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Friday, March 11, 2011
Pitching helmets are coming

By The Common Man

On Wednesday, the same day former major leaguer Luis Salazar was airlifted to the hospital after being stuck by a vicious foul ball, Peter Abraham wrote about a new safety helmet available to pitchers that looks like it would fit over a baseball cap.

He writes, “It looks goofy and I suspect if I asked all the Red Sox pitchers in camp, none would admit to wanting to wear it. But there was a time in baseball when catchers didn't wear a mask. And no hitter would think to go to the plate today without a helmet. Almost every park has a fence in front of the dugout to protect players, too. It might take 10 years -- or some awful injury -- but the day is coming when a pitcher wears a helmet.”

Gunnar Sandberg
Gunnar Sandberg, a high school pitcher who suffered serious head trauma after being struck by a baseball, models a prototype for a protective helmet.
I don’t know what there is to debate here. Pete’s right on all counts. I mean, we’re talking about increasing player safety while, if the company’s PR campaign is to be believed, not sacrificing comfort or performance. As we learn more about how devastating traumatic brain injuries are, we’re also learning more and more how important it is to prevent them, and this offers an important way of doing that.

Is it perfect? No. It doesn’t protect a pitcher’s face for instance. And it doesn’t look particularly cool. A bunch of you are going to think that player safety isn’t a big deal, and that it isn’t often that pitchers take a shot off the tops of their heads. And you are going to look at the helmet and think it looks ridiculous. Will adding more safety precautions get in the way of you enjoying the game?

Well, it might seem different at first. But, as Abraham suggests, baseball has seen a steady stream of equipment evolution over the years. The introduction of gloves for fielders. Shin guards and a mask for catchers. Bigger gloves, better padding, smaller bats. Eventually even requiring AL batters to wear helmets in 1958. Even in recent years, equipment has improved player safety. Earflaps were required on the helmets beginning in 1982. Charlie O’Brien pioneered using modified hockey masks for catchers in the 1990s, gloves kept getting bigger, and now batting helmets can provide much greater protection from a concussion. A new pitching helmet is the next logical step. The next evolution. The latest way to keep players safe.

After all, baseball isn’t football, where risk is an inherent element of the game and can make it more exciting (if, you know, you’re into modern gladiatorial combat). And you can bet that batting helmets were considered pretty goofy looking at first as well. Ted Williams was initially adamant about refusing to wear them, saying “I’m not going to wear one of those space helmets. It bothers my hitting.” Eventually, Teddy acquiesced and the helmets became accepted as part of the game. Everyone adjusted, and now it’s unthinkable to send a hitter up without headgear. We acknowledge that the sport is safer and better because of it.

The pitcher’s helmet will become a part of the game soon, too, whether you want it to or not. It probably will not be introduced with a blanket mandate, as the league would have to negotiate that with the players union. Rather, it will be a gradual rollout with current players grandfathered in. However, MLB teams have too much invested in players not to want them to be kept on the field as much as possible. Teams will build clauses into their pitchers’ contracts, and make sure that all minor leaguers begin using them immediately. Keeping players from looking ridiculous isn’t worth a fractured skull. We should at least be able to agree on that.

The Common Man writes for The Platoon Advantage and seems to always be tweeting something or other here.