"I was seven when I first started playing organized ball," the Orioles' Doug DeCinces was saying, "and I think there's always a fear then of getting hit. It generally lasts until you actually do get hit - and realize it's not really as bad as you'd imagined."

"I remember this one kid in Little League," Oriole Gary Roenicke said. "He must have been five inches taller than the rest of us - and he threw sidearm. Bob Rollins was his name. Scared? Yeah, I was scared. Even when I caught him, he still scared me."

"I'd bail out, step in the bucket, or whatever you want to call it, till I got to high school," said the Royals' Al Cowens. "I think that's natural, to step away from something comin' in hard as hell."

Inspiration for this comes from the Yankees. Not the Reggie-Graig-Bucky-Mickey-Thurman New York Yankees, but the Scott-Eric-Derek-Timmy-Matt Cashell Yankees, an infinitely more appealing team - and yet one that sent bolts of doubt and worry through three of us playing the Bob Lemon role.

These Yankees are nearly all 10 years old, all but one in the fifth grade, and they are going about proving that Ted Williams is full of cotton candy when it comes to baseball theory. He was the greatest batter of his generation, perhaps of all time, but he was wrong when he said hitting was the most difficult feat in sport.

Ted, the most difficult feat is mustering enough courage to step into that hellish rectangle called the batter's box the first dozen - or perhaps hundred - times, when the 4-foot-6 pitcher looks like Nolan Ryan suddenly popping out of the ground from Anaheim.

This is the Yankees' first experience hitting a ball thrown by one of their peers - and they are not likely to endure anything quite like in sports, for in the mind of nearly everyone who ever took baseball seriously at a tender age there is the frightening memory of one pitcher and his wicked fast ball.

That pitcher may now be a bassoonist, or have some similar occupation - like sports columnist or President of the United States - that requires little athletic skill. But he was much larger back then, because the big kids always pitch.

So he seemed fast, which was almost as good as being fast. And if he had a curve - and some dumb coach allowed him to throw it before high school - it might not have broken more than the width of a fingernail but seemed surely as wide as this page. And dipped quicker than a DC10's credibility.

Usually, the confrontations are so intense that even the name of the pitcher remains vivid, 20 and 30 years later.

"Larry Linott," said DeCinces of the terror of his young life.

"Henry Moore," said Al Cowens.

"Milt Wilcox," said Darrell Porter.

That is one difference between major-leaguers and the rest of us - the pitchers who struck fear into them as youngsters were in fact wonderfully gifted.

"My Little League team, if you can imagine this," said Dave Nelson, formerly of the Senators and Rangers and who now broadcasts Royal games, "included myself, the late Don Wilson, Roy White and Reggie Smith.

"Of course, you're scared at that age of being hit. And I remember I'd get hit in the field by a bad hop, and then flinch at the next grounder. I'm not embarrassed to say I was afraid."

Thanks. Bob Nierman, Dave Healy and I needed that. For a while we thought ourselves either uniquely unable to teach hitting or perhaps in charge of the dozen youngsters God meant to deny the thrill of smacking doubles up the power alleys.

They had been brought along in the proper manner. As second- and third-graders, they had hit the ball off a tee. As fourth-graders, their coaches had been allowed to lob the ball to them. Now the final big test - hitting against a real pitcher. The league is exceedingly low key, but these kids were wound unimaginably tight.

One player, usually the essence of cool, crossed himself before hitting - during batting practice. None needed cattle prods to enter the batter's box, although for the first time in their lives most would have rather been in the dentist's chair.

There was this dialogue between Nierman and the team before the first game:

"You're scared, right?"


"But you're going up there and try, right?"


They were assured the other team was just as scared. But that hardly mattered.

"I was a pitcher at that level," DeCinces recalled. "In an all-star game, I faced 12 kids and struck out 12 kids. Yes, I knew I was intimidating. All I'd have needed to do was throw one wild off the screen and nobody would have walked in there again."

Bravely, our Yankees took their licks. Somebody actually hit the ball now and then - and Matt and Mike Markett would get it safely into the outfield sometimes. Mostly, they made an alarming number of outs.

But their faces showed more relief than disgust, as though remaining alive had been a major accomplishment. There was no sense of timing, no anticipation, simply a bucketful of small feet. They scorebook was cluttered with Ks.

"The competitive nature and spirit begin to take over pretty soon," DeCinces said. "You see them working harder and harder."

And he was right, although not nearly as soon as we'd hoped. Gradually, it became clear that every baseball coach, perhaps at every level of the game, sometimes gets beside himself with frustration at yelling: "You've got to stand in there."

Unable to hit, our fielding became sloppy. We seemed capable of going O-for-the-season. Then came last Saturday, against the Red Sox. Perhaps, as Bostonians sense, Yankees always beat Red Sox in critical games.

Whatever, this was important, because these Red Sox were going with just eight players. And to lose to a shorthanded team would have been dreadful.

Then all of a sudden, five games into the season, the Yankees began bombing. One player who had never hit a foul popped to the pitcher - and only a coach knows how satisfying that can be. Next time up, he doubled to left.

Individual success became infectious, aided in no small measure by the opposing pitcher's wildness and the opposing coach's insistence that he remain on the mound through an 18-run fourth inning. When they stopped counting, the Yanks had won, 26-5.

This week, we have that Yankee-like swagger. This Saturday, the kids might return to reality, perhaps with a thud. And that fear of being hit never fully leaves most batters. Still, these Yankees now sense they belong in the batter''s box. A chore has become a challenge.