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Pitchers are bringing back the brushback


NEW YORK -- Evidence accumulates in the form of X-rays, fractured bones and bruises. The charge against pitchers is throwing buzz balls with intent to do mental damage or bodily harm.

This is not a new complaint by hitters. However, the subject has been dusted off, so to say, since the 1992 season began. The reason is many players are being struck by baseballs, and all of them are hitters.

Hitters admit that it is fair for a pitcher to throw inside. Fair or not, they wish the practice would stop. It disturbs their concentration. It makes them fall down and get dirty. And when actually hit by a pitch, they say it hurts something fierce.

Wiser than they appear, pitchers are aware of these nervous reactions. That's why they do it. Throwing inside is a weapon and warning. The message is, dig in near the plate and I'll dump you.

The brushback pitch was common during baseball's primitive age. That is, before advances such as designated hitters, agents and arbitration, and artificial rugs. So grand the game always marches onward and upward.

Perhaps this explains why the knockdown pitch became virtually extinct until recently. It was too indelicate for the modern era. It bordered on being unsportsmanlike. Pitchers did not throw at hitters because it was not nice.

One must also assign a degree of compassion to pitchers. They wish to avoid inflicting intention injury upon a fellow competitor. Baseball thus became a kinder, gentler exercise.

By any definition -- knockdown, brushback or beanball -- the practice of shaving a hitter's whiskers had become more rarity than regular feature. Not any more. It's now taught and practiced.

The Texas Rangers encouraged pitchers during the spring to rediscover the inside portion of the batter's box. More to the point, to claim the area as their rightful domain.

The question of intent always arises when a pitcher hits a batter. Did he mean to plunk the guy or was it an accident? Two such incidents from Tuesday night's action illustrate the difference.

Kevin Brown of the Rangers hit Randy Velarde of the New York Yankees on the shoulder with a high, inside serve. No way Brown meant to do it. His tense task was to protect a 1-0 edge. Velarde led off the sixth. Putting him aboard could have been a game-turning mistake.

The situation absolved Brown of malicious intent. Not so Dave Stieb of the Toronto Blue Jays.

Stieb hit the California Angels' Bobby Rose in the head. Stieb surely didn't mean to hit Rose there. But he meant to hit him somewhere. This situation indicted Stieb.

The Angels were roughing him up. Lance Parrish had homered. Stieb upheld an absurd tradition of retaliation. The next batter, an innocent, goes down.

Only one player in major-league history went down from being hit and never got up. Ray Chapman of the Cleveland Indians was killed during the 1920s after being struck in the head. Others have had careers ended or impaired.

Struck in the face, the late Tony Conigliaro suffered blurred vision. The young Boston Red Sox slugger never was the same. Some say Rangers shortstop Dickie Thon failed to emerge full blossom from a similar episode in 1984 when he played for Houston.

A fastball from Mike Torrez of the New York Mets crushed Thon's left cheekbone. Now 33, his career restored, Thon can witness to the restored fashion of pitchers working inside.

His own case first. He blamed himself more than Torrez. The situation did not dictate intimidation.

"He had struck me out the first time with sliders away," Thon said before a 5-1 Rangers victory Wednesday night over the Yankees. "I was looking away again. He got me by surprise."

Throwing inside is known as a purpose pitch. Thon said players can distinguish whether the purpose is to make contact or merely warn. When the pitch is deemed deliberate, "that is when you get to fight," he said.

Thon heats up at the sight of a knockdown of the batter who follows a home run: "Usually it's a smaller guy. If you don't like what he did, hit the guy that hit the home run."

Hitters have no complaint. They have been forewarned. If you take a bat to the plate, bring along a hard hat and jump rope.

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