to realize how dangerous the place really is.

The dugouts are probably closer to the foul lines than any others in professional baseball. General manager Rosen said he was already considering the installation of short, protective fences, "because the dugouts are so long, it would keep a lot of loose balls in play."

In the wake of the Keough incident, that seems like an especially good idea.

The press box and the administrative offices are shielded by protective glass, but somebody picked the wrong variety. Three panels have already broken during the first week of games.

And then there is the biggest concern of all, a 20-foot screen behind home plate. There is nothing more vicious than a straight-back foul ball, and about 20 rows of seats are unprotected, wide-open targets. Several fans have been plunked already, including a man in his 60s who took one on the chest.

"Looks like I'd better my cancel my tee time," he joked, but one of these days, it won't be funny. The Phoenix-Scottsdale area is a retirement community, and the crowds are decidedly older. The prospect of serious injuries, lawsuits or deaths is quite real.

"The balls shoot back there like flying missiles," said Rosen. "We're definitely going to address these problems as quickly as we can."

Meanwhile, the games continue. As the Giants took batting practice, Craig Colbert hit a pop-up that found its way through the cage and into open air. "Ball!" shouted Baker, warning those nearby. Everybody flinched, a bit more animatedly than usual.

@4 Sometimes this game isn't the slightest bit fun.

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