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Deja Whew

Kim Is Living Proof That Lightning Can Strike Twice in Same Place

November 03, 2001|Roger Kahn | Roger Kahn, the author of "The Boys of Summer" and other baseball books, writes periodically for The Times

After reading one sportswriter's suggestion that baseball was a game proceeding from terror, I flew to Pittsburgh once to probe that thesis with Branch Rickey, called "the Mahatma," as fine an intellect as the sport has known. The writer had suggested that a pitched ball was a missile and, before anything else, every batter had to deal with that.

Sitting on a black leather sofa in the lobby of the Hotel William Penn, Rickey puffed daunting clouds of cigar smoke and said:

"A batter is afraid of several things. First, he is afraid--if he makes out--that he looks like a fool before his teammates. Second, he is afraid that he looks like a fool in his own eyes. Third, but only third, very distant, he is afraid that the baseball might hit him."

The recent adventures and tears of small, sidewinding Byung-Hyun Kim, the Arizona Diamondbacks' relief pitcher from South Korea, brought back that afternoon. The young man, who is all of 22, came into the World Series as a closer and twice let games slip away with two out in the ninth inning.

He arrives from a foreign land, in which this country once waged a questionable war, and works a World Series when our country is engaged in war again, this one unquestioned.

Arizona people don't yet know how much English Kim speaks. He employs an interpreter. But internationally, Kim lost with a flair he would like to forget, twice throwing home run balls.

After the second homer, by Scott "Not So Ferocious" Brosius, Kim squatted on the mound in an awkward, rigid posture. In effect, he had lost two World Series games in two days. After the Brosius homer, he became a soldier facing shrapnel. Tears seeped from his eyes. He could not move.

As the late Billy Martin said, "If losing ain't important, why do they keep score?"

Once you become a professional ballplayer, winning becomes the centerpiece of life. Some remember Grantland Rice's lines:

*

When the One Great Scorer comes

To write against your name,

He marks not that you won or lost,

But how you played the game.

*

This quatrain made many Americans, including Ronald Reagan, go weepy. But after a while, John Lardner offered a more practical effort:

Write or wrong is all the same

When baby needs new shoes.

It isn't how you play the game,

It's whether you win or lose.

*

Leo Mazzone, the great pitching coach in Atlanta, says he finds no fault with Arizona Manager Bob Brenly, or the Diamondbacks' pitching coach, Bob Welch, for letting Kim spend critical mound time alone.

"Those trips to the mound can be overrated," Mazzone said Friday. "You work out that stuff before the game."

Well, Leo is the Pope of Pitching. I'm not sure Welch, the onetime Dodger, can prepare someone in Mazzone's remarkable manner. But I'm not certain enough of that to dispute Leo.

The Yankees have swaggered toward a Series lead, and after Sept. 11, it is hard to root against New York, or even Joe Torre, who has grown--how to put this--excessively self-confident, or the others, from dour Paul O'Neill to sullen Mike Mussina. But I cannot get our of my mind a picture of one Byung-Hyun Kim. Out of Korea. I remember Ralph Branca throwing a not-very-good fastball up and in to Bobby Thomson. That bad pitch gained renown as "The shot heard 'round the world."

Branca had won 21 games when he was 21 years old. After Thomson's homer, Branca's record slipped. At 29, he put his right arm into a broom closet and began selling insurance.

Don Newcombe, 6-feet-4, and 220 pounds, was a mighty warrior as baseball battled for integration. Pitching for the Dodgers, Newcombe twice won 20 games and once won 27. But he could not beat the Yankees in October.

Newcombe's World Series record, of 0-4, hit an ebb in 1956. With two strikes on Yogi Berra, Newcombe threw a splendid fastball. Foul tip, into the glove of Roy Campanella, who dropped the ball. Here comes another swifty. Berra adjusted and hit the ball into Bedford Avenue.

Newcombe started the seventh game, which the Yankees won, 9-0. He stalked early off the mound, dressed and left Ebbets Field. He then, by his own account, threw a hard shove at a child who'd asked for an autograph.

Again, by his own account, Newcombe descended into alcoholism. By the time he was 34, Big Newk was out of baseball. (Subsequently he stopped drinking and toured, preaching about the woes of booze and drugs.)

As the therapists say, and even now are saying, a support structure really could have helped Branca and Newcombe.

Along with Mazzone, the Braves have employed a psychologist and no fewer than five physicians. Losing Atlanta pitchers do not have to weep alone.

I hope the Diamondbacks are that sophisticated. As for Torre and the Yankees, man, how can you root against New York, a Bin Laden target? But may the city return, may the bridges be safe and may that skinny kid from Korea get some help so that compassion--America's glorious answer to terrorism--asserts itself and makes us very proud.

WORLD SERIES

NEW YORK VS. ARIZONA

Yankees lead, 3-2

GAME 6--TONIGHT

at Arizona, 4:45 PST

Starters--Yankee LH Andy Pettitte vs. Diamondback LH Randy Johnson

GAME 7--SUNDAY*

at Arizona, 4:45 PST

Starters--Yankee RH Roger Clemens vs. Diamondback RH Curt Schilling

*if necessary

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