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Dodgers' Hiroki Kuroda will face fears head-on

Pitcher is set to start Sunday against San Diego for first time since suffering a concussion after being struck by comebacker Aug. 15. He admits he's scared but says he's thankful it wasn't worse.

September 04, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

For days now, people have talked in amazement about Hiroki Kuroda's last pitch.

The ball coming off the bat of Arizona's Rusty Ryal, shooting into the side of Kuroda's head, bouncing off his skull and back into the stands, dropping him to the dirt with a ground-rule concussion.

For days now, people have talked in amazement about Hiroki Kuroda's last pitch, which sent me to Dodger Stadium on Thursday in search of something even more compelling.

His next pitch.

How exactly does one do that?

A soft cap covering his head, memories of violent pain filling his brain, how does a pitcher resume taking giant steps within 55 feet of a man swinging a bat?

How does a pitcher return to the mound and throw a ball that he now knows can unequivocally kill him?

Kuroda is supposed to start Sunday against San Diego for the first time since the Aug. 15 incident, and while everyone around Dodger Stadium shrugs, I wonder about the shivers.

How does Hiroki Kuroda handle the proven danger? How does he swallow the new fear?

"I've never been hit in the head, and there are plenty of times that even I still flinch," said Dodgers pitcher Randy Wolf. "I really don't know how someone does it."

It happens every summer throughout baseball, pitchers taking balls off the head, pitchers crumpling on the mound, pitchers wheeled off on stretchers, pitchers returning several weeks later to willingly expose themselves to danger again.

As if nothing ever happened.

How exactly does that happen?

Kuroda shook his head.

It's not so easy, he admitted. You have to make it happen, he acknowledged.

"We're all human beings, so there's a little bit of fear, but we have to overcome it," he said through an interpreter.

It is a lot to overcome. Pitchers will rarely publicly admit it, but privately many agree there might be no greater fear in baseball.

"I've never been hit before, so I have no idea how you do it, and I don't want to know," said Dodgers reliever Will Ohman, knocking his hands on his wooden locker.

"I wouldn't know either," added reliever George Sherrill. "I just know that guys do it."

Think about it. Even a batter who gets beaned might have it easier than a pitcher who gets drilled.

The batter gets to return to work wearing a helmet, and batting into a background that is conducive to seeing the ball.

The pitcher has no helmet, and because he is staring into box seats filled with shirts, it is sometimes tough to see anything coming back at him.

"Based on where I throw the ball, there are certain batters I face where I automatically put my glove up to my face," Wolf said.

Kuroda understands.

The fear that he acknowledged began that first night in an Arizona hospital. He said he dreamed the ball was hitting his head, again and again.

"Many dreams," he said.

The dreams were so real, they caused a physical reaction.

"My hand was automatically moving when I was asleep," he said.

The fear continued the following day when he saw the video of the hit.

"It was scary and I thought, how did I survive?" he said.

He hasn't seen the video since. He hasn't had any dreams since.

He has tried to shove it all into the darkest corner of his tightest glare, as he did with many things during his 11-year career in Japan.

Back there, he was known as a tough guy. Once he argued against missing a start on the day of his father's death. Another time he actually walked out of the hospital on his pregnant wife to make a start.

Kuroda's team won with him, but the baby was born without him.

"That was a pretty noble thing to do in Japan," he said.

Last season, this swagger continued, as he was the only Dodgers starter who seemed unaffected by the October hype, winning both of his postseason starts.

Injuries have kept him to only 16 starts this season with average results, so, typically, he has felt guilty about not contributing.

Thus he showed up last weekend, only two weeks after an injury that sometimes sidelines pitchers for months, taking the mound in Cincinnati to face a live hitter for the first time.

Understanding his nerves while protecting his head, the Dodgers ordered him to pitch behind a screen, and he had no problems.

"It takes a little talk within yourself," said Dodgers Manager Joe Torre.

Kuroda talked, and listened.

"I just have to consider myself lucky, and I have to bring that luck with me throughout the rest of my baseball career," he said.

He was deemed healed enough to be sent down to pitch for the Class-A Inland Empire 66ers in San Bernardino this week for a rehabilitation start, and guess what?

First batter, ball up the middle, and he never flinched.

"It wasn't really close to me," he protested. "It came toward me, but it was above my head, so it wasn't a big deal."

After five innings, he had given up only five hits and no earned runs, earning him a return to the active roster for Sunday's game, about which he has three thoughts.

First, he's thankful.

"I'm grateful that I'm able to pitch on a major league mound again," he said.

Second, he's duty-bound.

"I feel obligated, it's my duty as a professional athlete and a starting pitcher to start a game," he said.

Third, well, yeah, he's scared.

"It would be a lie to say that I am fearless," he said. "I'm human. I have fear."

Dodger Stadium being a place of humans, here's hoping Hiroki Kuroda will be fearlessly cheered.

Maybe not for every pitch, but certainly for his next one.


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