CHICAGO — Probably the most common fear for youngsters learning the game of baseball is one that can stay with them even if they reach the major leagues--the fear of being hit by a pitch.
Despite the advances in batting helmets and all the precautions that can be taken, there always is the possibility a Little Leaguer can be severely beaned. Depending upon a child's reaction, he or she may bounce back or have scars that cause them to drop the game.
In Dickie Thon's case, he played for 20 years without such an incident. Then, in the first week of the 1984 season he was severely hurt by a pitch from Mike Torrez of the New York Mets.
The Houston shortstop, considered one of the best young players in the game at the time he was hit, is back after it was feared his career might be over.
The South Bend, Ind., native is far short of his statistics of 1983 when he hit 20 homers and batted .286. But he is back.
He is still struggling to regain his everyday status. He still must fight to stay on the 24-man roster. His hitting has suffered in recent weeks and there have been suggestions he needs another eye examination to see if the hit he received caused more damage than initially feared.
Thon has advice for youngsters who get hit, even if it is a glancing blow. The main thing: don't give up.
"I was taught from the very first time I picked up a bat not to fear the baseball," Thon said. "You can't let it cause you fear, even if you do get hit."
Thon found the biggest transition, when you come back from a beaning, is to be comfortable in the batter's box. It is a difficult transition but one that is paramount if fears are to be calmed.
"The important thing is to feel right when you face the pitcher, to be comfortable," Thon said. "I know for me, facing big league pitching again, it was difficult. I don't mean to tell any young player that it's going to be easy."
Other ballplayers have taken pretty much the same philosophy as Thon.
"If you get hit, it's part of the game," said Chicago White Sox catcher Carlton Fisk. "You aren't consciously thinking about it when you get up there."
Some players have made getting hit a part of their living. Ron Hunt, formerly of the New York Mets, would "take one for the team" as players like to say by being hit by a pitch. Minnie Minoso, the former Chicago White Sox veteran, used to say in given situations, he would not move out of the way if his being hit by a pitch would help his club.
But there are the more serious sides when players have been hit. For example, Texas catcher Don Slaught was hit by a pitch earlier this season. He required corrective surgery after the incident, which again caught the eye of nearly every evening sportscast the following day.
Thon has been hit since his incident--a minor glancing blow off the leg. He tells young ballplayers he isn't worried about a replay of the incident happening again.
"You can't think about that. If you do, you should stop playing immediately," Thon said. "If you can get back and not think about it, then you are ready to play the game."
Thon's comeback from the incident is inspirational. Such a beaning could have convinced some of the bravest of athletes not to try to come back.
But Thon worked hard, both mentally and physically.