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Baseball: mariners sign controversial pitcher

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posted on Jun, 4 2004 @ 05:32 PM
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i hope that we never see this guy in a major league uniform, hope the m's aren't this desperate

If headhunter Ben Christensen deserves break, so does his prey
JOHN MCGRATH; The News Tribune

If you're no more than a casual baseball fan, the news of the Seattle Mariners' acquisition of minor-league pitcher Ben Christensen - a 26-year old right-hander assigned last week to Class AA San Antonio - does not distress you.

It should.


I've never met Christensen, never watched him pitch. But I know who he is, and I know what he did.


On April 23, 1999, Christensen, then an All-America junior at Wichita State, was warming up before a game against the University of Evansville when he noticed leadoff hitter Anthony Molina spying on him from the on-deck circle.


By attempting to synchronize his swing with the pitcher's delivery, Molina, concluded Christensen, had committed a violation of baseball protocol.


Now there'd be hell to pay.


Instead of going to the plate with his warm-up toss, Christensen - a power pitcher touted by scouts as a certain first-round selection in the 1999 baseball draft - fired a fastball at Molina, who'd briefly looked away and didn't have a chance to duck. The ball hit Molina on the left side of the forehead, leaving him with an eye socket fractured in three places and permanently impaired vision.


Christensen's attack on Molina was disturbing not just because it adhered to some bizarre unwritten code prohibiting an on-deck hitter from gaining a timing edge on an


opposing pitcher. (In a fruitless attempt to justify his actions, Christensen pointed out he was following the guidelines of Wichita State assistant coach Brent Kemnitz, who stressed how a pitcher sometimes must use strong-arm tactics to protect his domain. But the beanball thrown to the on-deck circle, both the pitcher and the pitching coach concurred, was not specifically ordered.)


What made Christensen's attack most disturbing was that Anthony Molina was a talented second baseman with his own dreams of reaching the big leagues. Molina returned to school for his senior year and hit .280 - a remarkable achievement, considering the multiple surgeries he endured - but his baseball career was shot the moment his left eye socket was shattered.


Molina did have a brief stint with the Schaumburg Flyers of the independent Northern League, but consistently hitting a baseball is a difficult premise for a healthy athlete. (See Jordan, Michael.) For somebody whose vision in his left eye is 20-70, the task is impossible.


These days Molina works in southern Indiana as a furniture mover. He has coached at a junior college, and he has aspirations of one day making it to the big leagues in the same capacity.


"Most coaches played in the majors," Molina told the Chicago Sun-Times recently, "but there's no doubt in my mind I would've played professional baseball."


And Christensen? Prosecutors declined to pursue charges, and although he recently was forced to pay an undisclosed amount to Molina in a civil suit, the prospect escaped the incident with his career intact. Five weeks after beaning a leadoff hitter standing 24 feet from home plate, Christensen became a first-round draft choice of the Chicago Cubs, who awarded him a $1 million signing bonus.


As it turns out, the unnatural arm motion required to throw a baseball came to haunt Christensen in a way the law never could. He's had arm problems not entirely solved by Tommy John surgery, and when the Cubs released the reliever a few weeks ago, his record at Class AA West Tennessee was 0-1, with a 4.91 ERA over 11 innings. His fastball, reports indicate, has lost its zip.


That fate retaliated against Christensen was not something generally mourned. Unlike his victim, Christensen had been given a chance to succeed in pro baseball - and, in any event, had a $1 million bonus to show for three undistinguished minor-league seasons and part of a fourth. Cut by the Cubs, perhaps Christensen would see what it's like to be denied the big-league dreams that were stolen from Molina.


Which brings us to the next chapter in the Ben Christensen saga: His rescue by the Mariners, an organization that, for better or worse, prides itself on the public image of its players.


Remember the "Ya Gotta Love These Guys" marketing campaign? Remember how, after outspoken Braves relief pitcher John Rocker - he of the racist rantings in Sports Illustrated - was made available on the waiver wire, the Mariners quickly (and wisely) decided that the presence of a human time bomb might undermine team chemistry?


Whatever you might think of Rocker's potential to alienate a clubhouse, at least he was a big-league pitcher who'd had a measure of success. Besides arm-strength problems and the hand he had in authoring the cheapest cheap shot in baseball history, precisely what does Ben Christensen bring to the table of an organization noted for its wealth of young pitchers?


Look, I'm all for cutting guys a break. To watch the admirable effort of longtime-minor-league-catcher-turned-knuckleball-specialist Scott Maynard as he made his starting-pitching debut for the Rainiers on Monday in Cheney Stadium was to be reminded that there is no more powerful plot line in baseball than the improbably revived career.


From Roy Hobbs in "The Natural" to the real-life stories of Gates Brown and Ron LeFlore - ex-cons who graduated to the major leagues and made the game richer in the process - redemption is a recurring theme.


But if the Mariners can make room in San Antonio for a headhunter who almost killed a man, they might want to see if they've got a coaching spot open for a furniture mover in southern Indiana.


Anthony Molina deserves a second chance. Ben Christensen stole the first one.




John




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