Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Sports column

June 22, 2013

Has time come to better protect pitchers?

BLUEFIELD — Baseballs are dangerous weapons, especially when that hard sphere of horsehide is traveling at speeds nearing 100 miles an hour.

That statement is so obvious that it’s unnecessary, right?

Then explain why helmets, adopted decades ago for batters, are not required equipment on the pitcher’s mound.

At random intervals, we become briefly aware of the danger of being hit in the head by a batted ball when a major leaguer, “unable to defend himself” after delivering a pitch, gets beaned and collapses to the dirt.

The most recent example is Tampa Bay’s Alex Cobb, a young man who started his career in Princeton as an 18-year-old rookie prospect in 2006. He was blasted on the right side of his head on Saturday by a line drive from Eric Hosmer of the Kansas City Royals.

Some people may have felt “closure” Sunday upon receiving the news that Cobb was released from a hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla. He informed the public via his Twitter account that he “Woke up with only a minor headache,” as The Associated Press reported.

He was to be placed on Tampa Bay’s seven-day concussion list, the AP added. One week, and then, if he passes some medical tests, he’s back on duty. What a relief, right? End of story, right?

Not so fast. As someone who suffered not one, but two concussions last summer (the details are unimportant here), I think it’s important to underscore that a brain injury is not something that simply can be declared over after a week or so.

Its effects can linger for up to a year. Your results may vary.

The list of injured pitchers is getting longer.

Also at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Toronto starter J.A. Happ suffered a skull fracture last month when struck by a liner against the Rays. As the AP dutifully noted, Happ was discharged from an area hospital the following day.

The wire service also reminded us, in a followup on Cobb’s status, that Brandon McCarthy of the Oakland Athletics suffered “what were described at the time as life-threatening injuries” last September when hit by a line drive.

The damage, which necessitated emergency surgery, included a skull fracture, brain contusion and an epidural hemorrhage — or a pool of blood collecting just outside the membrane that encases a person’s brain.

As it turns out, McCarthy is now with the Diamondbacks, though he can’t play right now. He was having dinner with his wife at a restaurant a week ago Monday when he collapsed “with a seizure related to the head injury he sustained while pitching,” according to the AP story.

Fun stuff, right? Just what a sport needs, especially a sport that needs a boost in attendance.

Other major American sports have been down this road of protective headgear — and resistance to wearing it — and have not only survived but grown stronger.

Football and hockey players in days of yore thought it was manly to fight it out on the field of battle without a helmet. For their own good, they finally were told to wear it, or not to play.

In my first visit to a state softball tournament, several weeks ago, the wearing of masks by pitchers as well as catchers was practically universal. The whole infield of some teams were masked.

Comments by some Tampa Bay pitchers after Cobb’s injury offered hope that the resistance to protective headgear for pitchers in their sport may come to an end sooner rather than later.

Again quoting from the Associated Press, “Whoever comes up with the solution for this, they’re never going to have to work again in their lives,” David Price said.

“It’s scary. We know about that. You think about it, and then you don’t think about it when you’re on the mound. But when you see it happen, and you see line drives and hard groundballs up the middle, it definitely crosses your mind.”

Matt Moore [another alumnus of the Princeton Appy League team], who went to the hospital to see Cobb after Saturday’s game, said he would be willing to wear headgear if it was developed.

“A cricket helmet, or whatever it was, I would give it my best effort to make sure I pitch with that,” Moore said. “If I could prevent something like that by wearing something, without a doubt I would.”

“You never want to see anybody go through that,” said James Shields. “You just never know what’s going to come out of it. You look at McCarthy, he walked off the field. Next thing you know, they’re doing surgery on him.”

Rays reliever Jamey Wright feels it is imperative that the issue continue to receive serious review.

“We don’t want somebody getting killed before something is done about it,” Wright said.

• • •

And the faceoff between batter and pitcher can go wrong the other way.

Whether a pitched baseball “gets away” from its intended safe flight, or whether the hurler aims it at an opponent, harm is going to be done. In the sport’s “unwritten rules,” pitchers intentionally nail a batter with a ball to avenge a previous “slight” of some sort.

If it’s into his back, or maybe even his arm, that’s one thing. Being perceived as aiming at a head, even one encased in a batting helmet, is a fighting offense, under the “rules.”

Arizona pitcher Ian Kennedy has found that out after hitting the upper left shoulder of Dodgers batter Zack Greinke during last Tuesday’s NL West encounter. The ball then deflected off Grienke’s helmet.

The Los Angeles bench, perceiving a “dirty” attempt to hurt one of their star pitchers, leaped out of their dugout and a brawl was on.

This came after Kennedy hit heralded L.A. rookie Yaisel Puig with a pitch in the sixth inning, and Greinke hit Arizona’s Miguel Montero the next inning.

The key participants in these escapades, and the brawl that followed, have been fined and dealt suspensions by the Major League Baseball office.

Broadcast media have enjoyed replaying tape of the angry faceoffs last week, including the yelling and the scrums that followed. I heard one radio commentator claiming that at least it got people talking about baseball again.

If that’s what it takes, the sport is definitely in trouble.

Tom Bone is a Daily Telegraph sports writer and cartoonist. Contact him at tbone @ bdtonline.com.

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