MONDAY JUNE 26, 2017
 
Blog EGOS & ICONS
A CASE FOR PROTECTING PITCHERS
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We’re not even at the All-Star break yet, and twice already this season the Tampa Bay Rays have stood on the field in hushed shock at the sight of a pitcher, right in front of their eyes, felled by a speeding line drive to the head.

The first time, on May 8, the victim was an opponent: Toronto Blue Jays left-hander JA Happ, who crumpled in pain after being struck by a screaming shot off the bat of Rays outfielder Desmond Jennings.

When it happened again last weekend, it was a teammate lying prone on the plastic grass of Tropicana Field: right-hander Alex Cobb, who’d been knocked down by a blast from Kansas City slugger Eric Hosmer.

Perhaps fortunately for both men, their heads were turned to the side, meaning they were hit over the ear rather than around the eyes. Still, Happ suffered a skull fracture while Cobb was left with a concussion and some fluid build-up in his ear, unpleasant outcomes all. Happ, who also badly sprained his knee when he went down under the force of the blow, has yet to pitch again. Cobb also remains shelved, without a timetable to return.

herb-score-hit-by-line-drive.jpgBy coincidence, Happ’s injury occurred on the 56th anniversary of one of baseball’s most infamous incidents of pitcher pain: the line drive that smashed into the face of young Cleveland lefty Herb Score in 1957. The impact was so great, Score later said, it felt as though his right eye had been popped out of his head.  Such was the shock for the batter, Yankees shortstop Gil McDougald, that he ran to the mound to help instead of heading to first base.

Back in Score and McDougald’s day, of course, many hitters stood in the box wearing the same caps they used in the field, sometimes with plastic protective liners inserted beneath. Of course, thinking and technology evolved over the years, and batters were eventually required to wear more effective helmets.  Even on-field coaches adopted them after a line drive to the head killed minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh in 2007.

But almost six decades after Score’s face was turned into a mess of broken bones, pitchers are still toeing the rubber without any kind of serious protection on their heads. Baseball is known for being a languid game, to be sure, but the pace of change on player safety seems positively glacial.

Curiously, the most talked-about solution these days is remarkably similar to the old plastic inserts that hitters started wearing in the 1940s, only now they’re made of Kevlar and other advanced materials. Still, nothing’s been approved yet, because the padded caps aren’t strong enough to stand up to a ball going one hundred miles an hour or more.

As a result, Arizona’s Brandon McCarthy is pitching this season with no more protection than he had on last September, when he was hit on the head by Erick Aybar’s line drive. McCarthy managed to walk off the field despite a fractured skull and brain contusion, but ended up in surgery hours later with an epidural hemorrhage that was causing dangerous cranial pressure.

McCarthy tried out cricket helmets and could have chosen to wear a lined protective cap this season, but found nothing that functioned as either safe or comfortable enough through the rigours of a violent, repeated pitching motion.

But the potential severity and lasting negative effects of head injuries demand that something be done here. McCarthy may be back on the mound this year, but he’s not out of the woods when it comes to the after-effects of his trauma: just over a week ago, he suffered a seizure and collapsed while out for dinner with his wife.

For some players, there’s an element of big boy attitude about all this, the idea that most professional sports come with an inherent element of danger that’s just part of the job. Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija, a former college football player, is one of several current pitchers to openly oppose the idea of mandatory protection.

Then there are those like Cleveland’s Vinnie Pestano, who told the Associated Press this week that he has a recurring dream in which a batter hits a speeding ball that’s racing straight towards his unprotected head.

Fortunately for Pestano, he always wakes up before the moment of impact. Any pitcher who suffers that real-life nightmare on the mound isn’t quite so lucky.

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