SAN FRANCISCO - For those who witnessed it, the moment is etched in the brain, a horrifying succession of images that shattered the idyllic setting of a Mariner spring-training game with the Giants in Scottsdale, Ariz.
The thud when Randy Johnson's 97-mph fastball hit J.T. Snow's face. Snow's legs flailing as he lay on the ground. A distraught Johnson bent over Snow, telling him, "I'm sorry." The seemingly interminable wait for an ambulance to take Snow to a hospital.
Many observers wondered if Snow would play again this season, so catastrophic seemed the beaning March 11 by baseball's hardest thrower. Some wondered if he'd play again.
Well, Snow is playing again, quite well. He has made a stunning recovery from the incident, which left him with a fractured orbital bone of the left eye and a new outlook on the fragility of a career.
Snow was in the Giants' Opening Day lineup - just three weeks after being hit - and has played in every game this season. He was batting .293 through Friday and is playing Gold Glove-caliber first base. And if the Giants happen to draw Johnson during their interleague games with Seattle in June and early July, Snow said he's ready and willing to step back into the box to face the Big Unit.
"I don't have any hesitation," he said. "Whatever Dusty (Baker, Giant manager) wants. I think it was just a fluke thing. The way I look at it, I've been playing baseball since I was 5 years old, and it's the first time this ever happened. The odds are in my favor, the odds are in a lot of people's favor, it's not going to happen again."
Baker said he "definitely" would start Snow, a switch-hitter, against Johnson if the matchup were to present itself.
"He wouldn't want to be out," Baker said. "I have to put my best team out to win. The thing I respect and admired was Randy's genuine remorse and regret. Just as you hope J.T. has no aftereffects, you hope the pitcher doesn't either. That can happen, although it seems like Randy is OK. I'm sure when they face each other, both are going to be thinking about it. But Randy's still got to pitch his game."
Baker added, "I hope the schedule works out we don't face Randy. We ain't ducking Randy, but there ain't exactly anyone running to get to Randy, either."
Baker said Snow has shown no hesitation or fear at the plate.
"I actually sat down and counted the days to Opening Day and made a little bet with myself I could make it back Opening Day," Snow said. "You have to push yourself, and then you heal up a lot quicker than if you sit around feeling sorry for yourself or worrying about things. I think it makes you appreciate playing a little more. You realize it can be taken away so quick."
Baker visited Snow at the hospital the night of the beaning and said his eye looked like a red golf ball.
"That was the most amazing thing about the whole situation," Baker said. "He didn't come around for four or five days - he was ordered to stay home - and the next time I saw him, it was completely gone. Two weeks later, there were no signs, period. Unbelievable."
An opposing view
Colorado's Larry Walker, the scourge of the National League at the moment, admires Snow's grit. But the left-handed hitter, who is putting up Triple Crown statistics (14 homers, 44 runs batted in, .407 average through Friday), has no interest in showing his machismo by facing Johnson.
"If RJ is pitching, I'm not going anywhere near the batter's box," Walker said, mindful of John Kruk's infamous appearance against Johnson in the 1993 All-Star Game. "We were teammates for a few years, and I want no part of stepping in against him."
The two played together for Montreal early in their careers. It still rankles Walker when he thinks about the Expos' ill-fated 1989 trade of Johnson, Brian Holman and Gene Harris to Seattle for Mark Langston.
"I don't know if RJ remembers, but on the day of the trade we took a cab ride back from the ballpark in Rochester, New York (where they had played an exhibition game), and I told him straight to his face, `This is one of the stupidest trades that's ever taken place,' " Walker recalled. "Sure enough . . .
"I mean, you've got a guy 6 feet 10, throwing 100 miles an hour, release point at 45 feet. That spells a little bit of trouble. How can a team let a guy like that go, when he's in the prime of his career and getting better every year? He was raw; throwing as hard as he was, he couldn't find the plate. But you knew with enough work and practice he was going to get continuously better. And he did - a Cy Young later."
The hype begins
Mariner Manager Lou Piniella has expressed concern over the focus on Ken Griffey Jr.'s rapidly accumulating home-run total, but it is becoming increasingly apparent that Griffey won't sneak up on Roger Maris' record.
At San Francisco's 3Com Park last week, the scoreboard flashed the following message daily to promote the Mariners' interleague appearance in June: "Don't miss Ken Griffey Jr. as he chases the single-season home run record."
A modest proposal
Here's an intriguing solution - offered by a fan - to the interleague dilemma of the designated hitter.
Under the current format, the DH will be used in American League ballparks and scrapped in National League stadiums. But why not do it the opposite - use the DH in NL sites and play without it in AL locales?
That way, National League fans would get to see all the great AL sluggers, without the risk that, say, Edgar Martinez or Juan Gonzalez would remain on the bench because his manager didn't want to risk him defensively. And American League fans would get a chance to see the NL game in action, complete with double switches, flailing pitchers and the added strategy we've heard so much about.
It makes so much sense, it will never happen.
Sign of the times
Suddenly, it has become taboo to steal signs, an unforgivable breach of baseball's complicated and ever-changing code of etiquette.
The Reds were furious in a recent series because they thought Dodger first-base coach Reggie Smith was stealing their catcher's signs and flashing them to hitters. The Giants had the same reaction toward the Expos, sparking a major war of words between the managers, and a similar incident last week involved the Orioles and Angels.
Don Baylor, manager of the Colorado Rockies and a graduate of the old school, doesn't understand the fuss. He remembers when stealing signs was a proud tradition of the game, a feat to be grudgingly admired.
"Stealing signs, that's the art of the game," Baylor said. "It's been around forever. And the thing is, once you get another team's signs, 90 percent of the players don't want them anyway."
Baylor said the old Brewers' teams of the 1970s and '80s - with Paul Molitor, Robin Yount, Jim Gantner and Cecil Cooper - were the masters.
"Everyone would wonder how the hell they hit that pitch," he said, chuckling. "Well, if you know what's coming . . ."
Baylor said players are reluctant to use stolen signs because the other team might try to cross them up. He recalls ex-Oriole Paul Blair's getting seriously beaned because he had been tipped for an outside breaking pitch and got a high, hard one.
"If you get (the signs), you'd better be right," Baylor said.
The fuss now, Baylor says, is indicative of a trend he finds disturbing.
"Everything has to be perfect," he said with evident disgust. "It's like throwing inside: You can't do that. You have to throw down the middle. It's like, `I have to earn a living here; I have to hit .340.' A lot of things have changed in the game - breaking up the double play. All those things are an art form. Now, if you slide too hard and break up a double play, a lot of guys take exception to that. These things were always part of the game, but it's changing."
Around the horn
-- Toronto is hurting for offense and could use a .350 hitter like Bellevue's John Olerud. Last week, however, Blue Jay General Manager Gord Ash downplayed Olerud's early success with the Mets.
"People in this league know how to work him," Ash said. "They're not at that point in the National League. I think he's seeing more fastballs, and fielders in the National League aren't positioning themselves the way American League teams did."
Met Manager Bobby Valentine's response: "With what he's doing, hitting all over the field, they could properly position their people if they had seven infielders. Maybe that's the way they play in the American League these days, I'm not sure."
-- The Angels' acquisition of 38-year-old Tony Phillips from the White Sox is a sign they think they can make the playoffs this year. Phillips, who returned to the Angels with a .440 on-base percentage, will primarily DH, although in his first four games he also played second base and right field. The trade allows Darin Erstad to drop a notch in the batting order and continue to mature as a major-league hitter and first baseman rather than also worrying about kick-starting the offense as leadoff hitter.
It put Eddie Murray, 41, on the bench with a .219 average. At the time of the trade, Murray had only two hits in his previous 19 at-bats, along with only two home runs and 10 RBI. Angel Manager Terry Collins met with Murray and informed him of the decision.
`It was the hardest thing I've had to do, trying to tell that to a guy who will be in the Hall of Fame five years from his last at-bat," Collins said.
-- Esteban Beltre had a lackluster career as a utility infielder with the White Sox, Rangers and Red Sox. But Beltre, 29, has converted to pitching and is causing a stir. He worked out for about 15 scouts last week in Tempe, Ariz. His fastball supposedly has been clocked in the low 90s. Beltre hopes to sign and work with a pitching coach on his mechanics and develop off-speed stuff in extended spring training for about a month, and then throw in the minors the rest of this season. After that, he hopes to get a spring invitation with a major-league team in 1998.
"I feel I could be a starter or reliever," Beltre said. "I'm not looking to be a terminator. I only want to be a good, consistent pitcher."
-- Phillie hitting coach Hal McRae is being mentioned as a possible replacement for Ray Knight if the Reds manager is fired. The irony is that McRae was Knight's hitting coach in Cincinnati last year but was let go, supposedly because Knight was threatened by McRae's close relationship with the players.
-- A Mo Vaughn-for-Jim Edmonds rumor was unfounded, but Vaughn trade rumors won't go away. The Red Sox might consider trading Vaughn because his contract runs out after the 1998 season and because of his well-documented dislike of General Manager Dan Duquette. Vaughn said the Red Sox have not approached his agent, Tom Reich, about a contract extension.
Larry Stone covers the Seattle Mariners and major-league baseball for The Seattle Times. Some items for this notebook were obtained from reporters around the country.