Kevin Penner stood ready at the plate, his bat cocked over his right shoulder. The pitcher swung into his windup and let fly with the baseball.
Penner was late in picking up the pitch. It bore toward him rapidly. He froze.
With a dull thud, the ball struck Penner in the side. It stung for a moment.
But never had anything felt so good.
Kevin Penner, once fearful of being blind in one eye, was playing baseball again for the Wichita State Shockers. He had just taken the first – and most important – step in his remarkable comeback.
It was just a couple of weeks ago that Penner took a pitch from teammate Vince Lara in the ribs during fall practice for the Shockers. It was Penner’s first time in the batting cage in more than two months.
The last time Penner faced a pitcher, in June during the College World Series in Omaha, he also froze on an inside pitch. But this one, thrown much harder and higher by Texas’ Calvin Schiraldi, struck Penner in the face, just below his left eye. It shattered his cheekbone, and a piece of bone lodged against his eye.
It took a unique surgical process to repair Penner’s cheek. Doctors at University Hospital in Ann Arbor, Mich., took bone from Penner’s skull to rebuild the floor of his eye socket. The only evidence now of the surgery is a slight bump under Penner’s eye and a reddish streak of a scar nearly healed.
Although doctors were optimistic after the surgery that Penner would regain full vision – the movement of Penner’s left eye was restricted and his vision blurred. No one could tell Penner that he would be able to play baseball again.
“At that point I was just glad I was alive and had someone good doing the surgery to help get some of my vision back,” Penner said.
Penner experienced double vision most of the summer as he recuperated at his home in Aurora, Neb.
“All summer long, I just sat and watched baseball games on TV,” he said. “It never occurred to me that I’d be playing again, so I wasn’t that antsy about it.
“Then, suddenly, the eye started to come around and by the end of the summer I was getting fired up.”
With his vision cleared, Penner got the OK to go out for WSU’s fall practice.
“After I realized I was going to be able to play, I started pushing myself twice as hard. I’ve got to get back the weight I lost (he dropped about 25 pounds), get stronger and find my place on this team.”
The left fielder for WSU’s national runner-up team in 1982, Penner has been playing third base this fall. Shocker Coach Gene Stephenson said Penner has had some trouble in the outfield judging fly balls.
“But he’s been better than I expected,” Stephenson said. “I’m pleased with his progress.”
Penner’s cheekbone still is healing and must be protected. He wears a batting helmet equipped with a football face mask when at bat and in the field.
“Anytime there’s a ball flying, I have to have it on,” said Penner.
He will return in a few weeks to Ann Arbor for a checkup. Penner is hoping he will be given the go-ahead to play in the spring without the helmet, which he said is hot and uncomfortable.
Although Stephenson is cautious in rushing Penner, the 6-foot-2 junior gained a large measure of confidence when he took his first swing at a pitch delivered from a man and not al machine.
“It was weird,” Penner said. “I wasn’t scared, just real tentative.”
Then came the pitch that hit him. It was the best thing that could have happened.
“It’s like I had forgotten how to hit,” Penner said. “I was sitting back and waiting on the ball and I wasn’t being aggressive. I was just sitting back and here came the ball. I just froze. My body wouldn’t move.
“After I got hit, it dawned on me that I had to get my body moving and that I had to be aggressive up there. That woke me up a little.”
Now Kevin Penner is swinging the bat as if he had never been hit in the face.
“To tell the truth,” said WSU pitcher Jeff Brogan, “I can’t tell any difference between the way he was playing last spring and now.”