Thursday, November 8, 2012
Proposed improvements overdue
By Christina Kahrl
Could baseball be on the cusp of a wave of common sense? Keep in mind that what’s coming out of the GM meetings are just recommendations, and that when it comes to change, baseball is one of the world’s great late adopters. Nevertheless, you might be understandably optimistic.
Could baseball finally be listening to generations of fans already familiar with decades of replay in football, and be willing to adopt more? It’s clearly overdue, and if they’re talking about technical solutions, then they’re well beyond just saying that they believe in the concept, because they’re reviewing implementation and placating the umpires’ union. Given them a few decades, and they may even get it right, but the product -- baseball -- has had to suffer in the meantime.
What about talk about making sure teams play with equal numbers of players in September, after roster expansion? Again, it’s something we’ve heard about for years. I remember then-Cubs manager Jim Riggleman bringing this up 15 years ago, and noting that it was unfair. The idea that a contender that has 40 players at their disposal might play an also-ran ballclub leaving players in Triple-A for their postseason or unwilling to call people up because they’re pinching pennies is unfair, and that sort of mismatch shouldn’t be allowed to affect a pennant race. Making sure everyone’s playing the game with same-size rosters is one of those bits of obviousness that is long overdue, but competitive balance has had to suffer in the meantime.
But when it comes to protecting players, as the assets they represent and as the fellow human beings they are, there really shouldn’t any cause for baseball to once again reach for the pause button. Protective headgear for pitchers is ridiculously overdue, and there shouldn’t be another season spent risking players’ lives and livelihoods to inaction.
Unfortunately, look at how long it took the industry to adopt batting helmets. You may have heard about Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, the last major league player killed by a pitch in 1920, but catcher Roger Bresnahan -- the same player who popularized shin guards and protective gear for backstops -- was experimenting with protective headgear as early as 1907, after he’d been hospitalized and nearly killed by a beanball. Even with the introduction of protective headgear in the minors in the 1930s, and adoption for spring training in the ’40s, it wasn’t until 1953 when the Pirates adopted helmets that they arrived in the big leagues, and even though batting helmets became MLB-mandatory in 1971, because veterans didn’t have to observe the rule it wasn’t until 1979 that the last batter stepped in without wearing a helmet. (It was Bob Montgomery of the Red Sox, for the curious.)
Brandon McCarthy’s injury this past season might be the precipitating incident that gets the idea of protecting pitchers’ heads, but this isn’t some new problem afflicting the game, nor is it directly related to the maple versus ash debate. Indians ace Herb Score nearly lost an eye and saw his tremendously career derailed in 1957 after getting pegged by a line drive. Yet not even the adoption of protective batting helmets going on at the same time led the industry to take that short step to note that, as long as they were protecting hitters, maybe pitchers needed some coverage as well.
Unfortunately, Score’s tragedy didn’t directly lead to necessary change any more than Chapman’s did. And given past precedent with batting helmets there’s a good chance that, even if protective gear for pitchers gets adopted, we’ll wind up with a stretch in baseball where it will be up to the already established pitchers to decide whether or not to run the risk of head trauma, and decide whether to wear one or not. Meanwhile players in the minors -- those not covered by the union -- could be required to wear them sooner.
At best, it’s a generational solution, but looking at the game’s track record for doing the necessary, you may wonder if they may know no other kind. Given the stakes, this is one issue where the game should act now, not later.
Christina Kahrl covers baseball for ESPN.com. You can follow her on Twitter.