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Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Reservations about new padded caps

By Jayson Stark



The images still terrify us, even all these months and years later.

Brandon McCarthy, crumpled on a pitcher's mound in Oakland, holding his head.

Toronto's J.A. Happ, being wheeled off the field on a stretcher after taking a line drive off the left side of his head.

Alex Cobb's teammates looking on in horror in Tampa Bay, as he writhed in pain in front of the mound.

These are images that don't merely remind us how dangerous a game baseball can be for the men who pitch for a living. They remind us that this sport has an obligation to do everything it can to protect these men.

So when we heard Tuesday that MLB had finally approved a new padded cap that will protect the heads of pitchers from flying baseballs, it was great news. …

Except for one minor little question that somebody needs to ask (so it might as well be me):

Is anyone actually going to wear this thing?

Oops. Sure doesn't sound like it.

Brandon McCarthy
Brandon McCarthy underwent emergency surgery after suffering an epidural hemorrhage, a brain contusion and a skull fracture when he was hit in the head by a line drive on Sept. 5, 2012.
So how do I know that? Well, I spoke Tuesday with three pitchers whose skulls have been fractured by baseballs that collided with their heads at way too high a rate of speed -- McCarthy (now of the Diamondbacks), Chris Young of the Nationals and McCarthy's Arizona teammate, Brad Ziegler.

They all drew me the same conflicted sketch of what this new innovation represents:

Cool idea. Offers real protection. A fine step in the right direction. But …

Much to all their regrets, it's just not something that was designed in a way that pretty much any major leaguer would ever promote or wear it.

"That's what I told them," McCarthy said. "I said I simply don't think anybody is going to wear it."

And by anybody, he even means himself.

"I won't wear it in its current form," he said, flatly.

That's a powerful statement, coming from a man who has emerged as the living symbol of the risk every pitcher takes when he throws a baseball. But he has lots of company in his feelings, even among pitchers with a vested interest in this issue.

"Look, if there's something out there that meets the safety standards and is not going to hinder performance, guys will wear it," said Young, who was nailed in the face by a 2008 Albert Pujols rocket back to the mound. "Guys do care about safety now. Everyone is starting to understand the importance of brain injuries and head injuries. And nobody is more at risk than pitchers. …

"But," he said, "I'm not overly optimistic."

So why not? Why wouldn't these men wear this thing? How, you wonder, could a pitcher even think about not wearing it after living with the nightmares of a baseball roaring at his eyeballs?

Because this cap looks funny, these men told us. And feels funny. And wiggles on their head when they move. And makes their head sweat.

And that's not a vanity issue. Or a fashion-statement issue. Or a baseball-players-are-too-macho issue.

It's a big deal.

"Ultimately," said Young, "it's about performance. And to perform, you've got to feel good in your uniform. And if you're uncomfortable with what you're wearing out there, it's going to take away from your performance."

Now before the safety-patrol voice in your head says, "That's crazy," you need to remember something:

This is the major leagues.

If you don't perform, they'll find somebody else who will. End of story.

So "uncomfortable" doesn't have the same meaning, for a pitcher in the big leagues, that it has to you when you're trying on new jeans at Abercrombie & Fitch. Got that?

Ziegler, who was nailed in the head by a line drive in the minor leagues in 2004, had a chance to try on the new protective cap at a board meeting of the players' union this winter and again when McCarthy brought it to the Diamondbacks' pre-spring workouts. His assessment was blunt.

"I think it would take a long time to get used to," Ziegler said. "It's not real heavy, so it's not the weight. It's how much it sticks out around the side. So you see it out of the corner of your eye."

"

I won't wear it in its current form.

" --Arizona's Brandon McCarthy


Now eventually, players might get used to that. But that's not the only problem. After a lifetime of wearing traditional baseball caps, a player knows how it feels to wear one. And this cap feels completely different.

With "normal" caps, you feel them fitting snugly "all the way around your head," Ziegler said. But the protective caps actually have a different shape. So they fit tightly only around the forehead and at the top of the head.

But in between, he said, it feels as if there's "a gap" -- which he described as feeling almost as if he were wearing a "Bozo the clown" wig.

Again, though, in time, maybe everyone could adjust to that. But there are even bigger issues, McCarthy said. And he ought to know. He's spent the past eight months working with MLB and 4Licensing Corp., developers of this cap. So he's worn it more than anyone -- and had major issues with it when he tried throwing, running and wearing it while doing baseball activities.

"It's something where, if you just put it on your head, you don't feel that," McCarthy said. "But if you're not sweating with it and moving with it on the field, you don't understand how awkward it feels.

"It looks kind of like a train conductor's hat, or, actually, like a newsboy hat," he went on. "It bows up at the side. So you don't get that sense of it fitting you snugly. If your head moves a tick, your hat moves a tick. You feel it. You notice it."

And for a major league pitcher, that's a red flag. As another veteran pitcher, Bronson Arroyo, put it Tuesday: "If you're out there thinking about what you're wearing on your head when you're out on the mound, you're not going to be able to do your job. I think it's that simple."

But there are other ways in which this new cap falls short. And no one has to explain them to Young.

A protective cap wouldn't have helped him one bit when that projectile off the bat of Pujols collided with his nose and forehead. So what he'd like to see, he said, is an array of protective products, not just a lined cap.

"I've been thinking more about hockey helmets with visors," Young said. "I've seen hockey players take 100 mile-an-hour slap shots off the visor and be fine. … So I'd love to see one of those hockey companies start making a cool helmet with a Nationals logo or a Mets logo on it, and throw it out there and let guys try it."

Unfortunately, he said, "nobody from the union or Major League Baseball has ever talked to me. Only reporters."

Well, that needs to change. But that's not all that needs to change. I get every reason that a player would have serious reservations about wearing this cap. But I still can't help but wonder this:

Suppose a player doesn't wear it. And suppose he turns out to be one of the unlucky ones. Suppose he turns into the next Brandon McCarthy or the next Chris Young. Afterward, as he's waiting, and hoping, and praying that his head heals up OK, won't he be telling himself: I should have worn that cap?

"I definitely understand there's an advantage to it," Ziegler said. "I even talked to my wife about it. I said, 'What do you think? Do you want me to wear it?' And she said, 'I don't know. I have to think about it.' I told her, 'If you want me to, I'll do it,' because I have a good feel for the concept that if something happens to my life, it affects more than just me. … But I still don't know what I'll do. I'm not dead set against wearing it. But I'm not planning on it."

And if guys like him won't wear it, what are the odds that all those pitchers who think they're bulletproof will ever wear it? Not. Good.

But it's still a step, said Brandon McCarthy. A step forward. Just not far enough. Not quite the right design. Not quite the right timing. But still a step. An important step.

"Now," said McCarthy, a man who thinks about this issue every time he puts on a baseball uniform, "it's up to everyone to come up with a hat we could actually wear."