As spring settles in, with the crack of Little League bats soon to follow, Maryland senators wrangled yesterday over whether the state should be trying to save baseball's youngest players from bruises, bloody noses and concussions.
A bill to require youth league players to wear state-approved protective gear struck some senators as too costly and too hard to enforce.
"What are you going to have - helmet police?" asked Sen. Sandra B. Schrader, a Howard County Republican whose daughter plays softball. "Who's going to go out and check these teams?"
But others argued that inaction would be unconscionable.
"We're telling 8- and 9-year-olds that when a ball is coming at you 50, 60, 65 miles per hour, if you get out of the way, great. If not, and it takes your eye out, that's the way it goes," said Sen. James Brochin, Democrat of Baltimore County.
And so it went for nearly an hour, a debate in which seasoned senators spoke out like ordinary mothers and fathers and grandparents.
Under the proposed law, the state's Health and Mental Hygiene Department would dictate the types of safety equipment that youth baseball leagues throughout Maryland would have to use in play.
Though the specific safety gear is up for discussion, high on the priority list are face masks for batters and protective goggles for fielders.
Coaches, teams or leagues that skirt the rules would have their wrists slapped with warnings.
The bill has pediatricians and ophthalmologists who favor increased safety measures facing off against youth sports programmers wary of state mandates.
Coaches and parents are split, with some advocating anything to help shield small athletes from injury, and others unwilling to toy with the fundamentals of a summer classic.
"The issue is, do we want to protect the eyes of our young baseball players?" said Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum, the Montgomery County Democrat who is the bill's sponsor. "It's a simple precaution."
But Sen. J. Robert Hooper, a Harford County Republican, sees no reason for government to meddle on the baseball diamond.
"I think there's some things best left up to the family," he said. "We're going to micromanage every life right down to the bottom."
Questions and concerns flew from all corners of the Senate chambers.
Sen. Patrick J. Hogan, a Montgomery County Democrat, said though his son plays ball, he thinks angst over the gear could turn away already scarce parent volunteers. "Believe me, I want to protect him," Hogan said. "But it's hard to get coaches. I don't want to do anything to squelch getting parents to coach."
"Would it inhibit their ability to bat?" asked Sen. Ida Ruben, a Montgomery County Democrat who admitted she's nervously held her breath while watching her grandson play.
"Right out of the park," answered Baltimore County Democratic Sen. Paula C. Hollinger.
With so many unresolved questions, senators sent the bill back yesterday to the Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee. With less than three weeks left in the legislative session, Hollinger, the committee's chairwoman, expects it could die there.
That would greatly disappoint physicians who say they've seen too many children injured and scarred by renegade baseballs.
Dr. Dan Levy, president-elect of Maryland's chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that the two most common youth baseball wounds - dental damage and eye injuries - are also among the most preventable.
Hospitals nationwide, Levy says, log a million emergency room visits each year from youth baseball accidents. Doctors guess that for every injury that's reported, another 10 aren't.
Jeff Gasior, a longtime Harford County baseball coach, pooh-poohs the need for more protective equipment.
"You can't protect everybody from everything in this world, unfortunately," he says. "You can only do so much without putting an armored shield around them."
Mike Boblooch, baseball president with the Lutherville Timonium Recreation Council, has little patience for anyone against safety gear for kids. Or anyone who thinks such equipment will somehow sap the sport's fun.
He says no one who's ever watched a child get beaned by a speeding ball would ever question the need for the gear.
"If anybody was turned off because of safety gear," he says, "I feel sorry for them.
"I've seen firsthand what a ball can do to a face."
The league he coaches in - and the one his 16-year-old son, Zach, plays in - already uses the face masks as well as "reduced injury" balls, which come in increasing levels of softness for teens to tots.
"I don't know if they should have to wear them, but they definitely should," Zach says of the face masks.
"It's just part of the game," he says. "It's still fun."