Wednesday, February 27, 2008
MLB base coaches don protective helmets, but some see kinks in new rule
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Glenn Hubbard trotted on the field Wednesday wearing a helmet -- and feeling downright ridiculous.
"You know what it feels like?" he asked before a spring training game. "Look at that kid over there."
Hubbard pointed toward a young batboy standing at the edge of the Braves dugout, his head dutifully covered by a helmet.
"That's what I feel like," Hubbard said, not bothering to hide the disgust in his voice. "A batboy."
Actually, Hubbard is the first base coach of the Braves, a job he's always done with nothing more than a cap on his head. But last year's tragic death of minor league coach Mike Coolbaugh -- the victim of a line drive to the neck -- prompted the major leagues to take action.
Now, the coaches standing along each foul line in the majors must wear some sort of protective headgear. So Hubbard and Atlanta's third base coach, Brian Snitker, carried out their duties during an exhibition game against the University of Georgia wearing "skullcaps" -- baseball slang for the flapless helmets that catchers wear along with their masks.
Braves coach Glenn Hubbard wore his protective headgear during Wednesday's game against Georgia, but said if given a choice, he'd rather not wear it.
"It's like the one I used to wear in high school and college," said Snitker, a former catcher. "It seems a little tight. It doesn't feel like it's shaped to my head anymore. But it's one of those things if we've got to do it, we've got to do it."
Hubbard wasn't so magnanimous about the mandate from higher up. He even threatened to adorn his helmet with advertising, like a NASCAR racer.
"We should have a choice in these things," he said. "My choice would be not to wear it. I'm only wearing it because it's a major league rule."
Around baseball, coaches seemed to be a bit wary of how the helmets feel and make them look, but certainly understanding that something had to be done after Coolbaugh's death, even if flapless helmets still leave the ears and neck exposed.
There are parallels to the 1920 death of Ray Chapman. He was struck in the head by a pitch and is still the only big leaguer to be killed in a game, leading to the development of batting helmets. Baseball is now trying to come up with some sort of headgear, specifically designed for coaches, that would hang down lower in the back to provide more protection for the neck.
Coolbaugh, who was coaching first for the Double-A Tulsa Drillers, died last July after being hit with a line drive right below the left ear, causing a key blood vessel to burst.
The issue is especially sensitive for the defending NL champion Colorado Rockies, since the Drillers are one of their minor league affiliates.
"How can you not appreciate Major League Baseball being concerned with our safety?" said Mike Gallego, a former infielder and now third base coach of the Rockies. "I mean, it's a safety precaution. And I know my wife and kids are happier that I have it on. There's no doubt, it's very dangerous out there."
Indeed, coaches who take the field when their team is batting are as vulnerable as anyone in the stadium. Positioned along the first and third base lines, they try to keep one eye on the hitter while also passing along signals, instructing baserunners and monitoring the defense.
It's a tough balancing act, which can potentially turn painful when someone sends a vicious liner down either foul line or a broken bat goes flying through the air. Coaches don't have a glove to protect themselves, and since most are older ex-players, the reflexes tend to be a little slower than they were in their youth.
Third base coaches are especially at risk, since they tend to move even closer to home plate when there are runners on base, perhaps no more than 50 or 60 feet away from the hitter. Snitker, for instance, likes to ease down the line so he can pick up balls hit to the outfield and have the runners in his line of sight if he needs to wave them home. He usually stands with his back to the plate until right before the pitch is thrown.
"You try to slow things down," he said. "You go over it first in your mind, then just kind of let your instincts take over. Sometimes I'm right. Sometimes I'm wrong."
Luis Alicea, Boston's first base coach, said it's easy for the mind to drift between pitches, especially when no one's on base. Coaches wind up looking toward the fielders instead of the hitter. They stroll in a little closer to the plate than they need to be.
Coolbaugh's death certainly made them take another look.
"What came to mind was being more aware of the situation, paying more attention, really making sure that your eyes are locked in on the hitter at all times, because sometimes you get a little lax and you look around and I think you lose focus of where you're standing," Alicea said. "At all times, you're in danger."
No matter how many precautions they take, coaches get used to the idea of being hit by the ball several times a season. They never forget the ones that hurt the most.
"I got hit right here during spring training," Hubbard said. "Marcus Giles, a right-handed hitter, hit one of those line drives. It caught me right in the thigh."
Jose Cruz, who works first base for the Houston Astros, said he's amazed Coolbaugh was the first to die in the coaching box.
"It's too bad they waited until someone was killed," Cruz said. "A lot of the guys have come close to getting killed."
Glenallen Hill didn't need baseball to issue a mandate on helmets. The Rockies first base coach put one on right after Coolbaugh was killed.
"Even though it's a small upgrade percentage-wise in protection for the coaches, it's an upgrade," Hill said. "It took me about three days of just getting used to having it on. But after three days, it was just fine."
Everyone seems to agree on one thing: Baseball shouldn't stop at protecting the coaches on the field.
What about the guys in the dugout? What about the fans sitting in the lower decks? What about the umpires?
"I know the fans along the foul lines and above the dugouts are pretty exposed," Hill said. "Every year someone gets hit. Every time a ball shoots over the dugout or gets pulled down the line, there's a sick feeling that happens to my stomach, and it's [the same] every single time. Every single time."
The newer, retro-style ballparks have been designed with much less foul territory, bringing fans closer to the action but also leaving them more vulnerable to line drives that zing into the stands with a split-second's notice. Gallego suggested extending the screen behind home plate down the foul lines.
"A good friend of ours, his wife was injured pretty badly," he said. "She had to go through plastic surgery. She got hit right in the face. It rearranged her nose."
Hubbard is more concerned about another key group.
"Who gets hit the most in the game?" the Braves coach asked. "The umpires. How come they don't have to wear a helmet? They get hit more than we do."
Tim Flannery, the third base coach of the San Francisco Giants, was already wearing a plastic shield under his cap for extra protection. He would prefer to stick with that -- it's much more comfortable -- but understands the need for helmets, too.
"I'll find something that works," he said.