Tahlequah Daily Press

February 6, 2014

Padded caps may be unpopular but pitchers will eventually accept them

Tom Lindley
CNHI News Service

— The year was 1957 when Cleveland left-hander Herb Score was pitching to the Yankees’ Gil McDougald. A line drive rocketed back at the Indians pitcher and struck him in the head.

Score, who was only 23, slumped to the ground. Blood poured from his face. For a moment, he thought his eye had popped out of its socket. It hadn’t, but it was still a scary scene.

If you saw it, you’d undoubtedly like to forget that moment but probably never will.

Score never was the same. He said it wasn’t the line drive that knocked him out of baseball but a recurring arm problem. Many of those who had marveled at his sinking fastball disagreed.

A pitcher getting hit by a baseball traveling 85 to 100 mph may happen infrequently, but when it does the injury is serious. In 2012, Brandon McCarthy sustained a skull fracture and brain contusion while pitching for the Oakland A’s and required surgery. A year later, Toronto’s J.A. Happ and Tampa Bay’s Alex Cobb were both hit and sidelined.

Safety is a constant worry for baseball executives. To their credit, it draws ongoing study and debate. When pitchers arrive at spring training this month, besides the normal uniform, they’ll be offered a padded cap with more, if not complete, protection for their heads.

Initial reactions from the pros are mixed. Athletes like the idea of safer equipment – no one must be convinced of the perils of the profession – but the protective cap has negative features. It's heavier and thicker. Besides being uncomfortable, those who’ve worn it are certain they’ll be hotter. Pitchers say they’ll try the custom-fitted caps during the exhibition season, then in all likelihood send them back to the lab to be refined.

Baseball is tradition bound, and change comes slowly. There was a time when even hitters weren’t required to wear helmets. Major League Baseball made protective cap inserts mandatory in 1956, but helmets weren’t required until 1971. Even then, established big-leaguers were exempt. Earflaps on the side of the helmet facing the pitcher were required for new players in 1983.

But change does come. For instance, a player who rounds third for home this summer cannot plow into the catcher if a throw from the outfield is tracking his last steps toward the plate. The runner must slide. The rule change was all about preventing injuries.

That was the idea when coaches at first and third base were required to wear protective helmets.

Some around the game think padded caps for pitchers could begin with high school and college teams, then work their way into the minor leagues. As resistance fades and improvements are made, the introduction to the big leagues will be smoother.

High school players seem more amenable to change, in general. It’s not uncommon to see a hitter use a helmet with a face mask. In softball, pitchers and third basemen frequently wear masks. I’ve even seen pitchers use screens in adult softball leagues to knock down line drives. The reason is simple: Players look for anything that offers a little extra safety.

Major-league baseball players will reject anything that minimizes their performance, or draws unwanted attention or ridicule. But they, too, will accept an argument for safety.

There’s a reason aluminum bats never made it to the pros. They weren’t safe.

About 20 years ago, I asked Jose Canseco if he’d ever taken batting practice with one. “Oh yes,” he said, marveling at the memory of 600-foot drives off his bat. But they’ll never be used in the big leagues, he said. “Some third baseman would get killed.” He wasn’t kidding.

No one wants to see it happen to a pitcher, either. Remembering the injuries to Herb Score and Brandon McCarthy are hard enough.

Tom Lindley is a CNHI sports columnist. Reach him at tlindley@cnhi.com.