It was a story that prompted one of those deep double takes when you first heard about it.
It was like “Wait a minute. He did what?’’
Two decades later, what Ben Christensen did to Anthony Molina still defies believability, explanation or any degree of justification.
Christensen, a tall, ultra-talented pitcher for Wichita State, widely regarded as the best pitcher in college baseball, was throwing 92-mph warmup pitches prior to an April 23, 1999, game against Evansville University.
Anthony Molina, a junior third baseman from Moline, was preparing to be the first batter to face Christensen and he was standing 24 feet from home plate, trying to gauge the speed of the pitches as the Wichita State star warmed up.
It’s something players do in baseball. It’s a sport with a tradition of trying to do everything you can to grab an edge, and Molina was that sort of player, competitive, cerebral, tough.
Christensen didn’t like what he was doing. So he fired one of his warmup pitches directly at the Evansville leadoff man.
Molina looked up just in time to have the ball smash into the left side of his face. It pretty much blinded him in that eye, broke three bones and opened a cut that required 23 stitches.
It also kicked off 3½ years of legal wrangling that was nearly as flabbergasting as the incident itself.
It’s not an event that either Molina or Christensen is very interested in discussing although Molina admitted it’s still never far from his thoughts.
His impaired vision and the occasional headaches are frequent reminders.
“It didn’t heal. It didn’t get any better,’’ he said of his ability to see.
“It’s still the same,’’ he added. “When I get tired, I get a headache. The same as 19 years ago, I guess.’’
Christensen never has submitted to interviews about the incident.
We only bring it up now because it stands out still as one of the most vile and senseless acts ever perpetrated on an athletic field, a reminder of how easily sensibilities and perspective can be cast aside in a competitive situation.
Wes Carroll, now in his 11th year as the head coach at Evansville, was standing in the on-deck circle as the next batter after Molina that day and couldn’t believe what he was seeing. He told us in an interview a few years ago that it was “a horrible day for college baseball.
“I’d never seen anything so vicious on a baseball field before,’’ he added.
Christensen claimed that he was only doing what Wichita State pitching coach Brent Kemnitz had instructed all his hurlers to do. Kemnitz, who was suspended along with Christensen following the incident, denied that in court depositions.
Molina, who figured to get some sort of shot at making it in professional baseball, had his career ended by the injuries. He and his attorney, the late Rand Wonio, spent several years trying to get some level of justice.
They struck out several times.
The Sedgwick County, Kansas, district attorney declined to file criminal charges against Christensen.
A Kansas judge approved a motion by Wichita State stipulating that the umpires for the game also were at fault for not making Molina move farther away from home plate — did we mention that he was 24 feet away? — and another judge opted to remove Wichita State as a defendant in Molina’s lawsuit.
Yet another judge ruled that it was necessary to prove that Christensen intended to harm Molina. Wonio noted that the judge had a Wichita State pennant hanging on the wall of his office.
In the end, after years of maneuvering in both state and federal courts, Molina reached a settlement with Christensen. The dollar amount was supposed to be confidential but it was widely reported to be $400,000.
Christensen never played another game at the college level. He was suspended for the remainder of that season but it didn’t keep the Chicago Cubs from selecting him with the 26th pick in the 1999 major league draft.
He spent six years in the minor league systems of the Cubs and Seattle Mariners but pitched only 74 games with a won-loss record of 12-19 and an earned-run average of 4.64. He never rose above Class AA and finally was released in 2004.
He went back to Wichita, where he still was regarded as something of a hero. (He received a standing ovation at a banquet there just nine months after he beaned Molina.) He is employed today as a senior wealth advisor with Frontier Wealth Management.
According to his bio on the Frontier website, he has been married for 17 years and has three children. The bio makes note of his baseball career but fails to mention that he once maimed an opposing player with a warm-up throw. Probably wouldn’t be good for business.
Molina’s transition into a normal lifestyle wasn’t as smooth. After undergoing three surgeries on his eye, he tried to come back and play for Evansville in 2000. He still could hit a little but had two blind spots in the left eye, which prevented him from playing any position except catcher.
He worked a variety of jobs in Evansville and back home in the Quad-Cities, did a little coaching, worked for a rental car agency and a car dealership, then found work at a bank.
He got married, fathered three children, got divorced, and in 2012 was charged with seven counts of sexual abuse.
In 2014, he entered an Alford plea to two counts of aggravated criminal sexual assault of a victim below the age of 13. That means he did not admit guilt but conceded that there was sufficient evidence to convict him. He was sentenced to six years in prison.
He was released late in 2016 and is back in the Quad-Cities, trying very hard to keep a low profile and lead a normal life.
The good news is that he never has had to undergo further surgery on the eye, as doctors originally thought, but he no longer has much connection to the sport he loved and hoped to make his career.
“I try to play some fantasy baseball,’’ he said. “But I’m terrible at it.’’