By Dick Flavin
Boston Red Sox Poet Laureate
and New York Times Best Selling Author
HIGH AND INSIDE
I was watching the game the other night as Andrew Benintendi of the Red Sox stood at
bat against Ryne Stanek of the Tampa Bay Rays. Stanek, who throws in the high nineties
(who doesn’t these days?), seemed to be having troubles with his control, and he
delivered a pitch that was high and inside – a little too high and a little too inside. It
appeared to be headed right towards Benintendi’s neck, but he ducked and spun out of the
way, his momentum carrying him out of the batter’s box, though he never lost his
He straightened his batting helmet, looked briefly out at Stanek, stepped back into the
box, and the at-bat continued without incident; but it took me back to a day many years
ago, when I, too, was threatened by an inside pitch.
I was, I think, only about thirteen years old and was hanging around the local ballfield
one day when some older kids, maybe sixteen or seventeen years old, were playing a
pick-up game. They apparently needed another body to fill out the lineup because I was
asked if I’d like to play. “Sure, why not?” I answered, although I knew I was totally out
of my league. So I went into the game as the right fielder, except when a left-handed
batter was up, when I was shifted to left.
I was the ninth hitter in the lineup, and eventually my turn at bat came up. I stood in there
against a big kid who pitched for his high school team. His first pitch was a fastball, waist
high, but inside. It was – I don’t know – maybe 75 or 80 miles per hour, but I had never
witnessed anything so fast come that close to me. It was, to be honest, frightening; or at
least I was frightened. I pulled my hands out of the way to avoid being hit but realized
immediately that I hadn’t done so until after the ball had thunked into the mitt of the
My God, I thought to myself, that thing could have hit me! And hurt me! I waved feebly
at the next three pitches and was relieved to take a seat without having been seriously
maimed; embarrassed, maybe, but not maimed.
I think of that day every so often when a batter is threatened by, or hit by, a pitch. It takes
a certain amount of courage (foolhardiness?) to stand in there against someone who is
throwing a missile in your direction at speeds approaching, and sometimes exceeding,
100 miles per hour. And that missile ain’t a beanbag, it’s as hard as a rock. A baseball,
thrown at a high rate of speed, can do significant damage.
Just ask Ray Chapman. Well, you can’t ask Ray Chapman because he’s dead; killed by a
pitched ball almost a century ago. Carl Mays, a notorius head-hunter with the New York
Yankees, fractured Chapman’s skull with a fastball on August 16, 1920. The Cleveland
shorstop died the next morning. Batting helmets have since greatly reduced the risk of
such injuries, but the risk is still there. Tony Conigliaro of the Red Sox was wearing a
helmet when he was hit in the face by a Jack Hamilton fastball in 1967. He made a
comeback from the incident but was never again the same.
Every batter is at risk every time he comes to the plate, and every batter knows it. Unlike
Chapman, he probably won’t die, but he might get a broken bone. If he’s lucky he’ll just
have a bruise that will be sore as hell for a couple of weeks.
Carlton Fisk tells a story about facing the legendary fireballer, Nolan Ryan. A heater at
about 100 MPH came right at his head. He barely had time to duck his head, instinctively
raising his left shoulder in the process. The ball glanced off his shoulder, then caromed
off his helmet, sending it flying. Fisk went to the ground, but it had only been glancing
blow and he wasn’t hurt. He picked himself up and went to first base, but the realization
of what almost had happened, and that he had not had time to get out of the way, left him
shaken. Two innings later he came to bat against Ryan again. Still shaking, he signalled
for a conference with third base coach Don Zimmer, knowing Zimmer had suffered a
beaning in his minor league days that had left him an a coma for two weeks. Fisk thought
the coach might be able to give him some guidance on how to deal with the situation.
Zimmer came down from the coach’s box and said there no were special plays on. “I
know,” said Fisk. “I’m just not ready to step in against this guy yet.” To which Zimmer
replied, “I don’t [here insert a colorful colloquialism] blame ya,” and headed back to the
Pudge tells the story with great humor but it speaks to the unvarnished truth that a batter’s
box can be a dangerous place when there is a man standing just sixty feet, six inches,
away with a lethal weapon in his hand. That man might not have complete control over
that weapon, or, worse, he might have control and intend to use it to intimidate you.
That’s a gritty, unglamorous reality of baseball, and it’s always been that way.
Sixty years ago the Yankees had a relief pitcher, Ryne Duren, who was known for his
blazing fastball, his very poor vision (he wore coke bottle thick glasses), and erratic
control. When he came into a game he’d throw his first warmup pitch, a fastball, so high
and wide that it caromed off the backstop. That, you can be sure, got the attention of the
man on the on deck circle.
A contemporary of Duren’s was Early Wynn of the Indians, of whom it was said, “He’d
knock his own mother on her ass if he thought she was digging in against him,” and he
would have. So would have Pedro Martinez, or Randy Johnson, or Roger Clemens, or
Bob Gibson; and so would have – and did – Carl Mays.